Selma, Ala. — When you stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with trucks and cars lumbering past, the engines shake the air around you and the pavement rumbles under your feet. It feels like the heartbeat of history.
It takes little effort to blot the traffic from your mind and to sense, instead, the gait of marchers, and then the hiss of tear-gas canisters and the crack of batons.
The wind fills your ears as you walk to the top. Your path rattles underneath. It seems like God is pounding His fist.
Selma lived through “Bloody Sunday” nearly 50 years ago and revisited it this weekend, when “Selma” premiered at the Selma Walton Theater a few blocks from the bridge. The movie, much of which was filmed in metro Atlanta, tells the story of the Selma-to-Montgomery march movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights heroes including U.S. Rep. John Lewis, former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and the late Revs. Hosea L. Williams and Ralph David Abernathy.
The movie has been nominated for four Golden Globes (the awards air at 8 p.m. Sunday on NBC) and has generated considerable Oscar buzz, but of course Hollywood glamour was the last thing on anyone’s mind in 1965.
“I was afraid,” said Charlotte Griffeth, a University of Georgia graduate who has spent most of her life in her native Selma. “One evening my aunt came to tell us that my mother had been jailed and would not be coming home. I can remember my brother being afraid to drive at night.”
A past principal of the town’s middle school, Griffeth hopes the film will resonate with young people.
“Selma has given much to the world,” she said. “It is essential our students learn about the impact Selma had on the movement.”
To that end, Cynthia Harris brought her 12-year-old son Michael to see the movie.
“We have a ways to go but we’re slowly making strides to get there,” she said.
“To be continued,” Michael added.
Selma native Henry Allen was about 18 at the time of the march movement. He grew up about a mile from downtown, in a poor but integrated neighborhood.
“We could play ball together but we knew we could not go anywhere together or socialize. All we knew was segregation,” said Allen, who recalls one of his white boyhood friends wondering, “Why can’t we go to school together? I don’t understand.”
Years after the Voting Rights Act spurred by the Selma movement became law, the spectre of Jim Crow lingered like an angry haint. Allen, who became Selma’s first black firefighter and later its first black fire chief, retired in 2009 after 37 years to a proclamation from the mayor and a standing ovation at City Hall.
But he remembers fighting a fire in 1972, the year he was hired, while the white homeowner spat racial slurs.
“Every time I saw racism, it was fear,” Allen said.
A number of screenings of “Selma” played for free over the weekend and more are planned, courtesy of Paramount (if you happen to be heading that way see selmawaltontheater.com for future showtimes).
Selma Mayor George Patrick Evans, one of the many local dignitaries in attendance, welcomed the crowd before Friday’s first screening.
“It’s a proud day, in my opinion, to have a movie done about Selma,” he said.
For City Council member Rev. B.L. Tucker, the movie brought back memories.
“I was there on Bloody Sunday,” he said. “I got beat up. I was struck upside the head.”
City Council member Angela Benjamin was moved by the sceen where Mahalia Jackson, played by Ledisi Young, sings to King, played by David Oyelowo, to buoy him.
“My mom was jailed and tear gassed,” Benjamin said. She was a phenomenal singer and she kept people’s spirits up.”
Rose White died last year but “would have been in absolute tears” at the premiere, her daughter said.
Many in the audience were proud not only that the movie had been made but at their role in the project.
Connor Carraway and his mom, Connie Morrow, drove over from Montgomery to see “Selma” in Selma. They were cast in the movie, he as a police officer and she as a church member.
“I feel uplifted,” Carraway said after the screening.
“I think it’s a masterpiece,” said Morrow, becoming emotional. “Alabama should be proud. We made it for the whole nation.”
Carolyn Calhoun Bates and Bo Spencer also were in the movie. She played a church member and he was cast as one of the troopers who attacked marchers with billy clubs.
“It was hard to play that kind of role,” he said.
For Bates, it was a calling. She was 8 in 1965 and completed the journey to Montgomery with her family.
“I saw what happened on that bridge to the people who started this movement. Tear gas was all over Selma, Ala., she said. “It didn’t matter how old you were, you were still subjected to name calling. I had to attend all-black schools. I thought it would be the same way the rest of my life.”
She was determined to get an education, to escape a future picking cotton. Today she is a member of the Dallas County school board.
“It sort of patched up some of the ill feelings,” she said of the movie. “We have a chance to get together.”
She and Spencer are both Selma natives but only met last summer, on the “Selma” set. After the movie they caught up to exchange email and Facebook information so they can keep in touch. She chuckled at the notion of a friendship between a 58-year-old black woman and a
31-year-old white man happening 50 years ago.
“This is the theater I wasn’t allowed to sit in when I was a child,” she said of the building she had just exited. “When I was allowed, it was only to sit in the top.”
Noted her new friend Spencer: “Now you can sit anywhere you want.”