The Real Historical Figures Behind the Movie ‘Selma’

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Trivial Diversions

The Real Historical Figures Behind the Movie ‘Selma’

The Real Historical Figures Behind the Movie ‘Selma’


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was probably the most famous and influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He dedicated his life to the nonviolent pursuit of equal rights.


Coretta Scott King

King was not only at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement along with her husband, but she was active in the Women’s and LGBT movements as well. After Dr. King’s death, she worked to preserve and continue his legacy.


The Four Little Girls

The film opens with the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young black girls. This travesty was generally considered a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.


Annie Lee Cooper

Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey in the film) had previously lived in, and been registered to vote in, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, but when she moved to Alabama to care for her elderly mother, she tried several times to register and was denied each time. Her boss was so angry at her attempts that he fired her. On January 25, 1965, she joined the march on the Selma courthouse, where Sheriff Jim Clark pushed her aside and almost knocked her down. The 53-year-old Cooper snapped at him, “Don’t jerk me like that.” Clark then backhanded Cooper and she, in return punched the sheriff. It took three deputies to handcuff her.


President Lyndon Johnson

The portrayal of President Johnson has been the biggest criticism of the film “Selma.” Johnson’s former aide has come out as saying the president worked closely and cooperatively with King, and was fully supportive of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


J. Edgar Hoover

No one, though, is saying the film took any liberties with Hoover’s portrayal. The man used his position at the FBI to harass and silence activists, gather information on foreign (and domestic) leaders, and spy on basically anyone he deemed necessary.



John Lewis

Lewis was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966. He’s was the youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders, and the only of them still living. He has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987.


Andrew Young

Young was instrumental in the Selma movement, and went on to later become the mayor of Atlanta, a UN ambassador, and a Georgia Congressman.


Bayard Rustin

Rustin was once called “the Socrates of the civil rights movement.” He never headed an organization, like so many of his peers, preferring to remain behind the scenes. During WWII, Rustin was arrested for militant pacifism. He was also openly gay and in 1986 delivered a speech in which he declared gay rights to be the new civil rights issue: “Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “n—–” are gays…. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change…. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”


Ralph Abernathy

Reverend Abernathy was a close colleague of Dr. King, co-leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma march, the SCLC Poor People’s Campaign, and a number of other events.


James Orange

Standing over 6’3″, Andrew Young once called Orange “a gentle giant.” In the early 1960s, he quit his job as a chef to work as a field organizer for the movement.


James Bevel

Portrayed in the film by actor/rapper Common, Bevel played an essential role in organizing and executing three of theSouthern Christian Leadership Conference’s major events of the movement: the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, and the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement. He was also one of the initial organizers of the 1963 March on Washington.


Diane Nash

A major student organizer of the Civil Rights Movement, Nash played a large role in the first attempts to integrate lunch counters, the historical Freedom Riders movement, and she co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.


Amelia Boynton

Amelia Platts was born in 1911 in Savannah, Georgia, and met Dr. and Coretta Scott King in Montgomery, Alabama. In the 1930s she registered to vote and wrote a play about the creation of spiritual music, using the proceeds tohelp fund a community center in Selma.  In 1990, Robinson was awarded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Medal.


Jimmie Lee Jackson

In one of the most harrowing moments in the film, as well as a real-life turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, Jimmie Lee Jackson, along with his mother and grandfather, fled a march after police began to beat the protestors. The three were followed into a nearby café by Alabama State Troopers, who beat them and shot Jimmie Lee to death. In 2010, the trooper who confessed to pulling the trigger was finally convicted of manslaughter.



Reverend C.T. Vivian

Reverend Vivian was a close friend and colleague of Dr. King, participating in many historic events of the movement and helping to found various civil rights organizations. He currently lives in Atlanta.


Reverend Hosea Williams

Williams was Dr. King’s chief field lieutenant in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King at times referred to Williams as his “Castro.” He also called him a “bull in a china closet.”


Richie Jean and Sullivan Jackson

The Jacksons created a safe haven for the leaders and organizers of the Selma movement, offering their home as a headquarters and home base.


Sheriff Jim Clark

Clark was appointed Sheriff of Selma in 1955, and remained staunchly and violently opposed to integration and black civil rights in general. He was voted out of office in the first election following the passage of the Voter Registration Act. He then turned to selling mobile homes until he was convicted of conspiracy to smuggle marijuana out of Colombia. He served nine months in prison in the 1970s and died in 2007.


Governor George Wallace

Wallace was the segregationist governor of Alabama from 1963–1967, 1971–1979 and 1983–1987. He ran for President and lost four times, solidifying his legacy as “the most influential loser” of 20th Century politics.


James Reeb

38-year-old Reeb was an American Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who traveled to Selma when Dr. King put out a call for support. While in Selma, he was beaten severely and died in the hospital two days later.


Viola Liuzzo

Liuzzo was another Unitarian Universalist activist who traveled to Selma to add her support to the voting movement. She participated in the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, and was then shot by Ku Klux Klan members while driving an African American man in Selma.


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