'Selma' we all have small parts but together we have a large impact

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act. In honor of the occasion, I stepped out to see the critically acclaimed film "Selma." The movie offers a hard and close look at our nation's struggle to advance civil rights. When the lights came on at the end of the movie, most of the audience was clutching tissues.

"Selma" compels you talk about the ideas it expresses. My husband and I stopped for coffee afterward and discussed Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, the past year's tragic events in Ferguson and Staten Island, and recent terror attacks in Paris and Nigeria. The movie reminded us that human beings can treat each other abominably. And, despite the hope Dr. King and his contemporaries inspired, the movie underscores the incremental and fragile nature of change. I live in a world where intolerance can lead someone to bomb a church, injuring four little girls. I felt small.

Only on the car ride home from the movie did I begin to think about other aspects of the film - including its portrayal of our profession. The judicial system plays an important, albeit limited, role in the movie.

For those whose history (like mine) may be rusty, the film follows the story of three planned Selma to Montgomery marches, organized in 1965 and to protest the disenfranchisement of African-American voters. The first march ended disastrously, with state troopers attacking the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. It's hard to watch on film; I cannot imagine having to live it.

After the first march, the protesters turned to the court for assistance, seeking to enjoin the state from "arresting, harassing, threatening, or in any way interfering with their peaceful, nonviolent march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama." Cuba Gooding Jr. plays civil rights attorney Fred Gray who, among others, represented the plaintiffs in District Court. Gray succeeded. The judge permitted the march and enjoined the state, including the governor, from "failing to provide adequate police protection" during the march. Williams v. Wallace, 240 F. Supp. 100, 109 (M.D. Ala. 1965). The judge did not mince words - his order highlighted the abominable voter registration statistics for African-Americans in Alabama ("In Hale County, where [African-American] citizens of voting age outnumber white citizens, only 3.6 percent of these [African-American] citizens have been registered to vote"), as well as the state troopers' brutal attack on the marchers ("The [African-American marchers] were then prodded, struck, beaten and knocked down by members of the Alabama State Troopers"). The film shows the bravery that each individual needed to summon to stand up against racism in 1965 Alabama, including the lawyer and the Judge. The decision's existence is itself an endorsement of the lifetime judicial appointment.

While the film showcases the judiciary's role in protecting individual rights, it simultaneously exposes our legal system's limitations. The protesters fought for federal legislation because the existing legal framework did not protect each citizen's right to vote. The county courthouses were instruments of oppression. In the film, the clerk subjected African-Americans attempting to register to a litany of questions, demanding that applicants recite the preamble of the U.S. Constitution and name all 67 Alabama county judges.

The fight for legislation, as a prerequisite to litigation, reminded me that courts can only enforce the laws on the books. We can represent any client we like in court, but without the right laws on the books, we can't always help. And, as officers of the courts, we play a role that supports and reinforces existing power structures. No matter what their personal politics, officers of the court work in a conservative branch of the government. If lawyers are able to bring about change, it's through litigation, usually on behalf of a single entity - a slow means of effecting change. Even great reversals in legal precedent require reading old directives in new light. The judiciary has limited discretion to create its world view out of new cloth. I started to feel small again, but I think this was the director's point.

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Sybil Dunlop is a partner at Greene Espel. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at sdunlop@greeneespel.com.

Published: Tue, Jan 27, 2015

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