Ruby Sales — Where Does It Hurt? | On Being

RUBY SALES —Where Does It Hurt?

Where does it hurt? That’s a question the civil rights icon Ruby Sales learned to ask during the days of that movement. It’s a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now, but it gets at human dynamics that we are living and reckoning with. At a convening of 20 theologians seeking to re-imagine the public good of theology for this century, Ruby Sales unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, and names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of this time.

[OCG NOTE: Dr. Ruby Sales is a frequent contributor and commentator of OUR COMMON GROUND.  In addition to being an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice, she is an OCG Witness from the Bridge. Our visits with Dr. Sales can be found in our archives.   Please do check out a couple of  most important discussions that we had with her in our 2016 Season, “Hands Off Our Children: 300 Strong” Report from Field with Dr. Ruby Sales on 04/16; and, STOP THE WAR ON OUR CHILDREN™ • MARCH 18, 2016. We are proud of our association with Dr. Sales, our friendship and support from her and the Spirit House Project. Ruby Sales is a national treasure. ]

 GUESTS
RUBY SALES is the founder and director of the Spirit House Project. She is one of 50 African Americans to be spotlighted in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“WHERE DOES IT HURT?”: A NATIONAL INQUIRYAnger, name-calling, and division seem to be deepening in American and global life. They are public faces of human pain and fear. But they are not the whole story of our time. As part of The Civil Conversations Project, we’re launching a national inquiry, “Where Does It Hurt?” Please join with us and take part in a new conversation in our radio and digital spaces.

Source: Ruby Sales — Where Does It Hurt? | On Being

The Psalm of Howard Thurman

ABOUT ABOUT THE FILM

The Psalm of Howard Thurman is the first feature-length documentary film on the life and wisdom of one of the world’s greatest spiritual treasures, Howard Thurman (1899-1981).

The film introduces audiences to Thurman’s uplifting story, his transcendent  yet grounded presence, and his important voice for our times. The film aspires to be a psalm,a lyrical work of beauty and truth, and a creative utterance that moves, touches and inspires.

ABOUT HOWARD THURMAN

A JOURNEY OF HEART, MIND AND SOUL

Thurman attended high school in Jacksonville, Florida. He later completed studies at Morehouse College, Atlanta in 1923 and the Rochester Theological Seminary, New York in 1926. In 1929, after serving his first pastorship in Oberlin, Ohio, Thurman returned to Atlanta to serve as Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. Thurman felt that it was his immediate responsibility to inspire and encourage students in their individual quests for the truth.”

In 1935,  while a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, led a pilgrimage of African Americans to Ceylon, Burma and India and met with Mahatma Gandhi. As a result of this trip, he formulated, a generation before Martin Luther King Jr., a non-violent approach to social change in America. This “love-ethic” informed one of Thurman’s best known works, Jesus and the Disinherited, a book which later influenced King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

 At the close of the 1935 pilgrimage, looking down into Afghanistan at the Khyber Pass, Thurman experienced a vision of a church that would be open to “seekers of all colors and creeds.” He was compelled to see if “experiences of spiritual unity among peoples could be more compelling than the experiences which divide them.”

Hoard and Sue Bailey Thurman

India, 1935

Howard Thurman Birth Home, Daytona, Florida, USA

HOWARD THURMAN was born in Daytona, Florida in 1899. Early on, he developed a kinship with nature and a “hunger of the heart”–a curiosity into the meaning of life. He found refuge during times of loneliness and trepidation in an old oak tree in his back yard. It was while young Howard stood with his back placed firmly against the tree that he first felt the unity of all living things and engaged in what he would later call, “the religious experience.”

 As a young boy Thurman was raised by a strong and affirming grandmother. She was a former slave who had a profound influence on what would become an essential part of Thurman’s thought–that if theology is to have any validity, it must justly deal with one’s life situation and must affirm one’s worth as a child of God.

FILMMAKERS

MEET THE ARTISTS BEHIND THE FILM

“Arleigh Prelow is the right person to create a documentary about Dr. Thurman. She has the spiritual sensibility to understand his life and convey who he was in a truthful and meaningful way.”

