Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, set during the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, has been justly lauded for its portrait of the human, and more radical sides of Martin Luther King, Jr., even as it’s gained notoriety for what some are calling an ahistorical portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. That fuss has somewhat obscured a more significant departure from historical accuracy in the film: the fact that all of the speeches Dr. King delivers in the film, including the rousing victory speech at the climax, were actually fictionalized, written by DuVernay herself in the style of King. The choice wasn’t artistic; usage rights to King’s actual speeches had belonged to another project. Nevertheless, such an omission might leave viewers of the film wanting for King’s actual words.
The climactic speech from the film was based of course on the speech that Dr. King delivered on March 25th, 1965, as he addressed an estimated 25,000 fellow protesters from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. It came at the culmination of the third and final march, and in response to President Johnson’s introduction of the Voting Rights Act to Congress a week earlier. Though it wouldn’t be signed into law for several more months, and though it came at a steep cost, Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 was an unmitigated victory for King and his fellow organizers, and for the civil rights movement in general. King’s remarkable speech from that day, “Our God Is Marching On!” (which we’ve excerpted below), is equal parts jubilant and defiant, mournful of the lives lost and the blood shed, yet certain of the movement’s moral higher ground. Standing in front of the Alabama State Capitol, a few steps from the portico where Governor George Wallace had delivered his infamous inaugural “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever” speech only two years earlier and where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America a century before, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had just finished walking from Selma to Montgomery, fifty-four miles over five days, looked out over the sea of tired faces and began to speak.
Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.
Let us therefore continue our triumph and march to the realization of the American dream. Let us march on segregated housing, until every ghetto of social and economic depression dissolves and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe and sanitary housing.
Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past and Negroes and whites study side by side in the socially healing context of the classroom.
Let us march on poverty, until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat, march on poverty, until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist.
Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race baiters disappear from the political arena. Let us march on ballot boxes until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.
Let us march on ballot boxes, until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men who will not fear to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.
from “Our God Is Marching On!”
Fans of the film and other readers can find the full speech collected in The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr., an ebook gathering twenty of King’s most transformative speeches and sermons, writings that reveal the intellectual struggle and growth of a man who occupied many roles—philosopher, theologian, orator, essayist, and author—and, as DuVernay’s film makes abundantly clear, a man who touched the conscience of the nation and world.