On the Women of “Selma”


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.

Reflections on the Grand Aspirations Leadership Gathering

Over the past ten days, youth activists involved in Grand Aspirations converged in St. Paul, MN for a leadership gathering to learn how to run an effective summer program dedicated to finding tangible, local solutions to the problems of climate change, the economic downturn, and environmental injustice.

Gandhi once said that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. That is what this organization is all about – we must view the process through which we do things as integral to the outcomes of our initiatives.

I have had the amazing experience of working with folks from around the nation over the past 10 days at the Grand Aspirations Winter Leadership Gathering. Grand Aspirations is an organization that plans programs around the nation to get youth climate activists into the community, to create and implement real plans for community development around energy, the economy, and environmental justice. The Purpose of the gathering was to bring Summer of Solutions program planners from around the nation together to strategize at the national level on how to make our programs effective, how to connect with the communities we live in and train participants.

From an organizational standpoint, this week has been absolutely imperative. From the beginning of the gathering, we’ve been tackling some serious issues about building an organization from the ground up, and building an organization in a grassroots manner.

What I’ve really noticed about the way we work is that it’s really transformative – both on a personal and a community level. At the individual level, we seek to support the person. At the organizational level, we attempt to create structures that are new within old structures of the non-profit that can speak more readily to the outcomes we seek. In building the non-profit that is Grand Aspirations, we are being very conscious of what has been done, and how we can do it differently/better.

The community focus of the Summer of Solutions program allows for activists and participants to learn by doing, and also to effect real change in their communities as they go along. Originally designed to keep the momentum of student activism going during the summer months, the program took student activists out of the setting of the campus and into the outside community. However, as is to be expected, this kind of activism is very different from on-campus activism. In the community, organizing is even more about connecting with structures of power that may not be expected.  For instance, to get more public transportation at the city level, it is important to contact city council boards on transportation issues, architects, community groups, etc. to pull together a collaboration that would result in the re-thinking, on a city scale, of car culture.

That is but one of many examples of the ways in which this kind of programming and organizational modeling can take student/youth activists out of their comfort zones, and place the youth climate movement on the map in local, regional, and national solutions-seeking and implementing.

Grand Aspirations is in a really interesting position. We aren’t working entirely outside of the system, as many activist groups strive to do, but we also aren’t entirely “in” with government and the system as it is. Through the Summer of Solutions program, and other programs that Solutionaries in Grand Aspirations are in the process of planning, we are transforming the ways in which young people interact with the systems we’ve inherited.

This past week, we’ve talked a lot about strategies we should use to make the solutions implemented and begun by our programs into realities. While the leadership gathering has focused on some national organization-building decisions, we have also had ample time to focus on our own programs, and share ideas from across the nation. After having met the amazing people dong this kind of work all over the country, I personally am very excited to keep up with them, and continue to learn about the wonderful work that’s going on, and how I can learn from their actions.

What I love about this model of doing things is that it connects the local solutions, which can be implemented on varying timelines, with national programs, basically facilitating an amazing idea-share so that our movement can grow and learn from successes on the local level. It’s a really beautiful movement that allows for personal growth as well as community growth.

This post is getting quite rambly, but there will be more to come. Hopefully soon we’ll have some videos to show for our work, so keep on the look out for some more news about what’s going on here.

Global Climate Change is an American Problem

I understand that some people don’t believe in climate change. I know that science disproves things, it doesn’t prove them. I am not willing to take the chance that we could lose our planet.

I look at what happened in Copenhagen with anger – absolute fury – and with weariness. I feel that this is the greatest challenge of the day, and if we fail, we lose everything. But I also know that we are creatures of great potential, and that humans can withstand so much. I also feel that the changes that need to happen to make the future truly sustainable, will only help us.

As others have said in other forums before me, I believe that perhaps this failure at Copenhagen is necessary. Now, now we can get angry. Now the sense of urgency has heightened, and there is more potential to make real change within our nation.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I feel it important to do a re-cap of what’s happened, so that all of my readers are on the same page.

For a comprehensive summary of the Copenhagen talks, you can refer to this post. It’s very accurate – I’ve checked it’s research cred, and it’s good. Here’s my brief summary:

1. According to National Public Radio news, the US and China were the two countries that mattered the most in these negotiations, and despite the meeting of leaders to talk about climate emissions weeks before the conference, were unable to reach an agreement before the conference started. This means that they weren’t able to have a strong agreement that they could spend the Copenhagen conference convincing other nations to sign on to the agreement. In other words, Obama hadn’t done the correct legwork to make Copenhagen a success.

2. A recent article on the Washington Post’s website summarized the final deal of the Copenhagen Talks thus:

President Obama helped broker a climate deal with a group of leading nations that provides for monitoring emission cuts by each country but sets no global target for cutting greenhouse gases, and no deadline for reaching a formal international climate treaty. The deal falls far short of many countries’ expectations for the summit and leaves a comprehensive battle plan for climate change potentially years away. Although the agreement included some major players — China, India, Brazil and South Africa — it was not universally agreed upon by the 193 nations attending the summit. In fact, some leaders left early Friday in apparent frustration.

The deal itself is only three pages long, and doesn’t provide answers, but outlines ideas. Each country is to pledge its own carbon emissions standards, and it sketches out ideas to “help poor nations go green and prepare for the impact of a warming earth.” (Eilperin and Faiola, Washington Post)

By customizing the deal to each country, industrialized nations are able to slip through the cracks and continue to emit as much carbon as they deem necessary. However, the other side of this is that perhaps, if all goes well, individual nations can come up with something realistic and achievable. (Even I am not this naive)

3.  This draft climate agreement has dropped 2010 as the deadline for a strict international treaty. The draft offers no new due date, and no exact figures for carbon cut.

Let’s take a look at some of these individual nations’ targets:

United States: 17% by 2020 of 2005 levels

China: Reduce carbon intensity (carbon emitted per unit of GDP) by 40-45% by 2020 from 2005 levels; proposed as non-binding in an international framework

India: Reduce carbon intensity 20-25% by 2020 from 2005 levels; non-binding.

European Union: 20% by 2020 below 1990 levels; 30% by 2020 below 1990 levels if other developed nations make similar binding commitments

Japan: 25% cut below 1990 levels; as long as other countries commit to an ambitious deal in Copenhagen

Australia: 5% by 2020 below 2000 levels; will commit to 15-25% by 2020 below 2000 levels if an ambitious deal is reached in Copenhagen

Information found here, please read for further analysis. Also note, these are the commitments as of December 9th. They may have changed since then.

Considering that most emissions are being produced by a relatively small number of nations (according to many credible sources, the US and China produce over 40% of the world’s carbon), the raging debate about emissions standards for developed vs. developing nations, and the question of effectiveness of the UN and accountability measures that haven’t been realized, perhaps a world-wide climate treaty really isn’t what we want.

So what does this mean? It means that we, as Americans, are in an incredibly powerful position. We must focus on activism at the national level, to cut back our emissions by a significant level to keep our planet livable.

350 ppm carbon in the atmosphere is the number. This number shouldn’t be seen as one of sacrifice, but rather of survival. This generation of people is in such an important position. That’s what scientists are saying, Bill McKibben’s entire organization is based around the simple decrease to 350.

In the wake of the strong Copenhagen treaty that never was, many are attempting to regroup and find new strategies for what happens now. Honestly, this is partially to be expected. I hoped that a strong treaty would be possible, but that didn’t end up happening.

That is a post for another day. But after this initial reflective post will come a more refined post detailing possible solutions. This will take so much brainpower, and I think that if we really put our collective minds to it, we will be able to win this battle for the earth.