In Selma we look back at the 1965 campaign by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to secure equal voting rights for African-American citizens. That political battle was waged in the deep south, where King organized marches from the town of Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in protest of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s hesitation on voting rights legislation. Looking behind the curtain of history, we learn more about the political obstacles and negotiations King had to navigate in order to realize his agenda – including compromises within his own political, racial, and religious affiliations in order to achieve a greater good. Probing even deeper, we learn more about the toll that being an icon of Civil Rights took on Martin the man, his family and marriage. In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King attend the ceremony in Oslo, Norway, where he accepts his Nobel Peace Prize. Four young girls are then shown walking down the inside steps of a church, talking. An explosion goes off, killing all four girls and injuring others. In Selma, Alabama, Annie Lee Cooper is shown filling out a form to become a registered voter.
The white registrar asks her increasingly difficult questions about federal and state government. She answers correctly. He finally gives her one that nobody could answer, and her application is rejected. Dr. King meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson concerning black citizens not being allowed to register to vote. King tells Johnson that white registrars are illegally denying registration forms from the black community, and points out the senseless acts of violence against them. King then asks for federal legislation which would allow black citizens to register to vote unencumbered, but Johnson responds that he has more important things on his mind.
King travels to Selma with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Diane Nash. Reverend James Bevel comes to the car to greet the group as they arrive, and other SCLC civil rights activists appear. As they talk to Dr. King while he signs into a local hotel a young white man approaches and punches Dr. King in the mouth. President Johnson and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover talk about the incident. Hoover thinks King is becoming a problem, and suggests that they cause friction at Dr. King’s home to weaken the marriage dynamic. Coretta shows reservations over her husband’s upcoming actions in Selma, and concern for her family’s well-being. Late that night King calls a friend, singer Mahalia Jackson, to help him reach out and hear the Lord’s voice and Jackson sings a gospel song to him.
King speaks before a congregation of other civil rights activists and hopeful voters to rouse up their spirits. Their plan is to march to the voter’s registration office to nonviolently ask to register, despite knowing that the authorities will not allow them to do so. King and the other activists march through Selma before a crowd of anti-civil rights townspeople. After a tense confrontation in front of the courthouse between movement activists and Selma law enforcement, a shoving match and fight ensues as the police go into the crowd. Annie Lee Cooper fights back and knocks Sheriff Jim Clark to the ground. This leads to the arrest of Cooper, King, and other movement activists.
Governor George Wallace speaks out against the movement. Johnson hears about the incident in Selma and King’s arrest, and is infuriated. Coretta meets with Malcolm X, who has come to Selma even though he disagrees with King’s and SCLC’s nonviolent movements, and he offers to be an alternative voice for the black community in order to show the white community what they will get if the nonviolent movement does not achieve its goals. When Coretta visits her husband in jail and tells him about her meeting with Malcolm X, King is displeased, since Malcolm X has derided him in the past. Wallace meets with Col. Al Lingo to discuss the overall situation, and they eventually decide to use force at an upcoming night march in Marion, Alabama. At the night event the streetlights are turned off, and Alabama State Troopers brutally assault the marchers on the streets. A small group of protesters run into a restaurant to hide, and pretend to be ordering a meal.
State troopers rush in, and soon coldly shoot an unarmed young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, as Jackson tries to protect his mother, who herself is trying to protect her father who is being beaten. King and Bevel meet with Cager Lee, Jackson’s grandfather, at the morgue where they look at Jimmie Lee Jackson’s body through a window. King is then shown giving a speech where he states that the people will continue to fight for their freedom and their rights, and that everybody who is standing idly by and letting these killings occur is partially responsible for Jackson’s death. The Kings receive threats at home from people that say they will harm their children. King comes under scrutiny from members of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), who think King is not doing enough to help the cause.
The Selma to Montgomery march is about to take place. King is in Atlanta and won’t be attending the March, and talks by phone to Andrew Young about cancelling the March, but Young reasons with him and King agrees that the march should go forward. The marchers, including John Lewis of SNCC, Hosea Williams of SCLC, and local activist Amelia Boynton, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and approach a line of armed troopers. The troopers tell them to turn back. They do not do so, the troopers charge, and, using clubs, horses, tear gas and other weapons, attack the marchers. Lewis and Boynton are among those badly injured.
This event is shown on national television, and is seen by Johnson and Wallace. The wounded are treated inside and on the street in front of the movements headquarter church. With the first Selma to Montgomery march stopped, attorney Fred Gray asks federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson to let the march go forward. He refuses until a hearing is held. President Johnson, fed up with the situation, demands that both King and Wallace stop their actions. Johnson sends John Doar to meet with King to convince him to postpone the second march from Selma to Montgomery, but King declines.
A number of white citizens, including Viola Liuzzo and several clergymen, travel to Selma to join the next march. The marchers are shown crossing the bridge again, and, at the top of the bridge, they see the state troopers, who are lined up as before, turn aside to let them pass. King, after praying, leads the group away from the bridge. King once again comes under fire from SNCC activists who feel that they’ve just missed their best chance for success. That evening a white supporter, Rev. James Reeb, is beaten and murdered by two white men on the street outside a local restaurant. Eventually, King and other SCLC activists attend Judge Johnson’s hearing, and, after testimony by Cager Lee and others, Johnson rules in favor of allowing the march. President Johnson is shown speaking before a joint session of Congress, laying out the reasons why Congress should quickly pass a bill to eliminate restrictions on voting for the black community. Johnson also praises the courage of the involved activists, and proclaims in his speech “We shall overcome”.
The marchers gather for the final march to Montgomery. The scene is juxtaposed with footage of the actual 1965 march. When the 54-mile five-day march reaches Montgomery Dr. King speaks on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. As he continues his speech on-screen text about the film’s real life counterparts is shown, including the fact that Viola Liuzzo will be shot and killed a few hours later while driving another marcher back to Selma. King concludes his speech by saying that freedom is coming closer, thanks to the grace of the Lord.