 

– Sue Bailey Thurman (before her death in 1996)

ARLEIGH PRELOW, PRODUCER/ DIRECTOR

 Emmy winning composer Joel Goodman has scored over 100 films and television programs that have received 4 Oscar nominations, 15 Emmy awards and over 25 Emmy nominations.

JOEL GOODMAN

COMPOSER

BIO

BIO

GALLERY

INTERVIEWS WITH ARLEIGH PRELOW, PRODUCER/DIRECTOR

 THE SPIRIT AND WORK OF HOWARD THURMAN LIVES ON

PEDRO CESCA FALCI

ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, HOWARD THURMAN CENTER BOSTON UNIVERSITY

THE HOWARD THURMAN CENTER FOR COMMON GROUND

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

KATHERINE KENNEDY

DIRECTOR, HOWARD THURMAN CENTER

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

 

Source: The Psalm of Howard Thurman

Reparations Isn’t a Political Demand | Jacobin

ve gotten a range of reactions to my “open letter” to Ta-Nehisi Coates. Some people find the piece extremely compelling, while others are horrified and accuse me of putting “class over race” or worse, “Marxplaining.”

Perhaps the unkindest criticisms are from people who charge me with not seeing race, or not really appreciating the power of racism in American society. If we must play that game, I can show you around the South Louisiana parish where I grew up, which was still in violation of a 1969 federal school desegregation order when I left the state to attend graduate school in the early nineties.

But let’s move beyond character assassinations. Such dismissive language does little to debunk my argument and basically just rehearses the same anti-Marxist posturing that I’ve become accustomed to in academia, where any insistence on examining the internal class dynamics of black social and political life is labeled “economic reductionist.” Ironically, in most cases, the most vocal opponents of class analysis of black life seem painfully aware of their own class position and yet are unwilling to address its political implications in any reflexive and critical manner.

I don’t expect people to agree with what I have to say, but we should focus on our interpretive and political differences if we have any interest in moving forward in the struggle for justice and equality.

This being said, I appreciated Brian Jones’s willingness to take up my arguments in a serious way, and I agree with aspects of his recent response. As fellow educators, public workers, unionists, and socialists, I am confident that Jones and I have enough common ground to engage in a constructive way. In the spirit of comradely criticism and solidarity, I want to take up two points where he addresses my argument directly.

An Elite Demand?

Jones’s interpretation of my point about reparations being an elite-driven discourse is a misreading, and assumes that my use of the term black elite refers only to the uber-rich like Kenneth Chenault and Oprah Winfrey. Jones writes:

There is a small but growing class of black elites who will never support reparations — or any politics of genuine wealth redistribution — because it is not in their material interest to do so.

That’s why Johnson is wrong to characterize the call for reparations as emanating from the black elite. This group is too well integrated into American capitalism for that to be the case. Walmart, for example, is also a corporate sponsor of the Congressional Black Caucus. The largest employer of black people, in other words, also pays off the black politicians — so don’t expect the CBC to jump into the fight for higher wages and wealth redistribution any time soon.

Jones and I agree on the basic fact that there are different material interests animating black political life, but this passage does not reflect the specific and contradictory ways such interests have been articulated by different black elites, and as a result, fails to provide a helpful class analysis of black political life.

Jones’s claim that elites do not support reparations is simply not reflected in the past few decades of sporadic debate and attempts to operationalize the reparations demand. For example, Michigan congressman John Conyers, a founding member of the CBC, has been one of the foremost sponsors of legislation on reparations, and for much of its history, the CBC has consistently voted in support of more progressive labor rights and redistributive public policy than most of their congressional colleagues.

Randall Robinson, the founder of the foreign policy lobby TransAfrica, and the late Ronald W. Walters, longtime professor at Howard University and campaign manager for Jesse Jackson during his 1984 and 1988 bids for the Democratic presidential nomination,both advanced the reparations demand in their speeches and writings during the nineties. And in the early aughts, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree championed one of the most practical approaches to the reparations demand: a flurry of lawsuits against Aetna, Fleet Boston, New York Life, and other corporations whose origins rested in profiting from the slave trade.

