Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and we are honoring his legacy and observing the holiday through service to our community. In the past few weeks, the Civil Rights Movement along with the work of Dr. King has received much media attention, due in part to the film Selma. The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came to be and chronicles the events leading up to its monumental passing.
There were three marches that took place in March of 1965—the first is referred to as “Bloody Sunday” due to brutal attacks on the marchers, and the second march was cut short, as Dr. King felt the marchers needed protection by a federal court to prevent further violence. On March 21, 1965 the third march began—this time with the protection of the Army, Alabama National Guard, FBI Agents, and Federal Marshalls. The marchers arrived in Montgomery, at the State Capitol building, on March 25. The route taken from Selma to Montgomery is now a U.S. National Historic Trail.
The turmoil and successes of the marches are the focal point of Selma, but there are also smaller, intimate scenes in the film that capture the spirit of the movement and the individuals involved. Music plays a large role in the film—as it did in the many marches and protests of the Civil Rights Movement. By now you’ve probably heard “Glory,” an anthem written and performed by John Legend and Common, connecting the movement and historical events in the film to present day. (The song recently won a Golden Globe and is now nominated for an Oscar for Best Song.)
The film illustrates that songs delivered powerful messages during that time, namely the gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was Dr. King’s favorite song, and he often called upon gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to sing it at rallies and protests. He even requested that she sing it at his funeral, if he died before her. Jackson performed it at his funeral in April 1968:
When the darkness appears
And the night draws near,
And the day is past and gone,
At the river I stand,
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.
NPR Music delves deeper into the history of the song and its portrayal in Selma. Read the article here.
P.P.S. Read this letter from Dr. King’s time in a Birmingham jail.