Selma’s error of omission: The specter of Shelby County


By: Cara L. Gallagher, weekend contributor

In one of the opening scenes in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s depiction of Dr. King’s quest for legislation that would end decades of disenfranchisement in the American South, Oprah plays a woman jammed up by Black codes prevalent in the South in 1965. A voter registrar quizzes her with questions that neither she nor any educated person of the time could possibly answer. She fails his test and is once again denied the right to register to vote. Right away we learn Selma is clearly not just a biographical film about Dr. King and other Civil Rights legends like Congressmen John Lewis, but also about the pain, shame, and violence endured by these men and women to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed.

A group of fellow history teachers and I went to see an early release of Selma last week. I had mixed feelings about it. In fairness to the movie, I admit educators are the worst audiences for biographical pictures. We live in the weeds of history. We’re overly critical of the transmission of fact into entertainment and tend to want to trash a film that sacrifices history for character development or exposition. Put a group of us together to see a movie about an iconoclast such as Dr. King – a character seemingly impossible to do right by any actor – and the peanut gallery is hard at work. Overall, the film was well reviewed by the group. The casting was most impressive. David Oyelowo made the impossible possible in his portrayal of a flawed but human Dr. King. Carmen Ejogo and Stephan James were Coretta Scott King and John Lewis. Both had the likeness and voice impersonation to baffle the mind.

The story in the film moved along much like how I’ve read and pictured it. After the Bloody Sunday incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where roughly 600 protestors were gassed, beaten, and bull whipped by Selma police, King returned to march again from Selma to the steps of the capital in Montgomery and deliver his “Let us march on the ballot boxes” speech demanding legislation protecting the voting rights of blacks. The movie closes with images of Oyelowo crushing the speech, Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, hopeful and satisfied people smiling and shaking hands, while theme music inspiring pride and good vibes plays in the background. Theater goes dark; lights go up, credits roll.

Wait, what? That was the end?

I can forgive a well-acted biopic for most anything, but leaving the audience with the impression that passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated the systematic denial to access ballots, polling places, and voter registration was surprising and downright irresponsible.

I had dinner with a non-teacher friend with whom I shared my frustration immediately after the movie. He told me take it easy and reminded me the spirit of ’65 lives on.

Yes, the spirit of the ’65 Act is still very much in tact. I’ve written and podcasted about this. But the absence of any final print about contemporary challenges to ballot access before the credits roll leaves most people to believe disenfranchisement was an issue solved and settled fifty years ago. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Chief Justice Roberts ruled the “coverage formula” in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and Section 5’s preclearance approval unconstitutional despite its 2006 reauthorization by a shockingly near unanimous House (390-33) and Senate (98-2).

Perhaps the metrics used to calculate the localities subject to Section 4 approval were dated in light of the fact blatant efforts to prevent suffrage, like the poll test shown in the movie, seldom happen. After the movie I went home to look at my copy of the Shelby County decision.

Yep, an original copy of the decision.
My original copy of the decision.

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent reminded me of the insidious ways in which jurisdictions have been imposing barriers to voters, despite the VRA, prior to Shelby. Pages 15-17 of her dissent lists eight ways in which states notorious for disenfranchising African-Americans denied access to voters between 1990-2004. Modern examples of voter suppression, such as racial gerrymandering, increased voter identification requirements, and the movement of polling places, to name a few, are more pervasive in states and lower courts.

The VRA turns 50 this year. Selma could’ve done so much more to inform and push an audience with an already textbook-level understanding of MLK, John Lewis, and the violence on the Pettus Bridge past that historic event. Not mentioning the specter of the Shelby County decision and second-generation voter suppression to willing and attentive audiences was an opportunity sorely missed by Selma’s production team.

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.



72 thoughts on “Selma’s error of omission: The specter of Shelby County”

  1. Nick….just what criteria are you using to call Malcom X “GREAT?” He said and espoused far more things, such as racial segregation, including territorial in de facto session, in the face of progress otherwise, than just self reliance, which is in fact the same deceptive meme used by Kim Jong Un of North Korea…aka “Juche.” Living in Detroit my perception of Malcom X may be very different than many others…given our demographics. The man said to not rely on hand outs, other than, of course a significant territorial portion of the country to be handed over to his form of Juche. He was right about some things but flat wrong on more things.

