'Selma' prompts painful memories for nun who marched

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Sister Barbara Moore wanted to see "Selma," but by herself "because emotionally I knew it would probably be impactful."

So on Jan. 18, the Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet sat alone in the theater at the St. Louis Galleria and watched the movie about the events of 50 years ago this March -- the voting rights marches and protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala.

Sister Barbara experienced Selma first-hand a half century ago. A native St. Louisan and sister for nine years, she traveled with a delegation of women religious, priests and ministers from Kansas City -- her first plane ride -- and spent three days in Selma, March 12-14, 1965. They were answering Dr. King's call for support from clergy throughout the country. Men in collars and women in habits were depicted in the film, a powerful witness to the nonviolent approach.

She was there after Sister Antona Ebo and the delegation from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and after two men were killed -- Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson on Feb. 26 and minister James Reeb, who had come from Boston and participated in the same march as Sister Ebo on March 9.

The movie hits the viewer in its earliest moments, first with the denial of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register for voting, then with the bombing of a church in Birmingham in which four young girls were killed.

"It was a very powerful opening," Sister Barbara said, adding that the movie "was very painful in many ways to watch ... but I'm glad that I did see it. I found it very much, in many ways, inspirational."

Particularly Dr. King's speeches, which she called "so powerful and relevant to what we're experiencing today."

That would be Ferguson, and the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in August. Brown was black, and Wilson white, prompting racial protests and also violence. One business was torched the day after Brown's death, and 21 more went up in flames in November after a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.

The violence of Ferguson stands in stark contrast to the peaceful protests in Selma, where authorities in riot gear and on horseback initiated the violence by attacking marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma on what became known as "Bloody Sunday."

"For me, the discipline of the movement and nonviolence was so powerful," Sister Barbara said, adding that in the present day, "I think we need to be more disciplined and restrained because (violence) mars the message. To many people, that is all they think about. It's only a few people (being violent), but they make it more difficult for what we want to achieve, which is justice and peace and civil rights."

As Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has said, the laws in the United States long ago granted civil rights, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Right Act resulting from Selma. Still, he has called racism systemic and subtle, within people's hearts as opposed to being overt, and Sister Barbara agreed with this sentiment.

"The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, but there's still segregation -- look at our public schools," she said, noting that even with the Voting Rights Act, districts are redrawn to separate areas "predominantly black or Hispanic."

In anniversary celebrations in Selma, Sister Barbara has met many people depicted in the movie -- the late Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Amelia Boykins and John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia whom she describes as a "living saint because he has no bitterness, but he's still on target for what we need to do for justice in our country."

The events in Ferguson and elsewhere show that much more needs to be done in race relations, and Sister Barbara called the Peace and Justice Commission under Marie Kenyon "a positive" for the archdiocese.

"It's not a time of silence," she said. "It's time to speak up and step up."

MOVIE REVIEW | "Selma" (Paramount Pictures)

A battle in the struggle for African-American equality is compellingly recreated in director Ava DuVernay's fact-based drama. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act behind him, President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is anxious to concentrate on promoting the economic measures of his Great Society program. But Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is determined to secure long-overdue access to the ballot for minority voters in the South. Alabama continued to resist such reform under its implacably segregationist governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth), so King agrees to lead a long protest march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Screenwriter Paul Webb intersperses the inspiring rhetoric of the time with behind-the-scenes insights into heated debates over strategy among King and his associates, the constant threat of violence under which they were forced to live as well as the emotional burden placed on King's wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), by her spouse's infidelity.

The film contains some violence,adultery and a few uses of profanity. The Catholic News Service classification is adults but given its historical value, the film is possibly acceptable for mature adolescents.

The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

— Catholic News Service 

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