Fresh Air Pays Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Bloody Sunday On March 7, 1965, marchers from Selma, Ala., attempted to cross a bridge to demonstrate in support of voting rights. Selma director Ava DuVernay, John Lewis and J.L. Chestnut reflect on that day.
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Fresh Air Pays Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Bloody Sunday

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Fresh Air Pays Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Bloody Sunday

Fresh Air Pays Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Bloody Sunday

Fresh Air Pays Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Bloody Sunday

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On March 7, 1965, marchers from Selma, Ala., attempted to cross a bridge to demonstrate in support of voting rights. Selma director Ava DuVernay, John Lewis and J.L. Chestnut reflect on that day.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of one of the bloodiest and most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement. On March 7, 1965, a day known as Bloody Sunday, marchers from Selma, Ala., attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to demonstrate in support of voting rights and to protest the death of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, who died eight days earlier after being beaten and shot in a confrontation with Alabama state troopers. As the demonstrators crossed the bridge leading to the city of Montgomery, they were ordered to disperse. After refusing to do so, state troopers and a sheriff's posse violently attacked, charging on foot and on horseback, firing tear gas and viciously clubbing the demonstrators. More than 50 were injured. But the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge set the stage for a turning point in the battle for equal voting rights. Eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson sent a bill to Congress which would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On today's FRESH AIR, we'll hear from Ava DuVernay, who directed the film "Selma" and from two people who were at the March. In a little while, we'll hear an interview with John Lewis, who's represented Georgia's Fifth Congressional District since 1987 and was one of the leaders of the march. We'll start with civil rights activist J.L. Chestnut, who was Selma's first - and for a while it's only - black lawyer. He represented Martin Luther King and other activists when they needed help in Alabama. Terry interviewed Chestnut in 1990. On the day of the march, he was working for the NAACP. Here’s his description of what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

J.L. CHESTNUT: I had gone across the river early, across the bridge because they would not let lawyers march. You know, you had enough foot soldiers. What we didn't have were enough lawyers. It didn't make sense to have lawyers in jail. So I had gone across the river earlier not knowing whether there would be a march and to get to a telephone because once a march started, you would have the FBI, the press and everybody fighting over the one telephone. So I went over there early to tie it up in case there would be a march. And I'd have to describe to the NAACP what was happening because they were paying the bill. And I was over there tying up the telephone, and I looked up, up toward the bridge. And there was John Lewis, who’s now Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, Atlanta, and this group of marchers coming toward this great line of state troopers and possemen. And I began to describe the scene over the telephone to New York. And then John and the group came face-to-face with the troopers. And I heard some voice, a state trooper, who said stop. This will be as far as you will be permitted to go. Turn around and go back to your churches. And then John and the others began to kneel and pray. And then I heard something that sounded like a tear gas canister hit the pavement. And then there was smoke, bedlam, confusion, blood and tears, cries. And there were these big, hefty possemen swinging these billy clubs the size of baseball bats and coming down across the heads of women and children. My eyes were hurting. My head was hurting, and New York was screaming over the telephone, what's going on? What's going on? And I tried to pull some women back out of the street, and it was just awful. It was one of the lowest days of my life.

At that day, I lost all faith in America. I lost all faith in white people. I said my God, black people will never be citizens. We will never be what we ought to be in this land. And what is this? I have gone to Howard University. I'm a lawyer, an officer in the white man's court. And here these people are trampling my folk in the streets, blood everywhere. And they're trampling on the Constitution, and nobody does anything about it because these people are black. And I was just almost in tears. And two days later, I had to revise and make a new assessment because white people and black people came from all over this nation. They'd watched it on television, and they were thoroughly upset at what they saw. You know, it's easy to send a check down from New York and say I'm with you. It's something altogether different to come down and lock hands with a black person and say I'm ready to go to jail, I'm ready to die if necessary. And I saw hundreds and hundreds of people come from all over this land to join with us in this little town of my birth. And I had to look and reassess all over again. And my faith in this nation, my faith in the human race was restored.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

You went to law school at Howard University, and then you returned to Selma, Ala. Why did you go back home?

CHESTNUT: Well, Martin Luther King Jr., who's one year older than I am, had, with Rosa Parks, started virtually a revolution in Montgomery, which is just 50 miles east of Selma. And other things were developing in Selma and in the South which indicated to me that the action likely to come would come in the South rather than in Harlem or in the North.

