Who's Who in 'Selma': Pictures and Histories of 29 Real People Who Appear in the Movie
With no composite characters onscreen, 'Selma' is packed with real history.
Powerful, moving, and poignant, Selma is an effective movie even if you aren't fully familiar with the history being brought to life before your eyes. But if you were left wanting to know more about the people in the movie, you're not alone. Here's a guide to some of the movie's real-life historical figures along with links to learn more about them.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo)
The movie opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work in the Civil Rights movement. He was only 36 when the Selma marches took place, and the three deaths that occurred while he was there (Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo) were said to have weighed heavily on him. It was the first time anyone had been killed while participating in protests he was leading. In the movie, federal attorney John Doar warns King of plans to assassinate him, but he lived through the Montgomery march and continued to fight for racial equality until he was shot by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.
Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo)
Coretta Scott King proved herself to be much more than Martin Luther King's wife and mother to their four children. Even before Martin's death, Coretta complained publicly of sexism in the civil rights movement, working to get women more involved. In the 1980s, she worked at ending apartheid in South Africa. And she was an early supporter of LGBT civil rights, saying in 1983 the Civil Rights Act should be amended to protect gays and lesbians. She pushed for years to make her husband's birthday a national holiday, and succeeded in 1983.
Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo)
Following Rosa Parks' historic arrest in 1955, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, both under 30, organized the bus boycott that ended Alabama's bus segregation. Abernathy's home and church were bombed in response to his work on the boycott, though no one was hurt. He was a founding member of the SCLC, and continued to be a key figure in the civil rights movement up to his death in 1990.
Andrew Young (Andre Holland)
Andrew Young was the executive director of the SCLC during the events of Selma, working closely with Martin Luther King on coordinating the marches and other political action. He was with King in Memphis the day he was assassinated, and would go on to a very successful political career. He was elected to congress, representing Georgia's 5th District, in 1972, and was reelected twice. In 1977 he resigned from congress after being appointed the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a position he resigned in 1979. Not finished with politics, Young ran for mayor of Atlanta. He won and held office from 1982 to 1990. He's continued to stay active and in 2008 appeared on The Colbert Report to talk about the historical significance of Barack Obama's election.
C.T. Vivian (Corey Reynolds)
C.T. Vivian was a preacher who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the '60s, and in 1970 became the first member of King's inner circle to write a book about civil rights. Black Power and the American Myth is still an important first-hand document of King's and the SCLC's non-violent tactics, and outlines the group's goals in the '60s. In 2013, President Barack Obama named Vivian a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
John Lewis (Stephan James)
As the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at 25, John Lewis was known at the time of the Selma marches as the youngest "Big Six" civil rights leader. He continued with his civil rights work through the '60s, and moved into politics in the '70s. In 1987 he was elected congress, representing Georgia's 5th District (the same seat previously occupied by Andrew Young). And he's been there ever since.
Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce)
Hosea Williams was the SCLC leader who led the first Selma march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. The violence he and other demonstrators met on the other side wouldn't have been shocking. He was a WWII veteran who survived a horrific Nazi bomb attack while stationed in France, and almost as soon as he arrived back in the United States he was beaten very nearly to death for drinking from a whites-only water fountain. He was still in his uniform. He worked in politics off-and-on throughout his life, but was best known for his charity organization, Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless, which was created to bring holiday meals to poor families in the Atlanta area.
Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson)
Lyndon B. Johnson's portrayal in Selma has come under fire for historical accuracy by historians who argue it's unfair to depict Johnson as having an adversarial relationship with King when he was actually an enthusiastic supporter. Johnson became President after John F. Kennedy was assassinated and won his 1964 presidential election by a landslide. Though eligible, he didn't run for reelection in 1968.
Lee C. White (Giovanni Ribisi)
Lee White became one of President Johnson’s key aides after getting his start in Washington with John F. Kennedy. White published a memoir in 2008 that detailed his work with Johnson on presenting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to a joint session of congress. In an obituary published by the Washington Post, Johnson’s one-time White House press secretary, Bill Moyers, said White was one of his most trusted advisors. “President Johnson once told me, ‘I’d make that fella a judge if I didn’t need him so much.’"
