In the past few weeks, I have seen two incredibly moving and inspiring films: Selma, about the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, and The Normal Heart, about the beginning of the AIDS health crisis in the 1980s. Perhaps because I lived through both of these time periods, the subject matter hit me hard as I remembered the events recreated in the films. Selma chronicles three key civil rights marches in Alabama (two stopped, the third completed with federal protection) that challenged the pervasive racism and violence preventing African Americans from voting in the state. The main characters are based on real people, including Martin Luther King Jr. The Normal Heart is the film version of Larry Kramer’s play of that name, which addressed the public silence and denial that accompanied the rise of AIDS and the radical activism that brought the epidemic to the nation’s attention.
As I watched each film, I was struck over and over again by the extraordinary courage displayed by those who lived through these events. Not just mental strength and physical fortitude but raw unglamorous day-to-day courage that frequently meant facing not only hatred and violence but also the deaths of loved ones and one’s own death. Out of that matrix of fear, hope, anger, and pain, people rose up to speak out for the very basic right of each human being to be treated with compassion and respect. In both films, there is a scene in which one individual cries out with anguish and rage: “People are dying!!” These are the voices that have changed history.
Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Selma, Montgomery, Washington DC, and countless other cities. His speeches echo down through the decades, clarion calls to remember that the dream of equality, freedom, and justice has yet to be fully realized. Selma couldn’t have come at a better time, reminding Americans of the history of racism that precedes tragedies like those in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Larry Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the activist group ACT UP to fight for acknowledgment of the AIDS crisis and for treatment, care, and research for a cure. The Normal Heart, written and performed first in 1985, was his heart-wrenching call to awareness and action. Watching it today, I found that the issues have lost none of their power or poignancy. The “causes” in these two films were not popular at the time; many didn’t want to hear what King and Kramer had to say. They were criticized and hated; yet they continued. They walked into the resistance, into the face of death, and they inspired thousands of others to do the same.
When people have the courage to speak the “inconvenient truth,” to be both bold and uncompromising, they become part of the cutting edge of human evolution. When they step forward and take action for basic human rights, they help to move us all forward into greater compassion and caring. We need the activists and the whistle-blowers to shake us up and remind us that the human story is not finished and we are here to do the work of freedom, equality, kindness, and love, not indifference and silent acquiescence in a deadly status quo. Thank God for Martin Luther King Jr. and Larry Kramer. For Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks. Pete Seeger and Robin Morgan. Alice Walker and Dennis Banks. Karen Silkwood and Harvey Milk. Malala Yousafzai and Julia Butterfly Hill. For Occupy Wall Street and Millions Against Monsanto.
I am thankful for the known and unknown individuals across time and around the globe who have spoken and acted with integrity and bravery in their lives and in so doing reminded us of our human hearts, our common humanity. May together we each find the cutting edge of our own courage and live truth and love into this world. The planet needs all of our passion and commitment to turn the evolutionary wheel in the direction of universal freedom, equality, and loving-kindness. We are one people, and humanity’s voice speaks through each one of us.