Human rights on an aeroplane

Travelling back from Nicaragua yesterday, separated by fitful sleep, I watched two films that focused on the struggle for rights or, more simply, human dignity.

The first was Selma that tells the story of the march on Montgomery, the struggle over which finally persuaded LBJ to propose, and pass, the Voting Rights Act. Johnson is played by the brilliant (English) actor Tom Wilkinson as an all too human figure, a machine politician, hyper aware of the complexities of office and constrained by disparate forces who finally seizes the opportunity to do the right thing. The opportunity was constructed by the flawed moral crusader that was Martin Luther King. Flawed because equally all too human, though his weakness was for the opposite sex, and who, like LBJ, had to navigate the complexities of the possible.

In order to 'win' he needed a confrontation - and there is a great moment in the film when a prior failure to find confrontation had led to the abandonment of the struggle in a particular community. Its sheriff, unlike that of Selma, had handled the situation with kid gloves - no confrontation, no drama, no press. Selma's sheriff was different - nasty and brutal - egged on by George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, he repels the first march on the bridge, leading to Alabama's capital, brutally, enabling King to seize his moment and appeal for support from every sector of society, black and white. They come -most especially ministers of religion and habited nuns. In the next confrontation, the authorities give way - beating or tear gassing (white) nuns was a step too far. The march, with legal sanction, goes ahead. The drama has unfolded on national television (indeed the first violent confrontation interrupts normal programming and the brutal beating arrives in 70 million living rooms) and voting rights are won.

The second was Pride that tells the story of a group of lesbians and gays that supported a south Wales mining community during the prolonged, one year strike, in the 1980s where the miners confronted Margaret Thatcher's government and lost. It was a traumatic moment whose repercussions in bitterness (not everyone striked and the police were used to the boundaries, and beyond, of legality) and subsequent pit closures and economic decline. Unlike Selma, the story is told with comic edges - which the social incongruities give rise too, as metropolitan London gay culture encounters South Wales close knit mining community. However, they find solidarity in a shared sense of oppression and marginalisation. It was too, of course, a period that overlapped with my own life - the Gay's the Word bookshop, where much of the London centred action unfolds, was down the road from the very university residence I was living in at the time! If I had only known!

I found myself thinking would Luther King, had he lived (and he was murdered in the year 'gay rights' was born at Stonewell) have embraced the cause - good Southern baptist as he was? He would undoubtedly have sided with the miners - the oppressions of poverty (and Vietnam) were growing causes towards the end of his life - but with the gays? You would like to think so but our ability to draw boundaries around 'rights', even around a common participation in the human, are strong. Famously Bartolome de las Casas, the Dominican friar and founder of human rights theory, began by defending the native American by proposing their enslavement be replaced by that of black Africans (sic). A position he thankfully abandoned in horrified regret at his lapse. Meanwhile only last week the Vatican's Secretary of State responded to the recent marriage referendum in Ireland as a 'disaster for humanity' (which, apart from being ridiculously hyperbolic, shows a similar contextual inability to fully embrace the human).

But both films, optimistically, describe how far it is we can travel, and that as long as we live our character is not fixed (though that can be a double edged sword). In 'Selma', there is a cameo appearance by Malcolm X, himself a few weeks from assassination, who has surrendered his dichotomising racial speech for a new message, still in the making, rooted in his own pilgrimage to Mecca and his recognition that every person belongs to Allah, irrespective of race.

Meanwhile, the 1985 Gay Pride march in London was led by miners, reciprocating the support they had received, and at a future Labour Party conference ensuring that gay rights appeared for the first time in a major party's manifesto in the UK after which the rest (as they as they say) has been history.

Even as they are salutary reminders of the necessity and costliness of struggle that social change can require yet they are reminders that it can be achieved without violence and by increasing, not lessening, the circle of your empathy to very unlikely alliances - a Southern white politician and a black preacher, a gay activist and a South Wales miner


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