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.


Breathless, small change

I just remembered that I had been planning on writing a blog post on the trip to Jodhpur/Bikaner, but I never really got around to it. I’m bone tired after another week in the Himalayas, but things are going well.

I’ll just do a quick bullet point post of Jodhpur and Bikaner:

*Visited a girls’ school, made friends with girls, was hit with many a scarf
*It was very hot in the desert
*Visited a village in the desert
*Said villagers seemed quite jaded to our presence
*Talked to the village midwife, and a blind woman
*Saw lots of camels at the Camel Research Center
*Talked with Hindu refugees from Pakistan
*Almost went on a camel safari
*Camel safari was ridiculously inconvenient for one night in the desert
*Rode the bus home, and read almost an entire book

All of those things should be talked about more. Really, they should. But I didn’t really have time to write up a whole big post on them. Just ask me in person.

I am on Day 2 of Being Back in Jaipur. I just got back from a week-long internship with the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra in the Himalayas. This was by far the most successful NGO that I’ve had the chance to visit, and also coincidentally the one most closely related to my research.

The six of us in our impressive van.


The organization, like I said earlier, was pretty impressive. They actually work with the UNDP on some research projects, run classes on human rights law, and have fought some of the most important environmental litigation cases in India. Their work on pollution and deforestation policy was essential in passing India’s Environmental Protection Act.

All of that really cool environmental justice law, and I didn’t get to see much of it in action. We ended up spending most of our time up in some Himalayan villages. Going in to the workshop, I had very little idea of what to expect. I didn’t think that I would be in the villages, I thought I’d be spending more time at RLEK’s center. But I’m very glad to have done what we did.

We were able to talk to three different women’s groups. RLEK grades its women’s groups based on level of empowerment – there are three tiers, A, B, and C. We were able to talk to groups on each level. The women don’t necessarily find out what level they’re graded at, but it helps the RLEK team to figure out what needs the different groups have so they can better facilitate them. The first group we talked to was at a C level. They still had to ask permission of their husbands every time they wanted to go to a meeting, and were very afraid of creating conflict within their families. They were also very shy.

The second group we talked to was probably … a B+? I’m not sure. We weren’t really told. But they hold many meetings a month, and are participating in exposure visits that RLEK puts together. They had a very interesting issue with one of the visits. They’d gone to Haryana, which is in the plains region of India, and observed how high-producing dairy cows had helped women there to thrive economically. They decided to buy some cows from Haryana to implement a similar thing.

This ended tragically. Because the Himalayan climate is so different from the climate of Haryana, the cows all either died or couldn’t produce milk. So we sat in on their meeting, as they were trying to determine what to do about the loans they’d taken out to pay for the cows.

My group with some of the women, including the leader of the village.

The third group was very different. They were most certainly at a level A. The men had come so much to accept the women’s group as a positive, that they would remind their wives to attend meetings. The women were very involved in the village school. One of their major successes was to get rid of a schoolteacher. The teacher was exploiting the schoolchildren by making them do the teacher’s personal chores. They were a very, very inspiring group.

Women in the Himalayas tend to have a more equal status socially than women in the plains. I feel like I have a bit of a hopeful, skewed perception of women’s issues because most of my experience is in the mountains. I feel so much more at home there as well, just at peace.

Our first night out, we traveled nine hours up very windy roads to spend the night in a Himalayan village. It was storming wildly, and the electricity went out. I just couldn’t believe that somehow, life had taken me to this remote village in the mountains halfway across the world from where I was born, experiencing a culture so different from my own. India. I’m in India? Yes.

Even though I’ve been here for two months already, it still strikes me every once in a while. And then I realize how used to India I am, and I surprise myself. I am so, so blessed and thankful to be here right now. Big thank you to the powers that be.