“Deftly interrogates the past, present, and future of race and justice in the United States through the lens of the Selma campaign’s various meanings and legacies.”—John A. Kirk, author of Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940–1970
The Shadow of Selma provides a comprehensive assessment of the 1965 civil rights campaign, the historical memory of the marches, and the continuing relevance of and challenges to the Voting Rights Act. The essays consider Selma not just as a keystone event but, much like Ferguson today, as a transformative place: a supposedly unimportant location that became the focal point of epochal historical events.
Contributors to this innovative volume examine the relationship between the memorable figures of the campaign—Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, among others—and the thousands of other unheralded people who also crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way from Selma to Montgomery. They analyze networks that undergirded as well as opposed the movement, placing it in broader historical, political, and international contexts. Addressing the influential role of media representations from contemporary newspaper and television coverage to the 2014 Hollywood film by Ava DuVernay, several of the essays challenge the redemptive narrative that has shaped popular memory, one that glosses over ongoing racial problems.
Finally, the volume explores the fifty-year legacy of the Voting Rights Act, with particular focus on Shelby County vs. Holder, which in 2013 seemed to suggest that the act had solved the disfranchisement problems of the civil rights era and was outdated. Taken together, the essays argue that while today the obstacles to racial equality may look different than a literacy test or a grim-faced Alabama state trooper, they are no less real.
Joe Street, senior lecturer in history at Northumbria University, is the author of Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan, and the Conservative Backlash and The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement. Henry Knight Lozano, senior lecturer in history and American studies at Northumbria University, is the author of Tropic of Hopes: California, Florida, and the Selling of American Paradise, 1869–1929.
In this interview, Joe Street and Henry Knight Lozano tell us about their new book and the 1965 civil rights campaign.
It has been over 50 years since the original Selma marches that helped to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What makes these marches and their impact on federal legislation relevant in today’s political landscape and how can we learn from them?
The Voting Rights Act was the single greatest legislative achievement of the twentieth century, in our opinion, and its passage was inextricably linked to the Selma marches. The 2013 Shelby County Supreme Court decision was the culmination of a decades-long Republican effort to undo the Voting Rights Act. The Selma campaign demonstrates that popular protest can bring about major political and legislative change, and we hope that the book encourages readers to consider the contemporary relevance of civil rights activism in the age of Black Lives Matter and Trump.
You have organized the book into three thematic sections: the events in 1965 Selma, the historical memory of Selma, and the legacy of the Voting Rights Act. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?
We wanted the book to appeal both to readers seeking a book that would introduce them to the events of 1965 and to those who desired an appraisal of the key themes that emerged from these events. We think that the three sections complement and build on each other in a reasonably logical fashion! They hopefully will compel readers to think about civil rights history in new ways.
You also explore the grassroots development of civil rights leadership in Selma. Are there any unknown political leaders that readers might be surprised to learn about?
While local figures such as Annie Lee Cooper and Bernard LaFayette receive in-depth assessment, we didn’t want to focus merely on leaders but consider grassroots activism in a wider sense. We are not great fans of the leaders-led bifurcation; instead, we see leaders and the led relating to each other in a more interactive manner. We approached the expected individuals from unusual and, we hope, provocative perspectives.
How has the historical legacy of the Civil Rights Movement informed the #BlackLivesMatter movement?
We are by no means experts on #BlackLivesMatter, but we do see it existing within a framework that was established by the civil rights movement, including both its great successes and its failures, whilst being an entirely different historical phenomenon. That police brutality is still rampant, that African American life expectancy, income, and educational attainment are still lower than corresponding rates for whites, while incarceration rates are much higher, is a damning indictment of the failure to live up to the nation’s stated belief in racial equality.
This April marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How do you wish to see his legacy observed, and how do you suggest readers take part in remembering King’s life and work?
We consider Dr. King to be one of the great radicals in American history, and we hope that his legacy is remembered as one of speaking truth to power, attacking injustice wherever it exists, and remaining true to the principle of equality. Certainly, Selma—and events afterwards—pushed King in a more radical direction that is often misremembered or ignored in popular memory. We hope that the 50th anniversary of his death remembers the troubling questions that he raised—such as his critique of economic inequality—as well as his soaring rhetoric. As important, we hope that it encourages white Americans to reflect on the fragility of life for African Americans, both then and now: the list of African American people killed by white men is too long to recount here, and their lives should not be forgotten in the clamor to celebrate Dr. King.
What do you hope that readers will take away from this book?
We hope that they will have been prompted to reconsider their assumptions about the Selma campaign and the Voting Rights Act. At a time when the Voting Rights Act is under attack, we hope that they will be as convinced as we are of the necessity to defend the right to vote and of the importance of popular protest in challenging discrimination and inequality wherever it may exist. We also hope that they will consider their own role as historical actors, and perhaps get involved in some civil rights activity themselves.