Organizations like N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) have sought to build a national campaign around reparations. And the Black Youth Project 100 has embraced the reparations demand as part of its “Agenda to Build Black Futures.” Others have used the language of repair to demand rerouting of public funds from police departments toward reinvestment in urban youth, education, and neighborhood revitalization.

Activists have employed the language of reparative justice in the John Burge torture settlements, which awarded compensation to citizens whose civil rights were violated by the Chicago Police Department, and also in the legal cases that sought restitution for victims of theforced sterilization program in North Carolina.

These cases are not the same as the demand for slavery reparations, but rather, like the settlements paid out to the Japanese internment camp and Holocaust survivors after the Second World War, these cases sought renumeration for a defined legal category of victim. Reparations for slavery, in contrast, is based on a more complex scenario of repair for intergenerational offense, a matter that in all likelihood cannot be rectified through the same legal strategy.

The reparations demand has also flourished elsewhere — within the academy, in black nationalist circles, and now apparently among some socialists. But it is only tangentially connected to the expressed interests and felt needs of actual black publics. Neither Jones nor Coates demonstrate convincingly that there is a reservoir of black popular support for reparations, or alternatively, that building such support among blacks and the larger American public is on the horizon.

Some of my colleagues have tried to convince me otherwise, citing various public opinion polls to illustrate black support for reparations. But opinion polls are a shaky source of evidence due to issues of sampling and, equally important, the difference between public opinion and political interests.

In many national polls, blacks are drastically undersampled; for example, in a recent YouGov poll taken around the time of Coates’s 2014 Atlantic essay, only 119 blacks were sampled, making the results of that survey completely useless for drawing conclusions about the sentiments of the national black population.

But even a larger, random sample of black citizens — which might provide data for a more sound generalization — only captures momentary, abstract preferences, and those preferences do not map neatly onto actual political interests, which are formed and negotiated within complex, changing social relations.

In other words, some black citizens may support reparations as an ideal, but in the everyday fight to protect and advance their lived interests, other issues like policing, rising housing costs, livable wage employment, and quality education may rightly take precedence over reparations, and form the core of their political commitments.

Over the past few decades, I’ve lived in the Deep South, the Midwest, and the Eastern Seaboard, in rural areas, mid-sized cities and America’s largest conurbations. Reparations is rarely if ever a central concern of the scores of working and middle-class people, black or otherwise, I’ve encountered in community meetings, labor union halls, neighborhood events, campaign headquarters, schools, and churches.

Coming to terms with the distance between this abstract moral claim and the actual felt needs of black people is not “class reductionist,” nor a failure to appreciate the historical relationship between race and class. It is simply the only responsible left politics worth pursuing.

A Political Dead Letter

Second, and more importantly, Jones’s reparations argument collapses under the weight of its own logic. He notes that while all workers are exploited, “Black people have been robbed specifically and continuously in this country.”

We can all agree that at various historical junctures, the majority of blacks have been a hyper-exploited and submerged part of the working class. Yet, as Jones notes, not all blacks would support reparations nor should all blacks be recipients of redress if it were ever achieved. Also, he suggests that capitalists should pay out reparations, not all whites.

But after parsing out who deserves redress and who doesn’t, and who should pay up, we end up right back where we started — redressing the inequality that exists between classes, a multiracial investor class on one side, and a multiracial laboring class on the other.

We can’t go back in time and address slavery, dispossession, and debt peonage as they were unfolding. By default we are stuck with addressing oppression in our midst, which is descendant from this longer history but actively determined by contemporary processes — foremost being the production and realization of surplus value in our world.

“As Marx argued,” Jones writes, “all profit is theft — if workers were paid the full value of their labor, there would be no profit. Reparations therefore must be targeted at the class of people who benefit from this theft.”

