In the trailer for the forthcoming movie Selma, we see Governor George Wallace, as played by actor Tim Roth, proclaim, “We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in this state.” Not a direct quote perhaps, but certainly in keeping with the actual language of Wallace and others who put up resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, and not that dissimilar to language surrounding current struggles.
Jenée Desmond-Harris, a reporter with Vox.com, watched the Selma trailer, and thought this Wallace line bore an eerie resemblance to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s news conference last week; in anticipation of the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Governor Nixon addressed the press, assuring a robust police presence and zero tolerance of violence.
To be sure, Gov. Nixon is not likely to be confused for Gov. Wallace. For one, he sounds softer and somewhat more sympathetic to protestors than Wallace often did, as when, just before the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Wallace argued against the state providing aid and protection for the “so-called demonstrators,” whom he condemned as “mobs employing the street warfare tactics of the Communists.”
Further, I think we can agree that violence is not acceptable, and law enforcement has a duty to protect. Ironically, as St. Louis Alderman Antonio French illustrated on Twitter, that is a point the majority of peaceful protesters have been trying to make, only aimed in the opposite direction Gov. Nixon intended it.
And for Desmond-Harris, therein lies the problem with the tone of Nixon’s news conference. The governor seemed to place the blame for and burden of violence solely at the feet of demonstrators, while failing to acknowledge the dramatic missteps of the militarized police response which escalated tensions and fueled widespread outrage. This came off as a one-sided deference to law enforcement and a tone-deaf threat of more of the aggressive tactics which so roiled the community and created an international stir in August.
But it was not just Gov. Nixon calling to mind the language and tensions of the 1960s. The first member of the press to pose a question to Nixon wanted to know what “intelligence” law enforcement had regarding outside “infiltrators” and “communists” who might come in to stir up trouble. Members of the KKK reportedly distributed fliers throughout St. Louis County threatening lethal force against “terrorists masquerading as ‘peaceful protestors’ (sic)!”
Beyond Ferguson itself, we don’t have to look too hard to find many in the media using a Wallace-esque script about demonstrators. Many have accused protesters of having a “lynch mob mentality” and demanding “mob justice” -- George Wallace similarly claimed the marchers in Selma sought the “speedy expediencies of mob rule” rather than waiting for the courts to decide the issue.
The suggestion that people should sit back and wait, and wait, and wait, despite long-growing disaffection and feeling that the system fails to represent them, is perhaps as commonplace now as it was in the Jim Crow era. It is worth recalling that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a response to just such a complaint from members of the local clergy over nonviolent demonstrations in the streets of Birmingham, demonstrations the clergy members called “unwise and untimely.” King retorted, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ”
Whether “Wait” now means “Never” for the issues brought to the forefront in Ferguson remains to be seen. But that we have very similar perceptions of injustice and are having eerily similar conversations about these matters 50 years after Birmingham and Selma reminds us that the struggle does indeed continue.
Josh Cannon holds a history degree from UAB and is hoping to pursue a master's degree in Community / Urban Planning. He also blogs at http://joshuacannon.wordpress.com.