There’s a scene early in director Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma, in which Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) arrive by car in Selma, Alabama to meet with local Civil Rights activists and organizers. This is the moment in the film when Nashvillians’ ears should perk up. Nash is the direct link to the Civil Rights movement in Nashville. As a student at Fisk University in 1960, she along with Congressman John Lewis, (who shows up soon after in the film and is played by Stephan James) were disciples of the non-violence moment and leaders of the historic Nashville Sit-Ins. They were arrested and jailed numerous times before Nashville’s lunch counters were desegregated. Nash and Lewis were founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), often referred to and pronounced in the film as “Snick.” They led the 1961 Freedom Rides on different fronts. When a bus carrying Lewis was firebombed in Alabama under the orders of police commissioner Bull Conner, it all but appeared that the Rides would not continue. Nashville’s John Seigenthaler, then the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was sent to Birmingham to negotiate and ensure the safety of the first riders out of Birmingham. Seigenthaler got a call from Kennedy: “Who the hell is Diane Nash?”
The Rides were done. Kennedy was determined that no more students be put in danger. But Nash would have none of it. She was leading NEW rides departing from Nashville. As detailed by Raymond Arsenault in his book Freedom Riders, and by the filmmaker Stanley Nelson in the documentary of the same name, when contacted by Seigenthaler and told she and the other students were putting their lives at risk, Nash responded that they had all written their last wills and testaments.
In Selma, Congressman Lewis’ character, in a late night car ride with King following the second walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, recalls that attack on the bus in Birmingham. There is also moment in the film in which the many Civil Rights steps leading to Selma — the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 among them — are mentioned. Voting rights were the next battle we’re told. Eyes on the Prize.
Selma the film may focus on Selma the city, but it’s also about and linked to Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama and Albany, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee plus so many other cities in the south and in America. It’s part of our history, too.
Selma is playing at area Regal and Carmike theaters right now. Students in the 7th, 8th and 9th Grades can attend for free through Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 19, with a student ID or report card via the #SelmaForStudents project. Before or after seeing the film, consider making a visit the Nashville Public Library’s extraordinary Civil Rights room to immerse yourself in our city’s Civil Rights history.
January 17 and 19 are also designated as Hands on Nashville’s MLK Days of Service.