On the Women of “Selma”

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On this Martin Luther King Day, many Americans are talking about the film “Selma.”  Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece chronicles the three months of escalating tactics in Selma, Alabama to push for voting rights for African Americans.  This was a difficult film to make, and it was exquisitely done.  DuVernay was even able to include some of the women of the movement – though the film still places men at the center.

I don’t fault DuVernay for the way the women are treated in the film.  I know that there hasn’t even been much in film that includes Martin Luther King Jr. as a character, and this is the first film to place him as the central character and treat him with complexity.  There’s a lot of ground to cover before the average American viewer is ready to watch a movie centering around the women of the movement.  It’s an achievement to weave them in at all, given the historical narrative.  In fact, according to an interview with Carmen Ejogo (the woman who played Coretta Scott King), none of the female characters were in the original screenplay Paul Webb wrote.  The film left me thirsty for more – which may be exactly what DuVernay intended.

On that note, I should state that this post will focus on the lesser-known women of the Civil Rights movement, those central in history but less so in the script.  Therefore, I won’t be doing a full profile of Coretta Scott King – but it would be a mistake to leave her out of the post entirely.

Coretta Scott King was an outspoken woman often asked to stay quiet – even her husband asked her to play the demure housewife.  As early as 1966, she criticized the lack of recognition of women in the movement.  In an interview with New Lady magazine, she stated:

“Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but…women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.”

She continued Dr. King’s legacy of social justice through her efforts to fight poverty, speak out for women’s rights, fight apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, and join her voice to the chorus calling for gay rights.  It is frustrating that, after her death, many eulogies focused on her grace and beauty as Martin Luther King’s wife, rather than her very real contributions to social justice on a global scale.  There’s a fantastic piece about this over at the Washington Post.

I could write an entire post about Coretta Scott King. But for now, I want to focus on the women you may not have heard of yet.

So here it is.  An introduction to the women of “Selma.”

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Diane Nash

Let’s start with Diane Nash, played by Tessa Thompson in the film.  She was a key player in the movement.  Nash was far from new to organizing successful campaigns when she came to Selma.  She grew up in Chicago, and was introduced to Southern-style segregation when she moved to Nashville to study at Fisk University.  She became one of the leaders of the Nashville sit-ins at age 22, and gained the attention of Ella Baker and other civil rights leaders when they won in Nashville.

Baker invited her and a group of other student activists to an assembly in Raleigh, North Carolina.  There, they formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  The film did spend some time to focus on the somewhat tense relationship between SNCC and the SCLC, with two local SNCC organizers at odds over whether to join forces with King and the SCLC.  I would love to see the deleted scene where they meet Nash when she comes to town.

After she helped form SNCC, Nash went on to be an organizer of the Freedom Rides.  The Freedom Rides of 1961 went straight into the heart of the south and met violence.  Many were beaten and arrested, but Nash organized and made sure to find replacements and continue the ride.  She feared that if the Freedom Ride ended prematurely, it would set the movement back years.

So when Nash came to Selma in 1965, she was well acquainted with both winning campaigns and Southern violence.  She and her husband James Bevel had been working on black voting rights in Alabama since the bombing of the Birmingham church in 1962.  Nash was central in building an organizing plan in Selma – including the march from Selma to Montgomery, though the lines she’s given in the film are limited.

Nash still lives today, and continues to work as an activist and thinker on nonviolence.

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Coretta and Amelia

Amelia Boynton Robinson had been working for racial justice in Alabama for many years – she first registered to vote in 1934, and fought for the right of others to vote.  She and her late husband had met Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King in 1955.  Amelia was a creative woman, and used the arts to help the movement.  She published a musical play about the history of gospel music to help fund a community center in Selma.

After the death of her husband, Samuel Boynton, in 1963, Amelia Robinson Boynton transformed her home into the central office for the Selma civil rights movement.  She was not new to the fight – she had been organizing black voter drives since the 1930s.  In 1964 she became the first African-American woman to run for a seat in Congress.

Needless to say, the civil rights leaders that gathered in Selma in 1965 to plan and execute the march from Selma to Montgomery couldn’t have had a better home base.  Bottom was a rock, though better known as a victim of violence.

She was viciously beaten during Bloody Sunday, and it was the photo of her on the front page that inspired many to come to Selma to join the larger marches that followed.  When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, she was invited to the White House to attend as a guest of honor.  Martin Luther King, Jr. appointed her at many times to speak – including a speech on the steps of the Alabama state capitol to 30,000 people, and an address to the United Nations in the 1960s.

She later went on to be one of the founders of the Schiller Institute.  Ms. Boynton is still alive at age 103.

