Bearing Witness

Eyewitness: What ‘Selma’ Got Right

The new movie, Selma shows that the past is still relevant to the present, and that progress is never guaranteed.

On the night of Feb. 18, 1965, I was a TV journalist covering a peaceful night-time march from a local church to a prison in Marion, Ala., as part of a protest movement against the disenfranchisement of black voters in the Deep South.

It was always dangerous for TV to cover outside night-time events because our need for lights made us targets. I knew right away that my NBC News camera crew and I were in trouble when some locals sprayed black paint on the lenses of our cameras with no interference from local and state law enforcement officers on the scene.

And then the streetlights went out.

As the marchers emerged from the church, the so-called “law enforcement” officers waded in with a flying wedge and began beating them.

During the turmoil, a white man came up behind me and slugged me with an axe handle. (He was not arrested.). Bloody and beaten, I was taken to a hospital—and I survived. One of the marchers, Jimmie Lee Jackson, did not. He was shot and killed by a sState tTrooper in a nearby cafe while trying to defend his mother.

My beating, while it attracted national attention, was just a footnote to the real story. Jackson’s death inspired one of the most historic and significant events in the history of the Civil Rights Movement—a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capitol, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When demonstrators tried to carry out the march on Sunday, March 7, they were stopped, viciously clubbed and whipped by sState tTroopers on foot and on horseback, and tear gassed in a shocking assault that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” This shameful incident galvanized the nation, and the Congress, and President Lyndon B. Johnson into passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The march itself, as well as the passions and the drama that underlay this historic moment, are captured in a the timely new movie, entitled Selma. It has some minor flaws and has stirred a controversy about LBJ’s role in those events. But these are merely distractions.… Selma essentially gets it right. I was there and I know.

The film depicts events that changed the history of the country and carries an uncanny relevance to events of today, particularly the number of events of young black men being shot and killed by police officers. For that reason alone, Selma is must-see viewing, especially for young people.

But there is a much more important reason to see this film. It is a shockingly forceful reminder of what Conservatives on the Supreme Court have done to vitiate the most essential right of the “greatest democracy in the world”—the right to vote.

On June 25 of last year, the Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act by freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

Since then, at least nine states have moved to restrict voting rights. Is there anything more disgraceful in a democracy? Will the Supreme Court come to understand we’re not a Third World country?

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The struggle for universal voting rights in not yet over.

Richard Valeriani was an NBC News correspondent for 28 years, covering the White House, the State Department, and such major stories as the assassination of JFK, the Civil Rights Revolution in the South and the War in the Falkland Islands. He was also the Washington correspondent for the Today show when news was news.