John Doar (Alessandro Nivola)
The federal-looking suit seen advising King to be more cautious in the face of threats to his life was John Doar, a lawyer whose official position was Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights from 1960 to 1967. What you don’t see in Selma is he was the first to arrive in Montgomery the day the march arrived there, trying to make sure King would be safe that day. Also during his tenure he prosecuted lynchings, protected Freedom Riders, and escorted the first black student at the segregationist University of Mississippi to class.
J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker)
J. Edgar Hoover was the first Director of the FBI, a position he held from 1935 until his death in 1972. Since then, Hoover's biographers have largely painted a picture of a paranoid and vindictive power monger. It's unclear what his motives were, but in the '60s he tried to discredit Martin Luther King. First, he leaned on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's connections to communist organizations. When that failed to damage King's reputation, Hoover switched tacks, gathering evidence of King's extramarital affairs. He used this information in attempts to smear King, and, as seen in the movie, likely used it to try and break up his family.
Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey)
Played by Oprah Winfrey in Selma, Annie Lee Cooper is the face of the people's fight to vote in the movie. Cooper had been registered to vote in both Ohio and Pennsylvania before moving back to her hometown of Selma in 1962. In a famous January 1965 incident, Cooper punched Sheriff Jim Clark in the face after the infamously racist officer had poked her several times with a club while she waited for the chance to register to vote.
Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield)
In one harrowing scene in Selma, a young man flees a protest with his mother and grandfather, hiding from pursuing police in a café. When the police find the three, they beat the grandfather, and when the man steps in, the police shoot him. The man was Jimmie Lee Jackson, his grandfather was Cager Lee, and the woman was Viola Lee. The Alabama State Trooper who shot Jackson was James Bonard Fowler. What we don’t see in the movie is that Jackson held on for eight days before dying of an infection after the shooting. It took another 42 years for Fowler to be charged, and convicted, of second-degree manslaughter in 2010.
Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint)
Hot off the second season of Orange Is the New Black, Lorraine Toussaint shows up in Selma to play Amelia Boynton. Amelia was knocked unconscious by Sheriff Jim Clark's men during the "Bloody Sunday," the first attempt at the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Pictures of her were seen in newspapers around the country, helping to spur action in the civil rights movement. At 103, Boynton is still around, and Paramount even brought her the movie early for her own special screening. Hopefully she was happy. When Disney released Selma, Lord, Selma in 1999, she sued them for turning her into a "black Mammy" who did nothing but sing spirituals.
James Reeb (Jeremy Strong)
James Reeb was a Unitarian Universalist minister living in Boston when Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Selma. Already a member of the SCLC, Reeb joined him there after the events of Bloody Sunday. On March 9, 1965, Reeb and two other men were attacked by three white men with clubs after eating at an integrated restaurant in Selma. Reeb died two days later, and was memorialized by both King and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs)
In Selma, we see Viola Liuzzo rush to join demonstrators after watching them being beaten by Sheriff Jim Clark's men on Bloody Sunday. In real life the Detroit mother of five participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march, later helping to shuttle demonstrators back to Selma. While shuttling people back-and-forth, she found herself being pursued by Ku Klux Klansmen on a back road. They chased down her car and shot her in the head. Her passenger, Leroy Moton, survived the attack by pretending to be dead after Liuzzo's car crashed.
Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson)
Diane Nash was a vocal proponent of nonviolent action even before she became involved with Martin Luther King, the SNCC, and the SCLC. In 1960 she helped lead the Nashville sit-ins, which ended lunch counter segregation in the city, and in 1961 she was a key figure in the Freedom Rides. She was also married to fellow civil rights activist James Bevel for seven years.
James Bevel (Common)
James Bevel was already a successful civil rights activist in 1962 when he formally joined forces with Martin Luther King, Jr. Bevel was indispensable to the SCLC for his work teaching people how to use non-violence as a tool for change. He literally taught demonstrators how to march and occupy space in visible ways without participating in violence. He worked with fellow activist Diane Nash on the Nashville sit-ins to end segregation at lunch counters. He and Nash were married for seven years and had two children together. Bevel's legacy is muddled, though. In the '80s he broke ranks to join the controversial Lyndon LaRouche, and in 2007 he was arrested on charges of sexually abusing one of his daughters. He was convicted of the charges, but died shortly after of pancreatic cancer in 2008.