  2. The white Democratic party merged w/ MLK and upscale black people to form the perfect dynamic to enslave the black vote. LBJ called the Civil Rights Bill and Voting Rights Act his “nigger bills” that would enslave the “black vote for centuries.” The GREAT black leader, Malcolm X, warned against relying on whites and Tom blacks giving out little bits of cash to keep you happy. Malcolm saw this unholy alliance of racist white Dems and complicit black politicians, just using black people for their votes and keeping them poor and pregnant, creating more black voters. His prescient remarks on the subject are now ignored. Liberal white and Tom black pols have worsened the poverty and depravity in the inner cities that they have controlled since lBJ. And, they successfully manipulate the poor w/ race pimps like Al Sharpton making these uneducated people believe white cops are their number 1 problem. Malcolm had the message. Get educated. Work hard. Stay sober. Create your own businesses and wealth. And don’t trust the white man giving you some walking around money. He’s your enemy.

  3. rafflaw does a great Craig Buchanan imitation. He needs an Arianna to complete the cheer.

  4. Invented facts are funny. Actual facts are serious. Here are some relevant ones:

    Take a region where a majority of voters agree with party R on most issues except racial ones, and where the importance of race is large enough to keep those voters supporting party D.

    Now let the importance of racial issues decline over time. What shifts in political allegiance would you expect to see?

    1. rafflaw – actually Mike A’s “facts” are folk tales from the Democratic Party. There is no truth behind them. The fact is the South did not turn Republican, they kept electing Democrats.

  5. davidm:

    Your comment in response to justagurlinseattle failed on two levels. It completely missed the point of her post and grossly mischaracterized the entire cilvil rights movement. Let me propose some corrections:

    1. The fight for civil and voting rights was not a battle between Democrats and Republlicans. It was instead a cultural and religious conflagration, an effort to change social structures hardened through generations and defended with great vehemence by southern evangelical Protestantism. The southern Democratic party was reactionary and remained so until the great defeats brought about through the efforts of Martin Luther King and many incredibly brave people. The legislation in 1964 and 1965 was a culmination of those efforts. That legislation was also inevitable.

    2. Among the consequences of that legislation was a fundamental shift in southern political alignments, the mass exodus of recalcitrant and racist Democrats into the welcoming arms of Strom Thurmond and the Republican party. From my standpoint, it was a useful and welcome purging.

    3. But it was not only a political party that was purged. The civil rights acts also moved evangelicals to form what we know as the religious right. The Southern Baptist Convention eliminated moderate voices for racial change. The Presbyterian and United Methodist denominations both suffered serious splits which remain to this day. And we now have a Republican Party that is dominated by southern politicians and evangelical conservatives. Your suggestion that this bunch represents the “liberation party” of the black race would be laughable if it weren’t intellectually dishonest. The last time I checked, the northern Republicans who pushed so vigorously for civil and voting rights are, like the Oldsmobile, extinct. The rather straightforward point of justagurl’s post was that southern Democratic opposition to Lyndon Johnson was the dying gasp of a corrupt institution. Its inhabitants found refuge in a party willing to continue to indulge their fantasies,.

    4. Your skewed Tea Party view of history even extends to your description of Lee Harvey Oswald as a “liberal socialist.” That truly makes as much sense as describing John Hinckley as a film critic.

    There are areas of knowledge, such as molecular biology, in which ignorance among lay persons is understandable and excusable. There are other areas of knowlege, such as the history of the civil rights movement, in which it is not. Somebody needs to put this on the agenda for the next meeting of the League of the South.

    1. Mike Appleton, what is sad is that you actually think you are presenting facts rather than your interpretation of history that has become the primary propaganda of the Democratic Party. For you to interpret a complex history spanning decades to be entirely race dependent is a big mistake. When the Democratic Party began to make their party platform pro-abortion and later pro-homosexual, that was much more of a factor for the religious right leaving that party than your imagination of alleged racist tendencies of Republicans.

      There are a few factors that create a blind spot for you about Republicans and racism.

      First, Republicans believe in equality before the law for all races of people, but they do not believe that means that all races are equal in abilities. Thomas Jefferson is a good example of the Republican’s pragmatic viewpoint. He fought to end slavery through legislation, but also wrote about the differences between blacks and whites and the difficulties that would cause for our society to transition to one where slavery no longer existed. He rightly predicted that unless we deported the blacks back to Africa, there would be a long period of civil unrest and difficulties. The Democratic Party interprets these kinds of views as racist and immoral, but they are not. They are a feet-on-the-ground approach based in reality rather than fantasy.