But if class struggle is the fundamental conflict, why then is there a need for the rhetoric of reparative justice? In asking this question I am not “counterpos[ing] the call for reparations to the fight for social-democratic redistributive policies,” as Jones has claimed.

I am merely pointing out that the reparations demand exists largely in the realm of the political imaginary, and that in the concrete world of struggle, social democracy and socialism have a demonstrated history of improving the lives of black and other working-class people around the world, e.g. the democratic right to organize in the workplace, the Scandinavian social-democratic model, the public works programs of the American New Deal, infrastructural development in Nkrumah’s Ghana, Viennese social housing, Cuba’s health care, education and civil defense systems, Chilean nationalization under Salvador Allende, and so forth.

Conversely, the reparations demand has been restricted to narrowly defined legal cases, sloganeering, or the lecture circuit. Without an actionable set of proposals to organize around and a popular constituency to advance them, the reparations demand is not a real political demand, but a form of moralism that evokes past injury to address contemporary inequality.

Moreover, it isn’t clear from any of these recent pro-reparations arguments how that political project would address racism more effectively than other historically proven approaches, e.g. effective enforcement of anti-discrimination law, targeted recruitment of blacks and other minorities in the workforce and higher education admissions, and enhanced support for institutions like historically black colleges and universities that have long served as a means of black social mobility.

In the end, Jones (and Coates) settle on the claim that at a bare minimum, another round of the reparations debate will at least have some important, and positive, pedagogical and consciousness-raising effects. According to Jones:

The bottom line is, the very concept of reparations for people of African descent is dangerous to the American ruling class. . . . Grappling with the real legacy of white supremacy would explode the lies America tells about itself (from “meritocracy” myths to “culture of poverty” arguments). And, equally important, a serious debate over reparations would raise dangerous questions about where wealth comes from and about who is owed what in this country.

Jones is right to argue that the Left should continue its war of position against racism and underclass mythology and lay bare the historical and contemporary processes of dispossession and exploitation. But how is this debate over historical injustice more dangerous to the ruling class than the actual power of a broad, multiracial alliance with the capacity to contest the demands that capital makes on living labor and the planet in our own times?

I appreciate the moral power of the reparations claim, but time and again, the demand has proven to be a political dead letter, incapable of ever addressing institutional power in any effective way.

I suspect that, at least for some socialists, reparations offers a means of demonstrating antiracist commitment. But it’s important to recognize that the claim is not grounded in the expressed concerns and immediate needs of black people. Nor is the reparations claim the only means of confronting racism or the most effective way to build broad, popular support for a socialist political vision.

The fundamental basis of political alliance, after all, is not shared identity nor even a shared perspective on historic injustice, but rather, common interest.

Life is short, and time is precious. We need to decide which fights we want to prioritize and be honest about which ones we can win. We should strive for a critical view of history and its role in shaping our own conditions. But our political task is to change this world, and the first necessary step is to find common cause — not in past grievances, but in shared predicament.

Cedric Johnson is the author ofRevolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics and editor of The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans. He is also a representative for UIC United Faculty Local 6456.

Source: Reparations Isn’t a Political Demand | Jacobin

“The Flames of Liberation: Rebellion and Resistance” ll September 5, 2015 with Ruby N. Sales

Activist and Organizer, Ruby N. Sales

  “The Flames of Liberation: Rebellion and Resistance”

Saturday, September 5, 2015    Φ     LIVE  10 pm EDT

 “Transforming Truth to Power, One Broadcast At a Time” 

           OUR COMMON GROUND  Session II 2015 SEASON 

     33rd BROADCAST SEASON 

                               We open our 2nd Session of the 2015 Season continuing to examine the depth of structural and institutionalized racism, the impact of white supremacy and the concept of #BlackLivesMatter as a clarion call and the its promise as a movement.  As always we ask, “What is your End Game?”                      We invite you to join us and be part of the response to THE STATE OF EMERGENCY.

