I recently saw the new movie, SELMA. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but found the movie to be accurate in its portrayal of the people and events of that landmark chapter in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not portrayed as a plaster saint who could do no wrong. Rather, he was accurately portrayed as a flawed human being who, nonetheless, led a worthy cause that was grounded in the teachings of Holy Scripture. However, there was one discordant note. Those of us who sat through the closing credits were subjected a rap song that seemed to draw a parallel between what happened in Selma and what happened more recently in Ferguson, Missouri. This song did an injustice to an otherwise excellent movie because Ferguson was no Selma and Al Sharpton is no Dr. King. In fact, to draw parallels between Selma and Ferguson is ludicrous.
The first difference between Selma and Ferguson can be found in the participants in the marches that took place there. In Selma the participants were Americans demanding that black people in Alabama be afforded their constitutional right to vote. They were young and old, men and women, white and black, Christians and Jews who were all united in the cause of freedom and all committed to peaceful non-violence. But In spite of this commitment, the Selma marchers were brutally beaten, including the elderly, women, and children.
Contrast the peaceful protestors in Selma with the protestors in Ferguson. Although some attempted peaceful protests in Ferguson, they were soon overshadowed by thugs and criminals who looted, robbed, and burned businesses in that town. The looters included out-of- town agitators—as opposed to out-of-town supporters in Selma—who turned the protest marches into drunken orgies of violence and arson. While the protests in Selma were orchestrated by church leaders from a variety of denominations who cared deeply about the rights of blacks in Alabama, justice, and the citizens of Selma, the protests in Ferguson were orchestrated by criminals who cared nothing about the rights of blacks in Missouri, justice, or the citizens of Ferguson. Nor did they care about Michael Brown. In Selma the protestors were hoping for an opportunity to vote. In Ferguson they were looking for an opportunity to plunder. In Selma the violence was perpetrated by the police. In Ferguson the violence was perpetrated by the protestors.
Another difference between Selma and Ferguson can be found in two of the men who were killed in these towns. In Selma, Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered in cold blood by an Alabama State Trooper who shot him in a restaurant. That state trooper, James Bonard Fowler, only recently—after 40 years—admitted to killing Jackson. Jimmy Lee Jackson was a Viet Nam War veteran and a Church Deacon. In Ferguson, Michael Brown was killed after rushing a police officer and trying to turn the officer’s pistol on him and kill him. Brown was a thug and a bully who had just come from robbing a convenience store and roughing up the attendant who tried to stop him from stealing a box of cigars. Jimmy Lee Jackson could not vote, serve on a jury, or attend an integrated public school. Michael Brown could do all of these things.
All these years later, James Bonard Fowler claims that he went to Mack’s Café where he shot Jimmie Lee Jackson to quell a disturbance. He claims that blacks were throwing bottles at passers-by and being disruptive (claims that are uniformly denied by employees, other patrons in the café that night, and other eyewitnesses). However, for the sake of argument assume for the moment that being disruptive and throwing bottles is sufficient reason to shoot a man in cold blood. If this is the case, the protestors in Ferguson should thank God that Governor George Wallace’s state troopers weren’t on duty in that town. In Ferguson we know about the destructive behavior of the protestors because it was all shown live on television every night for weeks. Even when the Ferguson mobs looted and burned, the Missouri state police did not shoot. In fact, they simply stood back and let the looting, rioting, and arson go on. In Selma, that kind of wanton criminal behavior would have led to a massacre.
Another difference between Selma and Ferguson can be found in what happened to the two police officers involved in the shootings that led to the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Michael Brown. In the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson, nothing happened. James Bonard Fowler was not alone when he shot Jackson. Others knew who he was and what he did. However, nothing happened. In fact, had Fowler chose to remain quiet about the incident, he could have taken his heinous act to the grave. Neither the governor—George Wallace—nor the citizens of Alabama cared enough about Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death to determine who killed him. The incident was covered up and forgotten about for 40 years.
Contrast what did not happen to James Bonard Fowler with what did happen to Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. He was immediately suspended pending an investigation into the shooting. He was thrown under the bus by the governor of Missouri. He was subjected to a grand jury hearing and required to defend his actions. Then, even after he was exonerated by a multi-racial grand jury, Wilson was forced to resign from the police force in Ferguson—not because he had done anything wrong but because the police chief had received death threats directed at Wilson. In short, Wilson had to resign his job for his own safety as well as that of other police officers in Ferguson.
One final difference between Selma and Ferguson can be seen in the two men who were the most visible leaders of the protests in these towns. In Selma the leader was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Ferguson, the leader was Al Sharpton. In Selma, Dr. King asked only for the right to vote for Selma’s black citizens, a right afforded them in the U.S. Constitution. He demanded peaceful protests and non-violent responses to even the most violent actions of police officers, and would not condone or allow his followers to strike back—even when elderly women and children were being brutally beaten. He prayed for and with his followers and reached out to Christians of all denominations—white and black—for assistance.
In Ferguson, Al Sharpton did not attract Christians and ministers, but rather the worst kind of criminals; out-of-town agitators who cared nothing about the issues in Ferguson or the young man whose death had triggered the protests there. Then rather than demand non-violence and peaceful demonstrations, Sharpton stirred up the embers of racial discord with words that incited the protestors to violence, rioting, burning, and looting. All the while that Sharpton was inciting violence in Ferguson, he was himself a criminal. Sharpton owed then and still owes more than $4.5 million in unpaid back taxes, yet he had the gall to stand in front of the cameras in Ferguson and demand justice. Justice would be to send the bill for rebuilding the burned out businesses of Ferguson to Al Sharpton.
There are other differences between Selma and Ferguson, but space in this column is not sufficient to catalog all of them. Suffice it to say that drawing parallels between what happened in Selma and what happened in Ferguson is ludicrous. It is like comparing a reverent church service to a raucous rap concert.