Richie Jean Jackson (Niecy Nash)
Richie Jean Jackson opened her home to Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights organizers during the Selma protests, making her house a sort-of unofficial headquarters to the movement. In 2011 she published a book about her experiences called The House by the Side of the Road: The Selma Civil Rights Movement.
James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey)
James Orange was a giant of the '60s Civil Rights movement — literally. At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Orange towered over other protesters. He played a key role in the Selma marches that isn't fully explained in the movie. When Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in the stomach by an Alabama state trooper on February 18, 1965, as seen in the movie, he had been at a rally held for Orange, who had been jailed while trying to help people register to vote. Jackson's death acted as a catalyst for the Selma marches.
James Forman (Trai Byers)
In 1961, James Forman, already an air force veteran and well-versed in revolutionary literature, joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly referred to as "SNICK"). The SNCC is shown in Selma to be ambivalent about the SCLC's involvement arrival since they were there first. As Executive Secretary, Forman was older, and probably more extreme in his views, than many of the SNCC students. Originally from Chicago, Forman was an influential activist throughout the country, and in 1969 wrote his "Black Manifesto," which outlined his demands for reparations due to the black people of the United States.
Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson)
Bayard Rustin was an important but controversial part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s for two reasons. First, he was a member of the Communist party from 1936 to 1941. Second, he was gay. Despite some discomfort from other activists, Bayard was instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. He later became active in LGBT issues, in 1986 giving a speech controversially titled, "The New Niggers Are Gays."
Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding Jr.)
In the movie, Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Fred Gray, an attorney who worked behind the scenes to convince Judge Frank Minis Johnson to allow protesters to march from Selma to Montgomery. Gray worked for King during the Selma march, and also successfully defended him on tax evasion charges in 1960. He worked tirelessly to end segregation in Alabama's schools through the '60s, and has since been honored at several colleges he helped integrate. He still practices law in Alabama and speaks to audiences about the American Civil Rights movement.
Frank Minis Johnson (Martin Sheen)
Appointed a district judge by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, it didn't take long for Frank M. Johnson to start making a positive difference. In 1956 he ruled in favor of Rosa Parks, declaring Montgomery, Alabama's bus segregation unconstitutional. During the Selma protests he overturned Governor George C. Wallace's prohibition against the march from Selma to Montgomery. Throughout the '60s Johnson helped end segregation in Alabama, and in 1995 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young)
Mahalia Jackson was a gospel singer who often traveled with Martin Luther King and the SCLC in the 1960s. She sang before King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, and would later sing at his funeral. King once said a voice like hers comes around "once in a millennium."
Archbishop Iakovos (Michael Shikany)
With his dark robes and tall hat, Archbishop Iakovos was a very visible supporter of civil rights in the 1960s. A picture of the Greek Orthodox leader marching in Selma, arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr., made it to the cover of Life magazine. He remained a staunch human rights activist and met with every U.S. president from Eisenhower up to Bill Clinton.
Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch)
Malcolm X is well-known as a political activist who very famously didn't agree with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s commitment to nonviolence. The Nation of Islam leader long scoffed at the civil rights movement, but changed his mind when he converted to Sunni Islam in 1964. He soon broke with the Nation of Islam and renounced ideas such as white people being "devils" whose race would soon be eliminated. By the time he met with Coretta Scott King in Selma, he was a changed man. He was assassinated February 21, 1965, less than a month before Bloody Sunday.
George C. Wallace (Tim Roth)
George Wallace served a total of four terms as governor of Alabama, three of them after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been passed. He remained a staunch segregationist, a position he arguably adopted in the late ‘50s to curry favor with Alabama’s many white segregationist voters.
Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston)
Sheriff Jim Clark was a staunch segregationist and remained so long after the events depicted in Selma. He was known for wearing a button with the word "Never," referring to de-segregation. Clark is best known for ordering the "Bloody Sunday" attack on peaceful protesters crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge on their way to Montgomery. It wasn't until later that he realized his violence and intimidation played into the organizers' hand, bringing national attention to their plight. He was later convicted on charges related to smuggling marijuana from Colombia. In 2006, about a year before he died, Clark told the Montgomery Advertiser, "Basically, I'd do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again."