 

Guest Moderator, Ruby N. Sales, Founder & Director, The Spirit House Project

 

To help us kick off this session we have asked Rev. Ruby N. Sales to join us a co-moderator on the critical questions and issues that challenge, trembling like a swelling tsunami beneath the ocean. A seasoned veteran of the civil and human rights campaigns of our time and a fierce and clear visionary of Black Power, we believe that she is most appropriate to help us press out an authentic narrative on these issues.

Institutionalized Racism is the concept and practice of white supremacy. It is the practice of discrimination and oppression based on skin color, physical characteristics, continent of origin and culture. It has its origins as a justification for slavery and the conquest of the Americas. From the beginning, slavery in the United States was tied to the development and growth of capitalism. Founded on the sale and ownership of human beings on the basis of their physical characteristics and color, its purpose was the exploitation of unpaid labor for super profits. As chattels, Africans were hunted like animals, transported to the “New World,” and then sold on the auction block like beasts of burden. In like manner Native American Indians were exterminated on a massive scale.

Moral and intellectual rationales were invented and continue to justify this kidnapping, sale, enslavement and genocide against human beings. As an ideology, racism provided the moral and intellectual underpinnings of slavery, the westward expansion of colonialism and the seizure of half of Mexico. Thus the purpose of this doctrine was, and still is, to put forward ideas and theories founded on the myth that Black people and other people of color are inherently inferior.

Almost 130 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the legacy of slavery remains. It is embedded in and influences every aspect of social, economic and political life. Institutionalized racism is the combined economic, political, social, cultural, legal, ideological and other structures that exist to maintain the system of inequality. #RaceMatters

Institutionalized racism has economic, social, political, ideological and cultural forms, and denies equality, justice and dignity to all people of color.  There are new problems because of the systemic nature of crisis. Our discussions should examine what adjustments must be made in these new efforts to eradicate our place in this society. We rebel and resist the effort to force us into the margins, to make us invisible and to remove us to prison for profit camps.

Our discussions must explore and examine how to elevate our voices in the fight against police brutality, housing discrimination, immigrant rights, and the dismantlement of public education to mention a few issues. At OUR COMMON GROUND provide “a place for our unfiltered voices”.  With the brightest, most loyal and insightful Black activists, community organizers and servants, scholars, researchers, journalists and social scientists we raise, clarify and illuminate the racist dimension of these issues, show how their roots lie in the system of capitalism and its new stage of crisis, and come up with concrete ideas to launch new initiatives and support existing ones.

As a set of institutions, racism is infused in the very foundations of our society and is inseparable from the economic foundations of U.S. capitalist society. The “new domestic military policing” is implemented to intimidate and destroy racially homogenous communities and put into place a ‘superexploitation’ of racial oppression that ensures our silence and to fill prisons serves to create and make real the essence of white supremacy.  We are living in an increasingly surreal special system of oppression and racism perpetrated by a narrative dictated outside of our community. None of this is new; the struggle to liberate ourselves has been before us since our time on these shores. One of our most effective weapons is to ensure that we work from an authentic narrative and that its formulation comes from our Truth. OUR COMMON GROUND for more than 33 years has focused its broadcast mission on ensuring that the Black Truth illuminates and informs our struggle.  #BlackTruthMatters #BlackVoiceMatters

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           OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham

                                 “Speaking Truth to Power and Ourselves” 

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Remembering Ancestor Mother Susie Jackson : A Pillar of Faith and History

Tomorrow at Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston SC the life of Mother Susie Jackson, one of the 9 murdered in that cSusie Jacksonhurch will be celebrated. She particularly of all the victims have been in my thoughts.

Can you imagine what she has seen, how much she knew from 87 years of living Black in Amrerikka? We all know this woman. She arrived at this time, in Faith and believing that there is a Balm in Gilead. In the last moments of her life, I imagine her whispering, “Dear Jesus, oh my God”. A prayer she might have uttered many times in her life. I think about her, fearing for her nephew, Tywanza Sanders,26 sitting at that same table. He, in his youth and Faith, brave enough to plead for their lives to an unmoved monster.

