Meet the secret heroes of the civil rights movement

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In the coming weeks, Selma will roll into more than 27,000 classrooms around the country, free of charge.


But it's not the Oscar-nominated, Oprah Winfrey-backed film.

This version, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which produced the film, showcases the true stars of the civil rights movement in Alabama: the students.


"Their story is often forgotten," said SPLC President Richard Cohen, who served as executive producer on the film, during a phone interview.

While the Hollywood film focuses primarily on Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot shines a light on the students and teachers who worked for equal rights every day, in the face of constant opposition.

The 40-minute documentary uses grainy historic footage and first-hand interviews conducted over the last several years with students involved in the fight to describe the events leading up to and following Bloody Sunday. That was the day, 50 years ago this weekend, that Alabama state troopers and police officers beat students and other civil rights activists as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a march from Selma to Montgomery.


The students didn't have the name recognition of Dr. King, but they courageously demanded equal treatment at lunch counters, theaters and on buses around the state.

"Few of us will have the impact of Dr. King," Cohen said, but added that doesn't mean you can't make a difference.


"We hope that kids understand that they have the ability to change the world," he said.

Narrated by Montgomery native and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, who donated her time to the project, the documentary reveals how students, many with the approval of their teachers, skipped class to protest for civil rights during the early 1960s.


Their willingness to participate was pivotal, a fact that SPLC thinks is often overlooked. Not bound by the fear of losing jobs, students took to the streets while many older African Americans remained quiet.

But the students' determination and attempts to organize voter registration drives eventually prompted teachers to take to the streets, too, which helped convince others to join. In short, they sparked the movement that would eventually lead President Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


"It's important for us to show that this wasn't something that was just propelled by a few giants," Cohen said. "It was something that involved so many people."

Schools and other organizations can request free copies of the film online, and they're encouraged to hold community screenings. The film won't be in traditional theaters, Cohen said, and the focus is on reaching students. About 27,000 orders have already been processed and the center expects to distribute hundreds of thousands of copies over the coming years to schools and organizations around the country. The documentary will also be up for Academy Award consideration next year, Cohen said. The center received the "Best Documentary Short Subject" Oscar in 1995 for another "Teaching Tolerance" film about civil rights.


He hopes teachers will use the documentary to talk to students about civic engagement. Events like Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement are important, he said, but "can they be sustained?"

This weekend, members of SPLC will gather in Montgomery to premiere the movie and commemorate Bloody Sunday and the fight for civil rights. But Cohen bristles at people who simply want to see civil rights as a fight of the past.


"Lots of people are coming and reveling in celebration, patting themselves on the back," he lamented, "yet they are somewhat unwilling to pick up the mantle and continue the unfinished business of the movement."

Voter ID laws and voter suppression remain alive and well, he pointed out. The issues of income inequality, mass incarceration, racial profiling and the treatment of undocumented people "are still simmering."


And he thinks the fact that millions of people are eligible to vote but don't show up "is a sign that our democracy is not healthy."

The final line of the film sends the message Cohen wants to get to students: "Still, there's so much more to be done."


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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