There have been approximately 15 billion people in human history. Of these 15 billion, Congress has chosen three of them to honor with paid federal holidays.
There’s Christopher Columbus. He discovered the hemisphere in which we all live.
He helped introduce tomatoes, potatoes, and corn to Western Civilization. Before Columbus, Italians could only order Fettuccine Alfredo because there was no marinara. Before Columbus, Irish people could only order mashed turnips and Cabbage O’Brien. Yuck. Before Columbus, nachos presumably consisted of cheddar cheese, ground beef, and a dollop of sour cream. That sounds way worse.
Columbus gets a holiday.
There’s Jesus. His resume is impressive and well-known and he gets a holiday.
And, finally, there’s Martin Luther King Jr. He saved the United States from hypocrisy and moral oblivion.
In the 20th Century, the peoples of the world were choosing how they wanted their countries to be run. It was an epic battle pitting freedom, capitalism, and representative government against statism, radical equality, and totalitarian idealism. The United States was the clear representative of the side of freedom.
On the grounds of economic progress and material wealth, America was obviously the winner. When it came to justice and human rights, however, the US couldn’t easily claim the moral high ground. Black Americans were definitely being treated worse than white Americans. Heck, it wasn’t even clear that black southerners were any freer or safer than Soviet or Chinese citizens.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed that.
“Selma,” happily, isn’t a predictable bio-pic. It is a focused, substantive film about a few months in 1964 when King led the movement to secure voting rights for black southerners.
At first, I wasn’t convinced that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was such a big deal. I don’t vote. And I don’t feel any less free or powerful because of my choice. Director Ava DuVernay forcefully communicates why disenfranchisement was a real problem for black southerners.
White mobs, ruffians, and vigilantes were protected by racist sheriffs who were chosen by an entirely white electorate. When whites who hurt or killed black victims actually did end up on trial, they were systematically acquitted by all-white courts because one had to be a registered voter to be on a jury. Being stripped of the vote left black southerners powerless and physically vulnerable.
Dr. King knew that blacks needed the vote and they needed it now. And he had a plan to achieve his ambitious agenda.
The surprisingly honest and educational movie shows that he didn’t triumph because he made the best speeches. Words rarely change things; that’s why we are allowed to have freedom of speech. He didn’t triumph because he always did the right thing. He wasn’t a saint and DuVernay doesn’t paint him as one.
King triumphed because he had a smart strategy. He organized public demonstrations and marches that were intended to rile up racist thugs. The plan was to set up photo-ops where national news cameras caught footage of nasty rednecks beating unarmed, respectable-looking black victims.
King knew that he and his fellow southern blacks were powerless on their own. But he banked on the fact that nightly news coverage of white oppression and brutality would change northern white public opinion and force President Johnson to take real action.
The good guys didn’t win because they were good. They won because Dr. King was so darn savvy.
Like Christopher Columbus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gets a national holiday in his honor because he changed our world. “Selma” shows us how it was done.