OPINION: Myron Pitts: Selma 'was a formative experience'

Posted at 3:21 PM, Jan 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-16 15:01:12-05

Leave it to Chuck Fager, who for more than a decade cut a unique figure in the city's politics and culture, to have an interesting take on the celebrated new civil rights movie, "Selma."

Fager, who lives in Durham, formerly ran Fayetteville's Quaker House and is a pacifist who took part in the Selma movement. He spoke as part of a panel discussion after a preview of the film aired.

Fager opened remarks by saying the film was somewhat unfair, to, of all people, segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Wallace gave the go-ahead in the movie for state troopers to violently break up the first march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a decision that led to "Bloody Sunday." Fager said Wallace had been double-crossed by law enforcement officials who ignored the governor's instructions.

I found it fascinating that Fager — who was on the opposite side of nearly everything Wallace stood for in 1965 — felt the need to clear the governor's name.

But I also think Fager prides himself on being honest, even when the truth is uncomfortable.

He noted, for example, that the film, as well as his recently updated book, "Selma 65: The March that Changed the South," both had happy endings. They ended with passage of the Voting Rights Act that stopped discrimination against black voters.

But Fager has been back to Selma and says things are not so great. The city has a majority black city council and black city council president but remains one of the state's poorest.

Later, I read that Selma does not even have a first-run movie house to show the film named for it; special arrangements had to be made for a local viewing.

Fager says the financial fortunes for the folks of Selma illustrate the larger point that President Lyndon Baines Johnson was right to try to fight a war against poverty, as well as tackling voting rights (Fager believes the movie miscast LBJ as hostile to civil rights.)

As for the war on poverty, Fager concludes, "He lost."

Fager arrived in Selma in January of 1965. He marched in the second Selma march — the one in which Martin Luther King Jr. prayed and decided to turn back out of concern for the marchers. Fager says he remembers helping the marchers who came back bruised and battered from Bloody Sunday. Fager said the movie depicted his landlady, Amelia Boynton, played by Lorraine Toussaint.

He describes himself as a junior lieutenant of King's and said a high moment in his life was when he was in jail with King, Ralph Abernathy and another rights worker.

A woman asked Fager why he got involved in Selma. He suggested that a series of "stupid" and fortunate circumstances led him to Selma.

"It was a formative experience for me."
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