A Few Thoughts on Selma (Part 2)

Last week, Walter Strickland gave his thoughts on the movie “Selma” and especially the historical and cultural impact of Christianity in the civil rights movement. This week, Nathan Finn gives his take, part 2 in our reflections on the movie.  

From the moment I watched the first trailer for “Selma,” I knew this was a movie I wanted to see as soon as possible. To have the opportunity to watch it with my colleague Walter Strickland and some other friends from Southeastern Seminary was a rare treat. We watched the movie together and then enjoyed dialoging about it over coffee afterwards. (To put aside this particular movie for a moment, I’d encourage readers to watch a good movie with a group of friends and then discuss the film’s implications from the perspective of a Christian worldview.)

I admit up front that I did not come to “Selma” as a casual moviegoer. First of all, I am a Gen-X American who was raised on “this side” of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I was taught in school that Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues were right and that their vision for our nation was a good one. However, that does not mean I was “post-racial” or “colorblind” in my views. In recent years, God has increasingly shown me many ways that I have personally benefitted from structural racism and (often implicitly) embraced ethnocentric assumptions. I am a white southerner, and my world is still shaped by racial realities.

I am also a trained historian and an elder of an urban church. As a historian with expertise in twentieth-century American Christianity, I have read widely about the Civil Rights Movement; it is, in fact, a favorite topic of study. In my church, my fellow pastors and I regularly wrestle with how our predominantly white, educated, and affluent congregation can better reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom—and of our neighbors. This is especially important because the neighborhood in which we gather is predominantly African-American, less educated, and less affluent, though gentrification trends are gradually altering the demographics.

History Coming Alive

I really appreciated how “Selma” brought history to life. Yes, I know that some folks are exercised that the movie misrepresented Lyndon Johnson’s views on the March on Selma and the Voter Rights Act, ignored Malcolm X’s conversion to Islam, and made progressive white clergymen sound like evangelicals. I’m not really bothered by these historical errors. Movies—even those rooted in past events—are primarily works of art, as director Ava Duvernay has rightly pointed out in interviews. I expect inaccuracies in any historical movie, and in this case, they did not blunt the impact of the film for me.

Like probably many readers, I have watched lots of archival footage of Martin Luther King’s speeches. I have read many of his writings. I have watched numerous documentaries, including the award-winning PBS documentary “Eye on the Prize” (highly recommended). But none of that was quite like watching “Selma.” In a very real sense, I felt the impact of structural segregation, individual racism, civil disobedience, and faith-inspired activism in a way I never have before because of the power of the medium of film and the high quality of the product itself. The cast was outstanding, especially David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, who play Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, respectively.

As a historian, I appreciate the sympathetic, but not hagiographical portrayal of King. “Selma” depicts King as a man driven by faith, but struggling with personal doubts. He is a man whose life was saturated with the biblical worldview, but was also marred by moral failure. In both of these respects, he was not unlike many biblical figures such as Moses, Abraham, David, and Paul. Furthermore, the movie helpfully shows that King was not a solitary prophet; others surrounded him and played crucial, if lesser-known roles in the movement. Coretta King, Ralph David Abernathy, and especially John Lewis receive well-deserved attention in this movie.

I also appreciate that the movie does not depict a uniform Civil Rights Movement. As Walter pointed out in his earlier review, there was tension and competition between groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other organizations not mentioned in the film. The Civil Rights Movement further fractured in the years following the March on Selma and especially King’s murder three years later, and not all of the fractures were as influenced by Christianity as the SCLC was during King’s lifetime.

This White Man’s Burden

Few films have moved me emotionally as much as “Selma.” The fact that I watched the movie in a theater that was predominantly filled with African-Americans moviegoers contributed to my emotions. They laughed during lighter moments. They wept when Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered and when marchers were beaten unconscious by state troopers. They “talked back” to the movie. And they applauded when it was all over. I fought off tears throughout the whole film—and lost that particular battle several times.

I think white southern evangelicals should watch “Selma” for the same reasons I think they should watch “The Help,” another relatively recent movie that focuses on the theme of race in the mid-20th-century South: the struggle for racial equality is as much a part of our history as it is that of our African-American friends. Of course, society in general was segregated because of white supremacist assumptions. But we need to remember that white believers were complicit in that structural racism—even if implicitly. Too many of us have continued to embrace a thin view of the gospel that is blind to some of the ways that our black friends continue to struggle with racial equality. It’s easy to argue for a colorblind society when most of the blinders are painted white.

When we watch a movie like “Selma,” it reminds us why so many of our black neighbors respond the way they do to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. It reminds us why so many of them are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage and voted joyfully for Barack Obama. It reminds us why phrases like “reverse racism” and “Welfare Queen” are so profoundly offensive and why affirmative action is so appreciated. It reminds us why they think Fox News is anti-Christian propaganda. Neighbor-love demands that we hear people’s hearts, try to understand them, and meet them where they are—even when we may never reach total agreement on all of the issues that separate us.

