[Yes, there are one or two spoilers for Selma in this post. Also, before you comment, please read the entire post.]
Last week a friend and I went to see Selma. She grew up in the South, as I did, and wanted to watch the movie with someone who had a similar cultural background.
I am not going to review the movie: the critics are dead on point when they name Selma one of the best pictures of the year. It is certainly one of the most important pictures of the past several years. The acting and directing were superb, the cinematography at times breathtaking. The willingness to look at King in context, as part of a movement, rather than engaging in hagiography, impressed me. (Let me say right now that John Lewis is and has been for many years one of my heroes.) No, I will examine the movie from the perspective of a privileged white woman who, had she been born earlier, might well have been friends with the thugs wielding baseball bats.
I am not sure that what a white woman has to say about the civil rights movement is at all important. It is not my struggle, and part of being a good ally is shutting the hell up and recognizing that the narrative is not about you. I am haunted though, not by guilt per se, but by sadness, and inherited responsibility.
My background, a Southerner from a long line of Southerners, carries a lot of baggage: older relatives who referred to “n******,” who believed in the myths of the welfare queen and that all black men were dangerous. Older relatives who thought that the reason African-Americans have not progressed further economically is that they are lazy and shiftless, and others who think that niceties such as the Voting Rights Act are superfluous.
I don’t share any of those attitudes (or at least not consciously — overcoming your background can be a difficult thing), but I do share a love for the places I think of as my heritage. Most people do not think of Florida as being part of the South, but it is. Not for everyone, perhaps: I have a lot of friends who grew up in a Florida that was an extension of the Midwest, populated with émigrés from Ohio and Michigan.
Mine was a different Florida. My mother’s family lived in Florida before Florida became a state. My ancestors also reached into Georgia and Alabama: prior to the Civil War, one of my great-great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side had one of the largest slaveholdings in Greene County, Georgia. My father’s family had its roots in Georgia and Alabama.
I love Florida, but not simply the sandy beaches that draw the snowbirds and tourists. I love the sleepy little towns in the interior, towns where my forbears lay buried in cemeteries that have not seen anyone interred in a century. The beauty of that flat geography (flatter than a pancake, flatter than Kansas, even) with sandy soil and dotted with live oaks hung with Spanish moss makes me happy. Central Florida (at least that part not owned and overrun by Disney or Universal) is as much a part of Dixie as Alabama. I love the dusty red clay of Georgia, where my husband grew up, and the rolling pine forests of Mississippi, where my siblings live. I understand that even as they share a heritage of slavery and oppression, each region of the South has its own character. Southern Georgia is different from northern Mississippi, different from the mountains of North Carolina. Louisiana, especially southern Louisiana, is like no other place on earth.
My father and mother broke away from their cultural influences, my father from serving in World War II and my mother from being a nurse in inner-city Atlanta. Even though my siblings and I were brought up in the South in the sixties (not far removed from the time portrayed in Selma) we were taught quite early that all people were equal in the sight of God and the law: that being white did not and should not make us better than others. While I am not sure they understood the complexities of white privilege, my parents at least repudiated the outright racism that would have been their birthright.
My father once stormed out of a Baptist church during a sermon on the evils of the Jews, never to return. He had served with, and become friends with, Jewish soldiers in the Pacific (many of whom had died), and he admired their bravery and sacrifice. That a bigoted preacher would dare besmirch their memory infuriated him. He converted to Catholicism shortly thereafter. Being Catholic in the Bible Belt caused him to make choices: he once turned down a chance to take over an insurance agency in a small town in Mississippi because he was not Baptist and would not be able to attend church with others in the community, which would have lost him a substantial amount of business. Catholics in that part of Mississippi were seen as not quite Christian. Instead, we moved to New Orleans, which was largely Catholic, and later to Jackson, which was more diverse.
Watching Selma was painful. The inner voice that screamed “not all white Southerners!” had to be continually suppressed. Not all white Southerners, perhaps, but enough, more than enough. (That I had to remember that the issue was “not all white Southerners!” rather than “not all Southerners!” is telling, and shows how far I have to go in letting go of my own baggage.) I grew up with people who were welcoming and hospitable. Of course they were welcoming and hospitable to me: I was a white girl, I was kin. Many of the Southerners I grew up with were good, generous, caring people, as far as I could tell. Being faced with the truth of the brutality faced by people — especially African Americans — working for civil rights at the hands of whites stung.
It was not as though I had not known about the civil-rights movement in the South; I had. I took history classes about America in the 1960s. I had watched Eyes on the Prize, and the PBS documentaries on the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington. All that grainy black-and-white footage seemed so distant. Even listening to the reminiscences of surviving participants seemed… distant, historical. (I recognize that it is an element of white privilege that allows it to feel distant.) Selma made the horror feel real, visceral, in the same way that the opening of Saving Private Ryan made the sacrifices of the soldiers on the beaches of Normandy visceral.
Assessing the responsibility of white Southerners for the horrors of Jim Crow runs into much the same problems as in doing the same for gentiles in Nazi Germany. The hierarchy of culpability has many rungs. There were the thugs, who felt it was perfectly acceptable to beat people to death with baseball bats and boots, and their accomplices who sheltered them and cheered them on. There were those who felt that violence was excessive and unacceptable, but also that certainly “those people” were not equal to whites, and should never be allowed to vote or exercise power because they just were not capable of responsibility. There were heroes, who spoke out at risk to their community standing, their careers, and in extreme cases, their lives.
Then there were (and are) the cowardly masses: those who felt that blacks were being mistreated and oppressed, but who kept silent. Part of the silence was fear of social consequences, which could be considerable in a small town; part of it may have been fear of physical retaliation. (Selma addresses this, too: a young clergyman who came down from Boston to join the march was beaten to death. More shocking, the closing scenes (where the fates of characters are revealed) shows Viola Luizza, a mother from Michigan who had theretofore been anonymous, and relates that she was killed by Klansman (one of whom was an FBI informant) while ferrying another marcher back to Selma from Montgomery.) Coming from the North to support marchers was dangerous enough, but Southerners had to go on living with the danger after people from New York and other places far away had returned home.
If I am brutally honest with myself, I recognize that I would have been part of this group. When I was younger, I too was reluctant to challenge the racist jokes and statements told in my presence by older people. (Young Southerners were taught to respect their elders whatever the circumstances. That is still no excuse.) There are one or two incidences from my youth which cause me to wince in shame if I remember them.
I have changed as I have grown older; at least, I hope I have. I grew stronger, and less tolerant of bigotry. I speak out now. I teach my children to speak out. Living in California poses a different set of challenges; however, speaking out for Latinos here is as important as speaking out for African-Americans in the South. Speaking out for Jews or for people of Middle Eastern descent is important anywhere in America.
Recognizing and owning my white privilege matters.
I worry that outspokenness is not because I am more courageous, but because I do not face consequences. I am not going to be beaten if I interrupt an anti-LGBT tirade. My house is not going to be vandalized (or torched) if I defend a woman’s right to wear a hijab if she chooses, or if I meet an anti-Semitic joke with a stony glare.
Some of the white Southerners in Selma of speak of “liberal guilt.” You can hear sneering echoes of those words today on talk radio and Fox News. Perhaps I am guilty, but it is for my silence; a sin of omission rather than commission.. More than guilt, though, I have the responsibility to recognize that I benefitted from the Jim Crow society portrayed in Selma, simply by virtue of the color of my skin. I have the responsibility to help change America, because I have been protected by the institutionalized racism that shields me from indignities because I am white.
Selma reminded me of that.