      Second, Republicans do not take the childish view that the Democratic Party does about voting. Voting is not a fundamental right as the Democratic Party preaches. Republicans believe in responsible voting and want to ensure a trustworthy voting process. Democrats preach that Republicans are therefore against blacks voting, because blacks are the most likely to be disenfranchised by a trustworthy voting system. Again, the voting issue for Republicans has nothing to do with race. Democrats falsely malign Republicans on this issue. It is a way for them to play a race game and cause the blacks who they once hung from trees with their KKK organization to blame Republicans as the villains. It was actually the Democratic party who was the real party supporting the KKK. These are FACTS, but you will play your spin doctor games to make these facts not meaningful. You will invent a “party shift” theory and make the facts of history the opposite of what they really were. In your “history,” the Democrats of 50 years ago are now Republicans and the Republicans are now Democrats. Ridiculous.

      You mention Martin Luther King, Jr. but seem to overlook the fact that according to his family, he was a Republican. I cannot imagine a preacher like Martin Luther King, Jr. ever being a part of what the Democratic Party has become today. Despite this, Democrats will call out his name as if he was one of their own. Perhaps we need to start calling the Democratic Party the party of hijacking truth.

  6. The Civil Rights movement and Voting Act began way back in the late 1940’s. Truman (D) started the ball rolling by moving to desegregate the military. Eisenhower continued moving forward and did indeed desegregate the military. LBJ worked on the Civil Voting Act in the mid-late 50’s. Many Democrats and Republican’s worked together to desegregate the south and pass the Voting Act. It’s been a hard long climb for our black brothers and sisters.
    It should be noted that while a good number of Southern Democrats fought to repress the Civil Rights Voting Act, many other Democrats and Republican’s have pushed forward to bring equal opportunity to African American’s.
    The work continues on.

  7. justagurlinseattle, you must surely know that you are spinning the historical truth here. The Republicans have always been the liberation party of Blacks. Our party’s sole issue for forming was to abolish slavery.

    President Kennedy wanted to work with Republicans, so he approached Republicans in Congress to create the Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, a liberal socialist killed President Kennedy before it was done. LBJ took up the Civil Rights Act in memory of Kennedy. Just look up who created the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and tell me, were the framers Republicans or Democrats?

    Liberals have hijacked the civil rights issue because they see it as a winning issue, and they have framed a false characterization of Republicans as being for slavery and for keeping Blacks subjugated to the White man. This entire propaganda machinery of Democrats is a big lie, and you have swallowed that lie hook, line and sinker. You split up the party lines geographically in a fictitious way, in a way that never existed in reality, and you think somehow your statistics have proven that Democrats pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1965. It would be laughable if it were not so pathetic and successful upon the minds of young women and children.

  8. @ Paul

    I know that at one time the rules were more relaxed. However,

    I’ve been an insurance agent since 1990. We always had to have the insured sign…in California. In addition when it is a policy of significant amount, we also had to provide proof and get affidavits also, that the amount of insurance was commensurate with the assets and earning potential of the insured.

    In other words I can’t write a 2 million dollar policy on someone who owns nothing and has a small income. It makes no sense (other than probably someone wants to kill them for the money) to request such a large amount. In actuarial terms…..they aren’t worth it.

    In addition. We had to ask and document what other policies are out there on the insured person. This is to prevent the stacking of many smaller policies through multiple insurance companies that would add up to the suspicious amount if it were written all in one policy.

    There also has to be an insurable interest for the owner of the policy or beneficiary of the policy. Not necessarily the same person either. Husband and wife. Parent and child. Business interests and Estate Planning tools to pay the estate taxes in conjunction with trusts. (this is what I mostly did…structure these types of policies for businesses and trusts). Buy Sell Agreements funded with Insurance.

    You can’t just pick some random person and insure them and make yourself the beneficiary.

    When this happens in a movie…it’s all I can do to not yell at the screen 🙂

  9. Regarding Ms. Gallagher’s observation that it is difficult sometimes to watch shows that present information in your professional field.

    I get really irked when they show insurance fraud where someone just randomly gets a really big life insurance policy on someone without their knowledge. Really!!! you didn’t notice that you had to pee into a cup, give blood, have your blood pressure taken and that you have to sign and acknowledge that you are the insured person? Really????

