Colia Lafayette Clark, a leader in the fight to gain voter rights for African-Americans in Selma, Alabama, shared her first-hand experiences at SF State as part of a national tour to discuss the movement on March 10.
While speaking with students during the event, which fell on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, Clark criticized the recently released motion film “Selma.”
The film, which depicts the events in Selma from 1964 to 1965, debuted in the U.S. December 2014. Selma won both an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture.
Clark said she refuses to watch the film because neither she nor her husband were consulted for the production even though they initiated the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee project at Selma and were crucial figures in the movement.
“Whenever you’re talking about doing a historical film, you can’t do it without some fiction, but you can do a historical film without lies,” Clark said. “You can have fictional characters and incidents, but you don’t need lies.”
Clark, who was 22-years-old at the time of the march, said the film focuses on older individuals who were involved in the movement and gives only a small glimpse into the vital work contributed by the young students involved in SNCC.
As members of the SNCC, Clark worked alongside the Dallas County Voters League in the years leading up to the famous march. The groups held citizenship classes to help African-Americans prepare for the literacy test required for voter registration.
Clark said that SNCC’s organizing efforts were necessary because of the economic intimidation and violence that African-Americans in the South faced when working to gain voter rights. Of the 15,115 eligible African-Americans in Dallas County, only 130 of them were registered to vote, according to a 1961 Civil Rights Commission report.
Lloyd Pitts of the San Francisco Student Union organized Clark’s speech at SF State and felt the 50th anniversary of Selma was relevant to students and current civil rights issues still faced today.
“With movies, there is history and there is tradition and what tradition we are taught doesn’t always line up,” Pitts said as he introduced Clark. “So it’s good to have a person here who is so foundational in the movement and has pure historical perspective.”
Despite the film’s recognition, Clark said she was not impressed with the motion picture based on what she has heard. She said she perceives the film as an inaccurate depiction of the events that occurred in the years that led up to the march.
SF State graduate student Anthony Palmer worked with the San Francisco Student Union and other organizations to bring Clark to campus because he said he felt her input on that aspect of history and the film is important to showcase.
“Yeah, maybe their portrayal (in the film) wasn’t so great,” Palmer said. “But the Legislative victories that the movement won can’t be taken away by a movie.”
Even though Clark said her experiences were not accurately represented in the motion film, she is still optimistic about the concept of activism and hopes to inspire students to continue with their efforts.
“When you begin to see Selma, know that only will you, the young people, be the ones who will start the demonstrations,” Clark said.