Now, I did not anticipate any action on the scale as the civil rights movement. We had some very modest goals in mind. If you remember the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin and the group were not asking for integrated buses. They were just asking for the right to sit from the back up halfway and have whites sit from the front halfway. They were not even seeking integration of the buses because that was almost fantasyland back then, so I didn't anticipate anything like what did happen.

DAVIES: That was attorney and civil rights activist J.L. Chestnut, recorded in 1990. Chestnut died in 2008, at the age of 77. We’ll hear more of that interview later in the show. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery, which was a turning point in the struggle to establish equal voting rights. One of the organizers of the march was Congressman John Lewis, who in 1965 was chairman of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Since 1987, he's represented Georgia’s Fifth District in the House of Representatives. Terry Gross interviewed Lewis in 2009. He told her he grew up in Alabama at a time when there was one county whose population was 80 percent African American, but there wasn't a single registered black voter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: When I was growing up in rural Alabama, it was impossible for me to register to vote. I didn't become a registered voter until I moved to Tennessee, to Nashville as a student.

GROSS: Why was it impossible?

LEWIS: Black men and women were not allowed to register to vote. My own mother, my own father, my grandfather and my uncles and aunts could not register to vote because each time they attempted to register to vote, they were told they could not pass the literacy test. And many people were so intimidated, so afraid that they would lose their jobs, they would be evicted from the farms, and they just - they almost gave up.

GROSS: Your parents were sharecroppers. Now...

LEWIS: My mother and father and many of my relatives had been sharecroppers. They had been tenant farmers like so many people in the South. They knew the stories that had occurred. They knew places in Alabama where people were evicted from the farm, from the plantation.

GROSS: Now, because of that, did you - did your parents tell you not to bother to try to vote because it would be dangerous, they might lose their farm? I mean, you were educated. You could certainly pass the literacy test.

LEWIS: My parents told me in the very beginning as a young child when I raised the question about segregation and racial discrimination, they told me not to get in the way, not to get in trouble, not to make any noise. But we had people that were educated. We had teachers. We had high school principals. We had people teaching in colleges and university in Tuskegee, Ala. But they were told they failed the so-called literacy test.

GROSS: One of the more dramatic moments of the civil rights movement was a march that you helped lead in 1965 of about 600 people. The march was supposed to be from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., demanding voting rights, but the marchers were stopped soon after you started marching, and you were beaten by the police. Would you talk first a little about the goal of that march?

LEWIS: In 1965, the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7th was planned to dramatize to the state of Alabama and to the nation that people of color wanted to register to vote. In Selma, you could only attempt to register to vote on the first and third Mondays of each month. You had to go down to the courthouse and get a copy of the so-called literacy test and attempt to pass the test. And people stood in line day in and day out, failing to get a copy of the test or failing to pass the test.

So after several hundred people had been arrested and people had been beaten and one young man had been shot and killed, we decided to march. And on Sunday afternoon, March 7, about 600 of us left a little church, called Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, and started walking in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion through the streets of Selma. We were walking in twos, no one saying a word. We came to the edge of the bridge crossing the Alabama River, we continued to walk. We came to the highest point on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Down below, we saw a sea of blue - Alabama state troopers. And we kept walking, and we came within hearing distance of the state troopers, and a man identified himself and said, I'm Major John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march. You will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church.

In less than a minute and a half, the major said, troopers advance. And you saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us beating us with bull whips, night sticks, trivving(ph) us with horses and releasing the tear gas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. I had a concussion there at the bridge, and almost 44 years later, I don't recall how I made it back across that bridge through the streets of Selma.

But I do recall being back at the church that Sunday afternoon. The church was full to capacity, more than 2,000 people on the outside. And someone said to me, John, say something to the audience. Speak to them. And I stood up and said something like, I don't understand it - how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Ala. to protect people who only desire to register to vote.

GROSS: What was the impact, do you think, of that march on the actual passage of the Voting Rights Act?

LEWIS: The march created a sense of righteous indignation among the American people. When they saw the photographs, when they read the stories, when they heard the news on the radio, watched it on television, they didn't like it. A few days after Bloody Sunday, there was demonstration in more than 80 American cities. At the White House, at the Department of Justice, people were demanding that the government act.

President Johnson didn't like what he saw. He called Governor Wallace, the governor of Alabama at the time, to come to Washington and tried to get assurance from the governor that he would be able to protect us if we decided to march again. The governor could not assure the president, so President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, called up part of the United States military. And eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of the Congress and made one of the most meaningful speeches any American president had made in modern time on the whole question of voting rights, and he introduced the Voting Rights Act.

