Saturday’s gathering of two local church congregations – one predominantly African-American, the other mainly white – in a Charlotte movie theater wouldn’t have been likely 50 years ago.
But more than 150 members of the Park Church and Myers Park United Methodist came together Saturday afternoon for a screening of the civil rights-era film “Selma,” followed by a panel discussion about race relations in Charlotte and nationwide.
The movie depicts the efforts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists in 1965 Alabama, who helped orchestrate the Selma-to-Montgomery march in an effort to secure legislation to reinforce their right to vote.
The Park’s Bishop Claude Alexander emphasized that characters depicted in the film were ordinary people who took steps of individual courage to “unknowingly, unwittingly” change the nation and the world.
“Fifty years ago, we wouldn’t be in this theater together,” he said. “The only way some things get done is when we come together.”
The event, which was hosted by the Park, is part of a national campaign called Selma Hand-in-Hand, meant to bring together congregations of all denominations and ethnicities to discuss themes of reconciliation seen in the film.
Other local panel members included Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, Myers Park United Methodist’s the Rev. James Howell, attorney James Ferguson and Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Peter Wherry. WBTV’s Steve Crump acted as moderator.
The movie brought back very strong memories and tears for Counts-Scoggins, who at age 15 in 1957 was one of the first black students to attend Charlotte’s Harding High School. Now, too few young people seem to have an idea of the struggle others endured “to get where we are,” she said.
Counts-Scoggins said she was encouraged by the number of parents who brought their children to the film screening and asked that others make it a required assignment for their kids to see the movie.
The audience applauded loudly when Ferguson called Counts-Scoggins a hero, and he said it was a tremendous act of courage to enter a high school where she was met with jeers, picket signs and spat upon by people throwing rocks, bricks and cans.
“Today we take that for granted,” he said of the right to attend any school, noting that the right to vote was another freedom that was hard-won. “I hope this film tells us what we saw is not a thing of the past,” Ferguson said.
Hope, love, struggle, sacrifice and service were the elements that helped affect change then, and can still lead to positive change now, he said.
Wherry said he doesn’t typically cry watching movies, “But this was real. These things happened,” he said.
Wherry was one of those arrested during “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina last year, “for the same reasons thousands of people went to jail 50 years ago,” he said. “It seems the more things change, the more things stay the same.”
Comparing themes from the movie with current events in Ferguson, Mo., Howell said his favorite MLK quote wasn’t in the film but came from a speech King gave in Nashville in 1962, where he talked about desegregation being different from integration.
“Can we know each other and love each other?” Howell asked, adding that those feelings are visibly absent in events taking place in Ferguson, New York and even Charlotte.
“When we see Ferguson, we see we haven’t come so far. ... That’s the end game. Love,” Howell said. “If we don’t have dignity ourselves, it’s hard to see dignity in another person.”
But the panel said it is hopeful that Charlotte can continue to move forward. Underscoring that the community’s ability to work together is a large part of that, Wherry said: “People getting along, not by accident, but because enlightened conversations are going on.”