To be crystal clear, the gospel is most definitely the solution to racial strife in America. But let’s not kid ourselves, my fellow white evangelicals. If we appeal piously to the gospel without committing ourselves to the hard work of authentic cross-cultural friendships and open dialogs, policy debates, social justice ministries, intentional outreach, and repentance, prayer and service to those in need, then our gospel is a slogan that deflects rather than a truth that transforms. There is no gospel when there is no change. “Selma” reminds me of how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go—how far I still need to go.

I am thankful for the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and those with whom he partnered, both famous and unknown. And I am thankful that “Selma” is in theaters at this particular moment in our nation’s history. Please, go and watch this movie and then wrestle with all the emotions it evokes—it will be good for your soul.


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  1. Joel Griffis   •  

    “It reminds us why so many of them are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage and voted joyfully for Barack Obama.”

    Christians of previous generations are rightly criticized for compromised positions with regard to racism and slavery; and the Christians who helped elect a radically pro-abortion president (along with those who respected such a vote) will hopefully be looked upon by future generations with the same sadness and regret. At the risk of sounding passe and un-gospel-centered, there’s no excuse for an informed pro-life Christian (whether white or black) to vote for someone as radically pro-abortion as Barack Obama. And a noble desire for racial reconciliation shouldn’t make evangelicals shy away from saying this sort of thing.

  2. Nathan Finn   •  


    Thanks for your comment. To be clear, I cannot envision a scenario where I would be comfortable voting for a pro-choice candidate for public office. I believe that abortion is the single most important social justice issue in America today. It is also one that disproportionately impacts African Americans. But I also recognize that there are brothers and sisters in Christ who also abhor abortion, but when they consider every factor involved, they choose to vote for a pro-choice candidate as the more morally acceptable (or, perhaps, least morally unacceptable) candidate on the whole. I’m not there, but I don’t want to dismiss out of hand those who are. That’s the easy way out, in my opinion.

    Thanks again.


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  4. dr. james willingham   •  

    My life spans the years from segregation to the present. I can remember the divided coaches on the passenger train I rode between Piggott, Arkansas and St. Louis, Missouri, but the area in which I lived was completely white. I never saw an African American except when I went to Missouri. I was not aware of the feelings of prejudice due to a lack of exposure and also due to a prevalent attitude in my family of high regard for Black people. This was due to several instances of events in which they played an important part in the deliverance of family members. My grandfather, for example, was taken to safety by an African American in Detroit, when he inadvertently strayed into an area of that city where a riot was in progress. My father told how a big Black man came into his home in his childhood and prepared meals and took care of him and his sisters and step-brothers, while his mother and step-father were in the hospital in England, Arkansas with the Spanish flue which killed so many in 1918. Dad said, “I don’t know what would have become of us, if he had not helped us out. I guess we would have starved to death.” There were members in the family who had prejudicial feelings, but I did not become aware of them until I was grown.

    In 1955, I moved to St. Louis and began attending an integrated high school. The fellow who sat behind me in my home room was James Wright, a sharp looking and friendly young man. He use to take my lunch money every day as we bet on the baseball teams (I was not a Christian then). Finally, I said one day, “James, I have got to quit bettin’ with you. You know the teams better than I do, and I am getting hungry.” He laughed, and we quit.

    Later, at the encouragement of a member of my first pastorate I entered a Black school, Lincoln University,in Missouri, which had integrated in reverse. My education in Black History and Culture began there. My professor and director of my history program was one of the noted Black Historians, Dr. Lorenzo J. Greene. He had been Carter G. Woodson’s Associate Editor on the Journal of Negro Life and History. His work on Slavery in Colonial New England is recognized in the bibliographical section by Dr. John Hope Franklin as one of great value. My training in Black History would continue at Morehead State University in Kentucky, where Dr. Broaddus Jackson would recommend me for a position as an Instructor at South Carolina State College (now a University). I taught American History there for two years, plus one course in Philosophy.

    In the Summer of 1971 I attended Columbia University and was recruited by a White professor to write a prospectus for a doctoral dissertation in Black History and to deliver a lecture in a Summer Afternoon Lecture Series on the subject: “The Stanley Elkins Thesis: A Critique.” The reason behind the recruitment can be traced back to Dr. Greene at Lincoln. He encouraged me to begin a research project, anything that interested me. I chose Baptist History. That research eventually resulted in 3000 5×8 notecards covering over 250 sources and a Master’s Thesis in American Social & Intellectual History at Morehead. I also learned about Black people in that research which led to the professor hearing about it and recruiting me to do a doctorate in the field of Black History (as it was called then. Later, changed to African American History). Due to the birth of a son who was born that Fall in South Carolina, I did not return to Columbia.

    One of the great realities that I discovered was that African Americans often imbibed the Christian Faith to a greater degree than did their White counterparts, their masters and owners. In one case, the Whites purchased the freedom of a Black man and called him as pastor of their church. He served there for about ten years, if my memory serves me correctly. The actual practice of the Christian Faith as it involves unconditional love, a subject that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stressed in his Lecture for the Nobel Prize, has been exemplified a number of times in the lives and experiences of African Americans in this land. I know of several cases where African Americans have forgiven people who committed crimes against them or their families. A former Marine told how his buddy saved his life one night when they had incoming fire. He said, “I sat there and held that Black man in my arms and cried like a baby, while he died.”

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