I want to remember her as I imagine her preparing for Bible Study. Picking up around the house, having an early dinner and clearing and cleaning the dishes. Maybe even visiting that day with a friend. Ensuring that she studied “the word” of the week, marking a small tablet with her impressions and questions for the evening session. Making sure to put some mint candy in her purse and a handkerchief or tissue. I know she was not thinking too much about that “crazy girl trying to be Black”. I imagine she might have been singing or humming some old hymn, giving her lift to her step as she advanced to the time. Maybe “A closer walk” or ” faith of our fathers”. Getting a ride or even walking to the church, participating in a bit of chatter once seated. We all know who she was beyond the oldest of the victims. One of the Mothers of the church, having survived and found sanctuary in her Black life.
Tomorrow there will be no President with a eulogy for her. Her one spiritual leader and confidante is gone as well. So who will witness her life, her deepest victory over a moment’s fractured faltering Faith, her fear of Black night terror and the wonderment of her journey ? We will Mother Susie, we will. All respect for your life of prayer and purpose. We who understand and rejoice for you. You who sought in this time in your life, one thing – A Closer Walk with Thee. Your life’s journey and what you chose as your comfort lifted you in the church you loved and served. Rest well Mother Ancestor.

I imagine her smile, listening to something like this.

Remembering “Dr. Ben” ll In Conversation with Sirius/XM Host, Dr. Wilmer Leon,

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham

This Week

Tribute to Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan  In Conversation with Dr. Wilmer Leon
HOST, “Inside the Issues with Dr. Wilmer Leon
Sirius/XM Radio
March 21, 2015 10 pm ET LIVE

03-21-15 wilmer2

Join the broadcast Here: http://bit.ly/1bkVIxc

dr.ben2ABOUT Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan

He was one of the most courageous and inspiring scholars of our time would live for nearly a century, paying personal witness to dramatic transformations in the lives of Black people across the globe. Now a Beloved Ancestor.

ABOUT Dr. WilmerLeon Dr. Leon’s Prescription

Wilmer Leon is the Nationally Broadcast Talk Show Host of “Inside The Issues with Wilmer Leon” Saturday’s from 11:00 am to 2:00pm on Sirius XM (126).

Wilmer_Leon_2011-02-17_18-12-03_webWilmer J. Leon III, Ph.D. is a Political Scientist whose primary areas of expertise are Black Politics and Public Policy. Wilmer has a BS degree in Political Science from Hampton Institute, a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) from Howard University, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Howard University.Dr. Leon is also the host of XM Satellite Radio’s, “Inside The Issues”, a three-hour, call-in, talk radio program airing live nationally on XM Satellite Radio channel 126.”

Dr. Leon was a featured commentator on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight and is also a regular contributor to The Grio.com, The Root.com, TruthOut.org, The Maynard Institute.com and PoliticsInColor.com. He is an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice for more than 5 years.

We will discuss with Dr. Leon about today’s urgent and pressing issues and events before African-Americans.


                                                                               

Sankofa 2015

                                          BROADCASTING BOLD BRAVE and BLACK

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“Speaking Truth to Power and OURselves”

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Call In – Listen Line: 347-838-9852

We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’ φ Rollingstone Magazine

We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’

The groundbreaking director talks about downplaying LBJ, honoring MLK’s legacy and why you should always have Oprah on your film sets

Ava DuVernay
Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount
Ava DuVernay on the set of ‘Selma.’

BY | January 5, 2015

As a filmmaker, you put the film out there, and you just want it to be okay,” says director Ava DuVernay. “You don’t want to let people down; you don’t want to embarrass yourself.” She’s done much better than that with Selma, a dramatization of the 1965 protests in Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; the movie, considered to be a leading Oscar contender, has already received four Golden Globe nominations. Peter Travers said in his rave review in Rolling Stone that DuVernay “blows the dust off history to find its beating heart.”

