Kent P. Jackson
Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU
The current motion picture Selma has rekindled interest in the American civil rights movement. For many who see the movie, the setting is a distant time and place experienced only in film and in history books. But there are still millions alive who remember well the dramatic events surrounding Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Riders, violence in Selma and Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
I was alive for all of these, though I witnessed them when I was young and from far away. There were only white people where I lived in suburban Salt Lake City. It was easy for me as a teenager to express shock at the behavior of some Southern whites. But because my life was so different from theirs, I never had to ask myself soul-searching questions about whether I too had racist feelings. I had never met anyone who wasn’t white, so it was easy for me to feel smug about my lack of prejudice.
I had just turned fourteen in August 1963 when the March on Washington took place in which Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I remember the news broadcasts showing the convergence of thousands of people to Washington to demonstrate for economic and social justice. I remember thinking, in my adolescent wisdom, “They don’t need to do all this. All Americans have the right to vote, to live where they want, to get an education, and to succeed. This is America!”
I didn’t know then that millions of Americans were being systematically denied the right to vote, that millions of Americans were denied economic opportunity, the right to live where they wanted, the right to a quality education, and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—all because of the color of their skin. Because these circumstances were so far removed from my own comfortable life, it was easy for me, and for most other white Americans, to blissfully let others worry about what was going on elsewhere.
We lost our innocence, and much of our naïveté, early in 1965 when state troopers gassed and brutally beat a peaceful column of people walking across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. Because the event was filmed and broadcast all over the world, people like me could no longer hide from reality by not wanting to believe that institutionalized injustice existed on a grand scale in the United States of America. The events at Selma, followed by similar televised events in the coming years, forced us all to look into the mirror in ways we hadn’t needed to before. Hopefully we are still doing that, though the task of providing equal opportunities for all is far from accomplished.
Even good and well-meaning people don’t always live up to their own ideals. But we Latter-day Saints know what kind of people we should be. The standard for our interaction with others has been revealed in the scriptures, and it is embodied in statements like these: “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). He “hath made of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17:26). He “is mindful of every people, . . . and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth” (Alma 26:37). “The Lord esteemeth all flesh in one” (1 Nephi 17:35). “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).
Martin Luther King said that there was “nothing more majestic and sublime” than to be willing to suffer for a righteous cause. I sincerely honor and thank those brave pioneers of the civil rights movement who suffered and sacrificed so much so the eyes of a nation could be opened.