Selma and the Power of the Clear Ask


My wife and I saw Selma last night. I was impressed with many aspects of the film:  David Oyelowo’s commanding performance as Dr. King, the simultaneously vivid yet nebulous cinematography during scenes of violence, and the portrayal of the three-way chess game between demonstrators, the White House, and local authorities to name a few.

That being said, I found it difficult to focus solely on the artistic choices & narrative present within the film. Like many others with whom I’ve spoken who’ve seen the film in recent days, I found it impossible to resist the urge to draw connections between the civil rights movement as it was represented in the film with present day race relations, activism, and politics in the United States. I believe Dr. King would be proud of us for refusing to resist such an urge.

There are countless angles one could take on Selma and its relevance to today’s United States and its social movements, but I’ll take up just one here: the Power of the Clear Ask.

As portrayed in scenes with Lyndon B. Johnson early in the film, MLK had a clear ask:

  • Pass a law containing the right for African-Americans to vote unencumbered
  • Specify a protocol for how this law will be implemented
  • Enforce the protocol

Dr. King and his allies designed the package above as a concrete goal for their movement and thought of creative ways in which to non-violently demonstrate and put pressure on authorities in order to draw attention to & further this goal. Sure, it took countless hours of internal debate, years of effective activism, a plethora of false starts & failed attempts, and continuous, often vitriolic disagreement amongst the SCLC, SNCC, Nation of Islam, and other groups before this ask was refined to the point which Dr. King could deliver it pithily to the President and other power brokers. But, again, the ask was both clear & concrete and I believe this helped energize & focus the movement in a beautiful way.

Now, let’s pivot to the present day: I have been extremely interested but rarely directly involved in the Occupy Wall Street and #blacklivesmatter demonstrations of recent years. I totally agree with what these movements are against but have rarely been a participant in their actions because I struggle to articulate what, concretely, they are for. I am in spiritual solidarity with these groups generally yet don’t 100% identify myself as a member of these activist communities because they seem to lack what I see as a proactive or practically progressive approach. The ask isn’t clear.

These movements are relatively young , are addressing complex issues with powerful forces on the other side, have engaged many people from a variety of backgrounds since their inception, and can point to progress as a result of their efforts on several fronts. Lots to be proud of for sure. My critique of their lack of the clear ask may not be entirely fair. It could be that I am not speaking with the right members of these groups, am not listening carefully enough, am not being adequately patient, etc. But, again, my impression is that they haven’t achieved their full potential because organizers & participants haven’t effectively molded their clear ask(s) yet.

I’ll be excited to become more involved in direct actions related to such movements  if and when the asks become more clear. Call me a bandwagon activist, a Johnny-come-lately, a follower, whatever. In some arenas of life, I have a clear vision for what change, success, equity, and fun should look like; education and music being two. I know I can be a leader in these corners of the world. I love collaborating with others to think of what could be next in these fields and live for recruiting others to the cause. In other arenas of life, like income inequality, police-community relations, and institutional racism, I want to be a long-distance runner for justice and peace, a soldier for truth, but need some support. I’m confident I can contribute to the cause, but I need strong mentors and teachers to show me the way. I need an image of success, a benchmark for progress, a light in the dark, and I know I am not alone. We need a clear ask. And once we have it, it will be that much easier to fight for the right and just answers.

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