And I was sitting in a home in Selma, Alabama that evening when President Johnson spoke to the nation and spoke to the Congress, sitting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And at one point in the speech, before Dr. - before President Johnson, rather, concluded the speech, he said, and we shall overcome, and we shall overcome.

I looked at Dr. King, tears came down his face, and we all cried a little to hear President Johnson say, and we shall overcome. And he said to me and to others in the room, we will make it from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act will be passed.

Finally, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, we started on the third effort to make it from Selma to Montgomery. And 300 of us marched all of the way, but by the time we walked into Montgomery, there were more than 25,000 citizens. And that effort led the Congress to debate the Voting Rights Acts and pass that act, and President Johnson signed it into law in August of 1965.

DAVIES: Congressman John Lewis speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery. One of the organizers of the march was John Lewis, who was elected to Congress in 1987. Let's get back to his interview with Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how your mindset changed to go from what your parents told you, which was don't make trouble, it's too risky, to making a lot of trouble, to leading marches, to be willing to get beaten on the head and knocked unconscious to stand up for what you felt was right?

LEWIS: When growing up, I saw segregation. I saw racial discrimination. I saw those signs that said white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting. And I didn't like it. I would ask my mother and ask my parents over and over again, why? They said, that's the way it is. Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble. I was so inspired by Rosa Parks in 1955. I was 15 years old. I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his words on an old radio. It seemed like he was saying to me, John Lewis, you too can make a contribution.

He was speaking at a church in Montgomery. And he was saying, in effect, that we must not just be concerned about the Pearly Gates and the streets with milk and honey. We have to be concerned about the streets of Montgomery and the doors of Woolworth, that we have to be concerned about jobs, about blacks working as cashiers, of people being able to try on clothing and bring down those signs.

I was so inspired by Dr. King that in 1956, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins - I was only 16 years old - we went down to the public library trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for colors. It was a public library. I never went back to that public library until July 5, 1998 - by this time I'm in the Congress - for a book signing of my book, "Walking With The Wind."

GROSS: Your memoir.

LEWIS: And they gave me a library card after the program was over. And I was inspired. I studied the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence in Nashville as a student, and I staged a sitting-in in the fall of 1959 and got arrested the first time in February 1960.

GROSS: Now, you describe the difficulty your parents had accepting the risks that you were taking as a civil rights activist. As an activist, did you find it was difficult to convince the older generation to join up with the movement? Was it easier to convince younger people than older people?

LEWIS: It was much easier to convince younger people, to convince students, whether they were high school or college students. In the South during that period, there was so much fear. There were people that were afraid to be afraid. But there were others who said, we'll hold the mass meetings, the rallies, the voter registration workshop in a church. It was this feeling, well, it's taking place in a church. It must be OK. It must be all right.

There was ministers, religious leaders, that was afraid to say anything from their pulpits because they thought, for good reason, the church could be burned down, could be bombed. So we had to do a lot of convincing. And we would go into the fields where people were working in the fields and try to convince some of the field workers. We’d go into beauty shops, to barber shops and knock on the doors of people's homes trying to get them to become participant, to get involved, to come to a rally, come to a mass meeting.

GROSS: Give me a sense of what you'd say.

LEWIS: We would say to people, you know, you've been living here for 40 years, for 50 years. Your street is not paved. You have a dirt road. You don't have clean water. If you want to change that, you must register and you must vote. You can get someone else elected. Come to a mass meeting. Come next Monday. Your neighbors are coming. Your uncle is coming. Your children are coming. You should be there. I tell people, we're going to have a march for the right to vote. Don't be afraid. You may get arrested, but a lot of other people will be getting arrested with you. And some people would be convinced, and some would not.

DAVIES: Congressman John Lewis speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. We're observing the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery. After a break, the director of the film "Selma" will tell us about recreating the violent attack on demonstrators which took place that day as the marchers attempted to reach Montgomery. And we'll hear more from attorney and activist, J. L. Chestnut, the first black lawyer in Selma. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. We're observing the 50th anniversary of the first march from Selma to Montgomery, which ended in a violent attack by Alabama state troopers on marchers demonstrating for equal voting rights, a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. It was the first of three marches which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Let's get back to Terry's 1998 interview with the late J. L. Chestnut who was in Montgomery on Bloody Sunday on behalf of the NAACP. Chestnut was the first black attorney in Selma and represented Martin Luther King and other activists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What kind of cases did you get, being the first black lawyer in Selma?

