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Essay: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Effective Leadership of Civil Rights Move in Selma, AL

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Dr. Scallet

US History Since 1877

20 November 2017

The Effective, Persuasive, and Resilient Work of Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, Alabama

Most are familiar with the name, Martin Luther King Jr; many know of his involvement in the “war on civil rights”, yet few are truly aware of why he was so successful in overcoming his struggles and specifically what diplomacies he used to meritoriously create changes for citizens, of not only Selma, Alabama, but of the United States of America. The 2014 movie, Selma, is based on the true events regarding the continuous denial of African American citizens’ natural right to vote in the year of 1965. This film highlights the effectual strategies facilitated by Martin Luther King Jr and his keen ability to persuade the people of the United States to stand against hatred and hatred fueled violence. As well as, effectively change the course and outcomes of the civil rights movement and 1960’s in American history, regarding the policy of African Americans and their natural right to vote. He does this by speaking influential sermons that garner support from citizens all over the United States and around the world, by commendably using his ability as a well-known figure to encourage and foster nonviolent protests and presentiment oppositions allowing him to make difficult decisions that displease some, and by respectfully but resiliently, isolating sympathy and empathy in supporters and non-supporters alike, that forces a transformation to be brought upon the nation.

First and foremost, Martin Luther King Jr’s powerful voice and ability to successfully speak on behalf of the African Americans in the nation acquired a following for the grass roots movement. In King’s speeches, every word was meaningful, every sentence had a purpose, and every sermon was wholeheartedly listened to and agreed with. The audience consistently positively endorses all the points Dr. King makes, creating a strong and sturdy foundation of followers that back up King, necessary to show the nation that is a need for African Americans all over the nation, of every gender and age. He inspired not only his own race, but other races to see the injustice that was being enacted upon African Americans. He showed it wasn’t just him, it wasn’t just the SCLC. People from all over the nation believed what he believed and he peacefully showed how his people were being oppressed and treated, especially during Selma, and he showed it in a way that allowed people outside of his group to be touched and affected.

Martin Luther King Jr, in many scenes in the movie, discusses the wants of the African American people with Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson, at first, is very resistant to Martin Luther King Jr, he is against changing his policies to only satisfy the African Americans and wishes to not highly decrease his popularity in the White House and demands more or less that King should be on board with their plan, rather than the other way around. Johnson also wanted to continue Kennedy’s legacy because he knew the American people loved the Kennedy family and what Kennedy believed and stood for. So on the surface to the American public he was very supportive of what JFK would have done, which was be hesitant towards anything dealing with civil rights. For it is mainly Johnson’s unwillingness to enforce the rights for African Americans right to vote that powers the Selma march and King. Martin Luther King Jr. consistently confronts Johnson by saying he could effectively make a change and the protesting would cease, if he would just enforce the 1964 voting act. Slowly, as the movie proceeds, there is character progression and growth of Johnson, who becomes strongly influenced by the work of King and his followers instead of focusing on the popularity of himself in office in his day and age he looks forward to the next 20 years, because he believes that African Americans will be able to equally vote in the future so he wants to be a part of making that a reality in his term, and be known for it.

Johnson has many afflictions and difficulties doing this however because of people like J Edgar Hoover and George Wallace. Hoover, in the first five minutes of the movies states a very grim “solution” to Johnson regarding Martin Luther King Jr. by saying “Mister President, you know we can shut men with power down, permanently and unequivocally”. Meaning an assassination would be a quick solution to their “problem”, however Johnson wants King to continue leading the civil rights movement because he is nonviolent, respectful, and cautious. Which is exactly the kind of opposition a president would want if his beliefs and actions or his inactions were being protested and combatted. Hoover then suggests causing a disruption by killing Coretta Scott King, Martin’s wife. Conversely, Johnson does not believe that this will cause any dismantling of his family or the movement like Hoover believes. Johnson does agree with Hoover in some senses, especially when Hoover describes King as a “political and moral degenerate”, so it can be attested that is part of the reason that Johnson doesn’t act sooner when passing another act into law.

In the movie, George Wallace is a stronger advocate for opposition than Hoover, as he consistently challenges Johnsons authority. In the film, there is a scene where Wallace and Johnson sit in the Oval Office and argue about who’s problem the Selma march is. They both deny the fact that it is their problem and blame the other for not solving it. Wallace is easily the most afraid of a negative connotation and reputation, and will do whatever he can to have a clear and positive status in his community. He does not deny the belief that blacks have the right to vote, like any other leader, but goes on to discuss with Johnson that African Americans voting in Alabama will not happen for many years. The depiction of Wallace in the film is extremely accurate, as he is one of the most negative and bigoted characters. After this, in addition to King, Johnson is successful at enacting positive change after being tested by Wallace, as he accomplishes equality for African Americans and their right to vote, by passing the law to enforce their right to vote.

Martin Luther King Jr, being the leader of this movement, is also faced with many difficult decisions throughout the movie. One of the most important being the first official march to Selma after the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson. His decision to turn around during the march after the officials step aside and they kneel to pray, was indeed a difficult one to make. He was tested by some of his own followers, who didn’t understand King’s weighing of the risks. He mentions in the film that he would rather have people dislike and disapprove of his decisions and him as a person, than have more African Americans die, referring to Jimmy Lee Jackson. His ability to do this makes him a stronger leader and a more effective one, because he is good at weighing the risks. Just because he can do something doesn’t mean he does, which is necessary for change and to make a difference.

His ability to respectfully but harshly demand a change is what leads people to follow him and the civil rights movement, and his effectiveness to gain voting rights for all.  King was successful at showing the people of the civil rights movement that if you do not succeed, you try and try again, with saying that, his most important quality was resilience. He was also intuitive, most importantly when picking locations for the march, that being Montgomery and Selma. During his first few minutes of being in Selma, a white man slaps him. He then goes to say that Selma is the perfect place for a protest to happen because the population is half African American but they are one of the most segregated cities in the nation, and it is very easy to see the misconception that white Selma citizens have about black Selma citizens. Montgomery is also a place of tough segregation. John Lewis described the scene when he and the SNCC got off in Montgomery where white men, women, and children made every homemade weapon they could think of and attacked all of the members participating in the bus rides. He recalls watching his friend be get attacked by a little girl who was scratching and clawing away at his face with her fingernails. This ability to predict the effect these locations and the events that would occur at these locations made it easier for people to be sympathetic and empathetic with the cause and made it more detrimental for Johnson and Wallace since they were not addressing the problem.

It seems to be clear that change most effectively occurs after challenge. It can be clearly seen in almost every scenes in Selma. Martin Luther King Jr is the most resilient character which is why he is so successful in his pursuit. He faces a lot of challenges from a lot of different people, like Johnson, Wallace, and Hoover. But these characters and the events that occur only push him to work harder. His ability to be irrepressible and his hunger for change, as well as his firm stance on nonviolence and peaceful protesting, allow him to make the most difference in the movie, compared to any of the other leaders of the civil rights movement. Johnson also makes quite a bit of change for the American people, but only after being influenced by Martin Luther King Jr’s work and dedication. He successfully showed the American people and people around the world what is what like to be an African American in Selma, Alabama, and be denied of every natural right given to American citizens, which caused everyone else to hunger for change too.

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