    That’s not how it works. Grrrrr:-(

    1. DBQ – they started requiring the insured to sign after several instances where people were being insured without their knowledge and then killed.

  10. Requiring ID for registration of voting and to present at the polling place is NOT a ploy to restrict people from LEGALLY voting. The world has changed considerably since Martin Luther King’s times, when it was likely that not everyone would have an official or legal identification. Many people were born at home, didn’t drive cars, local banks and merchants didn’t require ID and government programs that require ID were not as omnipresent then as today.

    Now….. Today having an ID is a common fact of life. The most mundane of activities require identification. The same ID that you use to cash a check, buy liquor, signup for benefits, rent a car, enter a stadium, enroll your kid in Little League etc. is the same ID hat is asked for identification to register to vote and to vote in person. In addition there are also multiple ID’s that are acceptable for that purpose.

    If there were some super special very hard to get restrictive ID for voting, I would agree on the disenfranchising of people’s right to vote. But it isn’t any thing like that. There may be a very small proportion of people who live under a bridge somewhere and never interact with society on any level who may have difficulty. That is no reason to cripple the whole election process by allowing free form voting without any guarantees of legality.

    The purpose of identifying voters, like it is done in countries all over the world, is to assure that the person who is casting the vote IS the actual person who is registered. It is also to prevent multiple votes in multiple names by one person. It is also to prevent people who are NOT citizens and who are not LEGALLY allowed to cast a vote to do so.

    The integrity of the election process is paramount. If you do not have any faith in the process and see fraud committed right in front of your eyes……the government loses all legitimacy and credibility.

    You want a revolution? This is how you get one.

  11. People on this forum suggesting that anyone can get a driver’s license without a birth certificate or any other proof of citizenship is just flat wrong. We had shown the entire list of documents required for a US passport to get said passport, but the passport and birth certificate were not enough to get a driver’s license in our state. We also had to show a certificate of adoption. According to the licensing bureau, this was a DHS requirement. It really isn’t that easy. Let’s just be real about this one aspect of ID. That’s all.

  12. Maureen Dowd had an interesting take on the flick. She thinks LBJ didn’t get the props he served. It was a coherent column. Maybe she’s off vodka in the new year.

  13. The purpose of the movie was met in that it showed the struggle for the Voting Rights Act. All that’s gone wrong since then is prime material for a different movie that, so far, wouldn’t have a happy ending, unless Justice Ginsberg’s dissent could be re-framed as the law of the land.

  14. ChipS, I always thought MLK Day should also be a time to discuss and ponder how change comes about in a Democracy. MLK headed the important movement changing laws. And, in a country of laws, not men, that is important. But, this is a capitalist society. And true power and equality is derived from wealth. Malcolm X preached the message of sobriety, hard work, entrepreneurism and sobriety. Not taking handouts from the white man but taking care of your own family and community. That message died on a NYC ballroom stage. And, we see the horrible results.

  15. Thanks for the link, Aridog. I especially liked this:

    “The powers-that-be seemed to be saying that Negroes couldn’t fly an airplane,” Steward told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “They didn’t believe that Negroes had the mental capacity to do anything other than menial jobs. I had never touched an airplane, but that so incensed me that I said, ‘Hell, I know I can fly.’”

    I realize that MLK Day is supposed to heighten our race consciousness, but I think of it as a holiday for libertarians. The movement led by MLK and others showed how ordinary citizens could prevail over state oppression.

    Before you argue that the fed gov’s intervention is what won the fight, consider how difficult it was to spur the feds to action, and how the movement got that done.

    1. Chip S – at the time it was thought the Japanese could not fly planes because of their “slit eyes”. I will not tell you how they thought Japanese women were physically constructed. 😉

  16. Airdog, Cool article. Thanks. My friends dad was a P-51 pilot during WWII. I got to meet him before he passed last year. The experience was so humbling that it changed how I view the word “hero”. Outside of my dad, he is the greatest man I’ve ever met.

  17. One can go through all the Dems who voted against the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. I just like to point out Al Gore, Sr. That usually ends this all too often, and tedious discussion on the racist Dem history. Hell, we all have skeletons in our closet. The Dems just happen to have skeletons wearing white sheets. But, JAG will dig in and double down. She must be a Taurus.

Comments are closed.