CHESTNUT: Yeah, let me give you some flavor of what was going on there. There were only 150 blacks registered to vote out of a pool of about 15,000. Not one black, not one in the entire state of Alabama, had ever served on a jury. No blacks had jobs downtown except as delivery people or janitors, and a black person could literally lose his or her life for not yielding a sidewalk or saying sir or ma'am to white person.

Fear was everywhere. It engulfed Selma, and it engulfed the South. Now, that is the Selma, the South that I went back to to practice law.

GROSS: You make an interesting point in your book. You say that - we know, when you started as a lawyer, there was no Voting Rights Act. There was no Civil Rights Act, so a lot of injustices couldn't be taken to court.

CHESTNUT: What we hoped to do was to make new law. We didn't expect to win at that level. The NAACP, at that point, were financing a lot of criminal cases which were pregnant with the possibility of establishing some of the laws we have on the books now, the Miranda thing, where the police had to read to you your rights and all of that.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

CHESTNUT: And the South was fertile territory for that because just being black in the South made one vulnerable to the police and all of their excesses, and many of them were untrained, and in their relationships with blacks, unrestrained. So we were trying to get cases to the United States Supreme Court that would deal with the - whether confession was voluntary. Eventually, we did and changed the law in that subject.

GROSS: What was your reaction as a, quote, "local" when Martin Luther King came to organize in Selma in 1965?

CHESTNUT: Well, I had been somewhat ambivalent about all of the Civil Rights leaders there. I felt that what they were saying was directed more at the masses than at me. After all, I had two degrees, too, and I was educated. And Martin had views which ran counter to everything I'd learned in law school. For an example, he insisted that he had a high moral right to disobey an unjust law, and he would make the determination when the law was unjust. That is not what I learned in law school. That wasn’t what I believed in. I felt that you go to court to get a law declared unconstitutional. I wasn't quite sure about all this unjust businesses. That's not the terminology that lawyers use.

In addition to that, Martin was always trying to get me to give up my weapon and calling me a man of little faith. And I was telling him that, you go ahead and preach to the masses, but I'm not paying you any attention. I'm going to keep my weapon because it can bark here and bite way down the street, and Martin would laugh.

But I knew that his presence in Selma meant that more people like my mother, middle class blacks, would become involved, that Martin's presence gave a legitimacy to the movement that it otherwise would not have. Also, as long as he was involved, important and powerful white people in Washington would be watching. So he meant everything to the movement.

GROSS: Did you ever get more comfortable with civil disobedience as a tactic for Civil Rights?

CHESTNUT: I was finally convinced that Martin was correct, and the people who were paying me were incorrect. It is not generally known, but you take Bloody Sunday - that started out of a situation where a young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot dead by the state trooper. People were so frustrated and all that. They came out with a grotesque idea of just taking Jimmie's body and marching 50 miles to Montgomery and putting the body on George Wallace's desk.

And, of course, that was not done, but it was agreed to make the march to Montgomery. What is not generally known is, while they were putting the people in the streets, they were not paying for that. The NAACP Legal Defense fund in New York was financing that. And they were a legalistic organization. That's who I worked for. Their view was that you take two or three obviously qualified people, send them down to get registered, and when they are turned down, you go into court. You've got a perfect case. Martin was repudiating all that by sending 500 people down because he said he wanted to win in the court of public opinion. He was not interested just in adding a few more voters to the voters' voting roles in Selma. So I eventually came around to the point of view that he was correct and my bosses were not.

GROSS: I'd like to get back now to something you said earlier when we were talking about Martin Luther King. You said that one of the things he wanted you to do is to give up your weapon, and that you're unwilling to do that. It was a gun.

CHESTNUT: That's right.

GROSS: You write that you actually gave up your gun the night Martin Luther King was assassinated.

CHESTNUT: I did. I threw it in the river.

GROSS: But why?

CHESTNUT: Well, that was my deep feeling over Martin. I stayed down there on that river, under the same bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, crying for about 30 minutes and reflected on it, that my kind of weapon certainly had not saved Martin. It didn't save Jimmie Lee Jackson. I couldn't think of anything it had done for me, really. And I'd seen John Lewis stare down a whole regiment of state troopers and sheriffs, and he had no weapon. And the things that had been brought about, the changes that had occurred in Selma and in the South, had not come at the end of any gun. So as a tribute to my friend who had given his life in Memphis, I threw it away and watched it sink in the river, and I felt better.

