edmund pettus bridge

'Selma's David Oyelowo on Playing MLK and What It Means to Be a Christian

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 'Selma.' Photo courtesy Selma Movie on Facebook.

“I do know the voice of God.”

That’s what David Oyelowo, the actor who beautifully portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the new film Selma, told me last night. It’s that voice, he said, that called him to play the role.

I was at the December preview of Selma in Washington, D.C., and then took my family to see it at an early showing on Christmas day. I sometimes respond emotionally to films, but Selma made we weep. It also made me grateful that for the first time in 50 years, a big studio had finally made a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the people in the movement around him in Selma. I believe this movie, unlike most others, could actually change the nation’s conversation about race and reconciliation at a crucial time, perhaps even providentially.

On the premiere night, I met David Oyelowo, who spoke publically after the film about his faith. I don’t hear that kind of talk very much in D.C., but David was open and forthright, saying that playing the great Christian leader became part of his personal calling as a Christian.

In our conversation afterward, I asked David what he meant by those words. His answer prompted me to ask for an interview with him before the film, which debuts this weekend, came out. He and I talked last night (listen to the full interview below).

Watch the Vote: Supreme Court Effectively Kills Voting Rights Act

Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Demonstrator outside the Supreme Court on Monday, Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Today is a dark day in our nation’s history. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, rendering the 48-year-old legislation impotent to protect citizens from voter suppression. Section 4 lists the states that must obtain “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before instituting changes to their voter laws. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Only 48 years ago, on March 7, 1965, men, women, and children absorbed blasts of water, bone-crushing blows from police batons, and profound humiliation as Selma, Ala., police dragged limp black bodies over concrete on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They had assembled on that day, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” to march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of voter suppression and intimidation that had plagued the entire South. Ten days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress. The bill passed in the Senate on May 26 by a vote of 77 – 19 and passed in the House on July 9 of that year. President Johnson signed the Act into law with Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and others present on August 6.

Flash forward to Fall 2012. I launched a blog series called “Watch the Vote” because, as of August 2012, 30 states had introduced legislation or enacted laws to hinder voters’ access to voting over the previous year. The Fair Elections Legal Network crafted this map to chart the spread of legal voter suppression initiatives across the nation. Notice, Alabama is one of the states that has recently passed voter restriction law that has not been precleared by the Department of Justice. Its new law, requiring photo ID and proof of citizenship, was set to take effect in 2014 before the Supreme Court ruled last week that Arizona’s voter ID law, which Alabama used as a model for its own, is unconstitutional.

Alabama Civil Rights Site Declared National Historic Landmark

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

On March 7, 1965, 600 people began a march toward Montgomery, Ala., from Brown Chapel AME in Selma. The group, let by civil rights activists like now-Congressman John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams, were stopped by state troopers on horseback. When the marchers refused to back away — standing their ground on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — the troopers attacked, beating, trampling, and tear gassing the participants.

Today, that bridge made famous on Bloody Sunday, was declared at National Historic Landmark, along with 12 other sites, by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Congressman John Lewis Tells the Story of the March from Selma to Montgomery (VIDEO)

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners for the Faith and Politics Institute

Congressman John Lewis speaks on the road to Birmingham. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

This past weekend, The Faith and Politics Institute led a three-day Congressional trip to visit Civil Rights landmarks across Alabama — from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Montgomery to Selma. It was an incredibly moving, emotionally exhausting, soul-quenching pilgrimage as we journeyed along with heroes of the Civil Rights movement and experienced their stories. 

One such hero is Congressman John Lewis. A highlight of the trip for me is recorded at the jump. 

Joe Biden, John Lewis, and the Long Road to Reconciliation

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners for the Faith and Politics Institute

Delegation sings 'We Shall Overcome' hand-in-hand at the Civil Rights Memorial in Birmingham, Ala. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

This year marks a long list of anniversaries in our nation's long march for civil rights: We now mark 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; and 50 years since the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the March on Washington, the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls, and the murder of Medgar Evers in his driveway.

In remembrance of the sacred journey, The Faith and Politics Institute's Civil Rights Pilgrimage drew more than 250 people, including 30 members of Congress, for a three-day tour of civil rights landmarks and first-hand testimonies from the movement's leaders. Throughout the pilgrimage — moving from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Montgomery to Selma — the delegation learned, grew, and continued the conversation together: white and black, Republican and Democrat, man and woman, senior and child. We all returned to Washington, D.C., and to our homes across the country, with a renewed sense of responsibility for the common good.

A number of events made the term 'reconciliation' mean more than the definition I had somehow created for myself over the past 30 years. Reconciliation is calling the person who beat and humiliated you 'brother.' Reconciliation is sharing a platform, sharing a deeply intertwined story — and sharing an authentic embrace — with the offspring of your parents' enemies. 

[Photo Gallery at the jump.]

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