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Annie Lee Cooper

Finally, we come to Annie Lee Cooper, local Selma hero.  There is little information out there about Ms. Cooper, but she had lived in the north for some years.  She was shocked that she was restricted from registering to vote in Alabama, as she had been registered in both Pennsylvania and Ohio.  She is best known for her physical defiance of Sheriff Jim Clark – in real life, she struck him to the ground after he prodded her with a billy club.

She died in 2010, months after turning 100.  You can read her obituary from the Selma Times Journal here.

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I hope that soon, women like these will be given their due in the history books covering the Civil Rights Movement.  If you have already heard of them, I’m glad.  If you haven’t, this is only the bare minimum of information, and I encourage you to read as much as possible.  To ignore the contributions of women to the movement is to oversimplify the history, and to continue societal oppression of both women and people of color.  Thank you for reading.

To learn more about Ava DuVernay, check out her website: www.avaduvarnay.com

To read a historian’s perspective on the film, check out this post from Gary May.

All photos credited to the official website for the film, www.selmamovie.com.

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I made it to December!

Hello friends!

I’m happy to announce that I DID IT! For the first time, I completed November with over 50,000 words of brand new fiction!

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I was a little worried at the beginning of last week – being out of town for that conference really threw me off my game – but I found that getting back to writing daily and getting back to my story was easier than I thought.

I actually hit 50k on Friday, but what with holiday travel and working retail, I didn’t manage to get back to this blog to celebrate here.

Now it’s time to move on, and keep writing. I feel like my pacing has stayed pretty consistent throughout the writing process, and my best judge is that I’m somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the way through my storyline, which is a huge accomplishment. This novel feels different in so many ways. First off, this is the first novel that I planned – start to finish – with an eye on fierce story arc.

When I wrote before, I was very “organic” about it – I didn’t want the story to be compromised, I wanted it to come from some primal, deeply personal space within myself. But I feel differently about it – now I know that even when I plan it out, there is something that happens within, some deep part of myself that makes the decisions for me sometimes. This story has been circling around in my head for years – there has definitely been an organic process to it. But in order to keep myself writing, I needed to plan it out. And now I’ve even been able to write foreshadowing the first time around, instead of going back and adding it in.

I’m sure there will be a lot of  adding in of the foreshadowing, and I’m sure that a lot will change between when I type “The End” and I put down that red pen after the first round of edits. I fully intend to cut whole scenes, write new characters in for new scenes, and edit my tone down.

Most of all, I think I’m worried that the novel isn’t “scary enough” to be on the horror end of sci/fi, which is what I had initially intended. That’s the major tone that I’ll need to edit for – and the reason I will need to have friends/family/peers read it.

I’m particularly excited about one of the special offers from the NaNo sponsor LuLu and the Book Genome Project that will create an analysis of your manuscript. I’m genuinely curious – and granted, I don’t know how much my tone will change in the second draft, but it will be really interesting to see what kind of audience I’ve been writing for so far.

This post is feeling very … I don’t know. Disjointed? Yes. I feel like I might have used up a lot of my coherence – or maybe I’m just saving that coherence for the story, and not for this blog. But that’s a good thing about the internet, right? I can always save and come back to it!

 

National Novel Writing Month, or, How Abbie Got Her Groove Back

It’s been a LONG time since I was able to dedicate myself to writing fiction. This has been that month.

Many writers have conflicting opinions on National Novel Writing Month – and I get it. if you are so focused on quantity of words, you can lose sight of the quality – especially if you don’t have a solid plan for what those words will be forming at the end of the month. A lot of writers are also very introverted, and they are turned off by the community that NaNoWriMo encourages.

But there is one thing that trumps this for me: NaNoWriMo encourages you to get in the habit of writing. Every. Day.

For me, this has been an invaluable month dedicated to writing and storytelling that put me back on the right track. It has shown me that yes, even when life is hectic and crazy, I can still carve out time to work on my writing. The habit of writing – finding time to work every single day, thinking about my novel when I have downtime, and other planning exercises has been invaluable. I didn’t come in to this month hell-bent on “winning” and writing that 50,000th word. What I did come into this month looking for was that habit – and I won’t stop writing every day when December 1st rolls around. I might sleep in and lower my word count for the day, but I’ll still work.

And not only am I really excited to keep working on my novel, but because of the time I took to plan it, I feel like the writing itself is going very well. It will definitely be really rough in places, but that’s much better than not having written it at all.

I would guess I’m about somewhere between a fourth and a third done with the story in full, so it’ll be quite the long haul. But that’s a part of the fun, isn’t it?

Now, I really should get back to writing …