GROSS: Had you ever used it? What did you want it to do for you when you had the gun?

CHESTNUT: Oh, just for self-protection. I was not going to attack anybody, but if they came to get me, I would be ready. You know, Martin Luther King was preoccupied with death, a foreboding all the time. And he said more than once that they are going to come for us, each one of us, and we won't be back, and I believed him. The only difference is, I had a weapon, and I had intended to take some with me.

GROSS: When the Voting Rights Act was actually passed, what were the immediate effects in Selma?

CHESTNUT: The immediate effect was that within six weeks - in a six-week span, we went from about 200 registered voters to 9,000. People who could not vote, had no voice in their government, in a matter of six weeks, became very important players.

But we saw immediate impact of that in the court room. Blacks began to show up on juries. White politicians had to temper what they said about blacks, and some blacks began to feel that they could run for office. Where there had been hopelessness, we now had hope. Where we felt - I certainly felt that all we could really hope for was to make some adjustments around the edges in the economic sphere or maybe get enough votes to keep - to getting the white policemen out of black Selma - I saw now that we could do much more than that, that blacks could really sit on governments and pass laws that affected both black and white people. America began to develop some meaning for me.

DAVIES: Civil rights attorney and activist, J. L. Chestnut, speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. Chestnut died in 2008 at the age of 77. Coming up, we hear from Ava DuVernay, who directed the film, "Selma." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery which was a turning point in the struggle to establish equal voting rights. The movie "Selma," which dramatizes the march as well as other efforts of Martine Luther King Jr. and civil rights leaders to fight for voting rights, came out last year and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Our guest, Ava DuVernay, directed the film and rewrote the original screenplay she was given. Until now, DuVernay was best known for directing small independent films. "Selma" is bigger in scope and budget. Oprah Winfrey is one of the producers of "Selma" and plays the part of Annie Lee Cooper, a voting rights activist who was prevented from registering several times. In this scene, she's trying again, but faces what many Blacks in the South faced at the time, a difficult civics test designed to prevent African Americans from voting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

CLAY CHAPPELL: (As registrar) You work for Mr. Dunn down at the rest home, ain't that right?

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) Yes, sir.

CHAPPELL: (As registrar) I wonder what old Dunn will say when I tell him one of his gal's down here's stirring a fuss.

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) I ain't stirring no fuss. I'm just here trying to register to vote.

CHAPPELL: (As registrar) Recite the Constitution's preamble. Know what a preamble is?

WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union...

CHAPPELL: (As registrar) How many county judges in Alabama?

WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) Sixty-seven.

CHAPPELL: (As registrar) Name them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: And that bang that you hear at the end is the sound of Annie Lee Cooper's application to register to vote being stamped denied. Ava Duvernay, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your movie, "Selma," starts with Martin Luther King getting dressed for the ceremony at which he will receive the Nobel Peace Prize because of his efforts as a peaceful civil rights activist. Typically in biopics, the rest of the film would be a flashback telling us about the remarkable achievements that led to that point of him receiving the Nobel. But your film keeps moving forward.

And it's just horrible to see that even after he gets the Nobel, Black people are being turned away at the polls in the South and beaten by the police if they peacefully protest for the right to vote. And I'd like you to talk about deciding on the structure of the film, you know, deciding to start with this, like, high point of recognition from around the world, and then going back into the trenches of where black people still have few rights.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, that's really exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to show his place on the world stage at that moment, at the beginning of "Selma," you know? At the end of 1964, he accepted the Nobel Prize, and he was lauded by heads of state and royalty. And he came home, and he didn't have an appointment to even see the president in the White House. They came back home, you know, found themselves back where they were when they left.

And so at that moment, he had options. He could have done any number of things, not the least of which being invited to work with Johnson in some capacity within his administration. But he chose to go back and work with the people and remain with the SCLC and have that independent spirit, that independent voice around his activism, which is something that just always fascinated me because at that point, he had been in the movement for a decade and, you know, had been the subject of death threats and an assassination attempt, a stabbing. He had been beaten. I mean, he'd been - his family had been terrorized. I mean, it was a good moment where he could've probably stepped out if he was a lesser man, but he didn't.