DuVernay, 42 years old, grew up in Compton, but spent summers in Alabama. A film publicist before she shifted careers to directing, she had actually signed up to do publicity for an earlier version of Selma. The screenplay had bounced around for over five years, attached to directors such as Lee Daniels. “It was looked at as an unmakeable movie,” says executive producer Paul Garnes. But British actor David Oyelowo — who had appeared in DuVernay’s Sundance award-winner Middle of Nowhere — very much wanted to play King, and unbeknownst to DuVernay, was lobbying for her with an international team of producers. Despite a resumé that was limited to two microbudget features, a half-dozen documentaries, and an episode of Scandal, she got the job, and a $20 million budget.

Ava

Ava on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount)

Our conversation with DuVernay in a vegan Mexican restaurant in Hollywood happened three days before Joseph A. Califano, Jr., a former Lyndon B. Johnson aide, wrote a Washington Post op-ed complaining not only that Selma gave Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) short shrift, but that the president had come up with the idea for the protests himself. As it happens, earlier versions of the script focused on the relationship between King and the commander-in-chief, and how their joint efforts led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She discussed why she had chosen to place less emphasis on Johnson, her casting philosophy and why it helps to have Oprah on your film set.

Let’s talk about reducing LBJ’s role in the events you depict in the film.
Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.

This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.

Many presidents couldn’t have done it.
Absolutely. Or wouldn’t have even if they could.

I thought Tim Roth’s performance as George Wallace was very nuanced, when it would have been easy to play him as Snidely Whiplash.
I wanted to try to make everyone as human as possible. That trap that I see so many non-black filmmakers do with black characters, where everything is surface and stereotypical…I didn’t want to be the black filmmaker that does that with the white characters. Tim has talked about every actor has to love the character that they’re playing in some way, and in the time that we’re talking about, there’s not a lot to love in Wallace if you believe in justice and dignity. But he found a videotape or an article of his son talking about him, and so he was able to tap into the father doing what he thought was right.

I WASN’T INTERESTED IN MAKING A WHITE-SAVIOR MOVIE; I WAS INTERESTED IN MAKING A MOVIE CENTERED ON THE PEOPLE OF SELMA.

Whether it was Roth or Tom Wilkinson — or Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Root and Alessandro Nivola — all these characters represented a real diversity of thought about this issue from the white perspective, from the dominant culture. I wanted to create an array of folks who all thought about it in a different way because white thought wasn’t a monolith at that time, just as black thought wasn’t a monolith.

What was your philosophy when you were casting?
To work with people who fascinate me. Oprah being in the cast allowed me to have flexibility because she is such a big name. Her fame and her power created space for me to be able to hire Stephan James, a 19-year-old from Canada, for John Lewis instead of the hot young guy who was just in The Fast and the Furious,or whatever. I was able to pick and choose cool people.

What was it like having Oprah on the set?
Her first day of shooting was the day that Maya Angelou died. I had just driven up to the set in Marietta when I got a call on my cell phone from Andrew Young, the real Andrew Young: “Sister Maya has passed on.” And all I could think of was Oprah was on her way to the set. I immediately called her and said don’t come, we’ll do it another day. Tight schedule, a 32-day shoot, not a lot of room to move things around — but we’ll figure it out. She said, “No, I can do this, it’s okay.” She had the same trailer as everyone else. I spoke with her briefly, and I should’ve stayed, but I had to go out back to the set: I had 200 extras out there. So I called Tyler Perry, he sneaked onto the set, they had their moment, and she came out ready to go. I’m grateful to him; most people see us as very different filmmakers, but in that moment we were united around Oprah.

Ava DuVernay

Ava and Oprah on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount)

How did your old job as a publicist prepare you to do this?
To make a film?

As opposed to eating guacamole, yes.
[Laughs] Just being able to talk to people. I used to coordinate and develop and execute really big campaigns for studios with a lot of moving parts. But the main thing is just articulating what’s in your head, which we overestimate that people can do — how do you get that out in a way that’s clear and un-muddled with the intention of producing a result?