GROSS: Ava, I'm sure you spoke to a lot of people who gave you first person accounts of what happened on Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You weren't used to staging violent scenes. Your films have been small, independent character films. So how did you stage this demonstration in which a lot of people get hurt, while at the same time, protecting the actors from getting hurt?

DUVERNAY: Yes. Well, I'm an independent filmmaker, and our forte is people in rooms.

(LAUGHTER)

DUVERNAY: So I had no experience with working on bridges with 500 extras and green screen and firearms and horses, and it was a massive production on that bridge and every time we were staging a march. But I just approached it in the same way that I approach any scene. What is the story here? And if you go into an action scene focused on the tear gas and the horses and all of the bells and whistles of the scene, and you miss the heart of the scene - because the horses aren't the story, and the tear gas is not the story. It's the heart of the matter, the look on the marchers' faces as the horses raced towards them, the horror, the terror, the thought on someone's face that this is it. This is how it will end for me. That feeling is what I went into these scenes with every day.

GROSS: Having never directed a scene like that before - a violent confrontation in which, you know, police are attacking peaceful demonstrators - what did you do to make sure no one was going to get hurt?

DUVERNAY: Well, we have our safety on set - I mean, you know, the stunt team, the medics, the standard things that should be done on any set. But there was also, you know, a question of emotional safety because we were asking people, you know - all of our extras were from this place. I mean, we didn't bring in extras from Hollywood. We didn't bring in extras from Atlanta. We were in Selma, Ala., staging these scenes, so extras were from the surrounding communities and Selma.

I mean, this history is very much a part of the DNA of that place. And so you're asking white citizens currently living there who may not feel, and do not feel, the way that we're asking them to feel on screen, to yell expletives, to hit their fellow community members, to yell and scream vile things. And you're asking, you know, the black citizens of that place to experience that and take it in. And that was really top of mind for me to make sure that there was a meeting of the minds there, that there was a real understanding of what we were doing and why because that emotional safety was also very important, that we were all clear.

GROSS: By the way, you know, you mentioned that the Edmund Pettus Bridge was named after - was it the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan? Has the name of the bridge been changed?

DUVERNAY: No. Nope. It's still the good old Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was a Confederate general and, yes, KKK Grand Dragon of the time around when it was built. And so regrettably, that is still the name of that bridge.

GROSS: You know, your film really gets us to think about all that was on Martin Luther King's shoulders. I mean, not only, like, the whole movement, but the lives of the people in it. And, you know, when you're leading a march and deciding to move forward, it's kind of on you in some ways. And so, I mean, there was so much on his shoulders. And he was so young.

DUVERNAY: So young, so young.

GROSS: It's like, the older you get, the younger he gets.

(LAUGHTER)

DUVERNAY: That's right. That's right. That's right. You know...

GROSS: He was 39 when he died.

DUVERNAY: I feel like - 39. I mean, I feel like a young woman, and I'm older than Dr. King was when he died. I mean, he was 36 when he led these marches that we're talking about. I mean, John Lewis was 23 years old. It's incredible, you know, how young they were. The oldest guy hanging around was, like, 40. But as you say, I mean, even with our poster for the film, it was important to me, and the reason why I love that image that we have on the poster is, you stand behind King as you look at the poster. You know, it's a picture of the back of Dr. King. It's head and shoulders, and beyond him, you see a line of state troopers. And you are a marcher. You stand behind him. And, you know, just to think about the weight on his shoulders. I mean, not only was he leading a grassroots movement, you know, you had legislative proceedings that were happening that he was involved with. He was appealing and lobbying to the White House. He had personal concerns that were happening. Coretta was back home being threatened daily with the children. I mean, that weight - and then the daily threats to his life. But, you know, the thing that really struck me about this time and the research and reading and talking to people, was really that this was the first time that folks died directly on King's watch. You know, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo - these deaths happened in a three-month period under his watch, during, you know, the tactics that he was directing and approving and advocating for. And that - that was a real weight because for the first time, you know - of course there'd been many deaths throughout the movement, but this one was directly related to the very campaign that he was heading, very specifically. And that, you know, is unimaginable pressure and guilt. We worked a lot on that guilt, that weight, that fog of death, as we say in the film.

DAVIES: Ava DuVernay directed the film, "Selma," which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the film, "'71," about the troubles in Northern Ireland. This is FRESH AIR.

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