What was the hardest scene to shoot, emotionally?
When Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered in the cafe. At that time there was no Mike Brown murder, there was no Eric Garner murder — but there were so many others that are just ambient. It’s part of the atmosphere as a black person growing up in this country: You know that’s it’s happening somewhere on that very day. And a month later Mike Brown was killed. [Cinematographer] Bradford Young, [editor] Spencer Averick, and I, we designed that scene in a really specific way. It was really important that we have all that stuff worked out in advance because I knew it was going to be a rough, emotional day. This wasn’t a day for improvisation.

King’s tactics imply that his supporters are going to have to get hurt: Nonviolence doesn’t work unless the other side overreacts.
Being passive doesn’t mean sitting there and getting hit for the sake of getting hit. And it wasn’t all faith-based, either. There were some very practical reasons why it was used. You talk to most people about King now and they only know “I Have a Dream,” and that he believed in peace and then he died. Really? That’swhat he’s been reduced to? And we’ve allowed it to happen. And if there is anything that Selma does, it reinvigorates the narrative around him to be more full-bodied and more truthful about what his tactics were.

Are you religious yourself?
No, not religious. But I love God.

Can you talk about the aesthetics of violence of Selma? When the church blows up and kills those four little girls, it’s harrowing, but it’s also filmed in a beautiful way. How do those two things work together?
I don’t know if my intention was to make it beautiful. How do you film four little girls being blown apart? There’s a way to do it with a certain reverence and respect for who they were. That’s why it was important for me that you hear their voices before it happens.

There’s a sinking feeling in that scene — I counted five little girls, so I was hoping maybe it wasn’t going to happen.
There were five girls and one lived. And I put in a boy, to misdirect you on purpose. The violence throughout the film follows the same pattern. I resisted the idea of just it being a physical blow. That spectacle has been done: All we do in this industry is blow people up. But how does the hit feel and what does the face do after? What happens to that broken body and what happens to the people that have to tend to that broken body? It’s important to have the morgue scene after Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, to show the mother and slow down on her face, to slow down the girls, to slow down Annie Lee Cooper when the men put their hands on her and take her down. It was about having a reverence for that was the idea behind it instead of, say, making it beautiful. You’re saying: This is worth taking a closer look at. Everybody stop and pay your respects to this.

Can you pinpoint a moment of joy that happened while you were making this movie?
So many things come to mind, but there was a day that we were filming in Richie Jean Jackson’s house, doing that scene when they all walk into the kitchen. We’re at this house in Atlanta, we had shut down the street. That was the day that Tim Roth and Giovanni Ribisi were coming for their hair and makeup tests. They have to come to see me, ’cause I can’t get away. So they come to the set, and I thought, “Look at all my guys, they’re all together — the White House guys, Wallace, the black guys.” Those characters never cross, right? The chance to see them all together was so fun. Then a black SUV starts coming up the street, going around cones. Our assistant directors and our production assistants are running down, saying, don’t go, they’re shooting. The door opens and out comes Oprah. She’s not supposed to be there; we thought she wasn’t even in the state that day! She starts walking towards me and I just run up to her and give her a big old hug. It was like a house party in the street.

Ava

A surprise visit from Oprah on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Instagram/@directher)

How was it having people like the actual Andrew Young on the set?
So cool. And it easily could not have been if they were grouchy curmudgeons. But there’s still a spark about them. These are our greatest minds, our greatest radicals. Time has not done them in. If you look John Lewis in the eye and he’s talkin’ to you about something, you’re like “Uh huh, let’s go do it!” When I sat down with them, I was really clear that we weren’t asking for anybody’s permission.

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But this [film] is not called “King”; this is Selma. This was as much the story about the band of brothers and sisters that were around him as it was King’s story. There haven’t been great pains taken to show that he was a leader among leaders — all of them could’ve probably done it. Why him? He could talk the best. He was an orator who was able to synthesize all these ideas in a way that spoke to the masses and also that spoke to people in power. But they were there and they were the masterminds behind it. I tried to show the strategy, the tactics, the arguments. That’s how history is made, not by consensus, but by people freakin’ battling it out, right? That’s how change happens.


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