1964, Alabama - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) is practicing a speech in front of the mirror. He stops to call in his wife Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) to comment on his tie, feeling it makes him look undignified in the face of those he is set to honor. Coretta fixes her husband's tie and assures him he looks fine. The couple then goes to a ceremony where King accepts the Nobel Peace Prize and recites his speech.
Four young girls are walking down the steps at the 16th Street Baptist Church. They are talking about the way they do their hair when an explosion goes off, killing all the girls.
Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) fills out a form to become a registered voter. The white registrar asks her how many county judges are in Alabama. She says there are 67, but the registrar tells her to name them all. When she cannot, he denies her application.
King meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his adviser Lee C. White (Giovanni Ribisi) over the issue of black citizens not being allowed to register for voting. King acknowledges that the whites are illegally denying the registration forms of the black community, while also pointing out the senseless acts of violence against them, including the church bombing. What King and his group seek is federal legislation for black citizens to register for voting unencumbered. Johnson, however, is more concerned about getting rid of poverty in the country.
King travels to Selma, Alabama with Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), James Orange (Omar Dorsey), and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). They meet with Reverend James Bevel (Common) and other civil rights activists of the group SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) like Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) at a hotel. As King is signing in, a young white man approaches him and socks King in the mouth.
Johnson talks to J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) about the incident. Hoover thinks King is becoming a problem, and he suggests to cause friction at home to weaken the dynamic, knowing there is tension between King and his wife.
King goes home. Coretta shows reservations over her husband's actions and concern for her family's well-being. At night, King calls Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young) to help him reach out and hear the Lord's voice.
King speaks before a congregation of other civil rights activists and hopeful voters to rouse up their spirits and assure them that they will not let their oppressors keep them from reaching their goal. Their plan is to march from Selma to Montgomery, and their actions will be non-violent, despite knowing that the authorities would not hesitate to utilize violence against them.
King and his followers march through Selma before a crowd of white folks and the ruthless Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). The marchers kneel down and put their hands on the back of their heads. One man fails to kneel as his wife and son help him. Clark and his cohorts go over to them and try to force the man down. When his son defends his father, Clark nearly strikes him with his club, until Annie hits Clark and knocks him down. In retaliation, Clark and his goons force Annie to the ground. King and many of his followers are subsequently arrested and incarcerated.
Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) speaks out against King's movement and vows to not allow these marches to continue going through Alabama. Johnson, meanwhile, gets wind of the incident after the march and is infuriated.
Coretta speaks to Amelia for reassurance, and later meets with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). He disagrees with King's non-violent movements and offers to be an alternative voice to the black community. Coretta tells her husband about this, to which King is displeased since Malcolm X has referred to him as a "modern day Uncle Tom".
Wallace meets with Col. Al Lingo (Stephen Root) to discuss the situation with the marches. Wallace knows he doesn't want to go up against Clark. Lingo tells him about a planned night march and opts to use dominance to stop their movement. Thus, Wallace allows the state troopers to attack the marchers as they go about their night march. They brutally assault the marchers on the streets, beating them or slamming them against walls. In a restaurant, a state trooper coldly shoots an unarmed young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) during a struggle. He dies in his mother's arms.
After King is released from prison, he meets with Jimmie's parents and offers his condolences. He does another speech before his followers and addresses the assassination of JFK and the murder of Malcolm X the day prior, stating that the people will continue to fight for their freedom and their rights, and that people like Jimmie who are gunned down senselessly are murdered by not only violent white men in power, but by those who stand idly by and refuse to fight alongside those who need help. He vows to continue the march across Washington.
The Kings start receiving threats at home from people that say they will harm their children. Additionally, King himself comes under scrutiny from his collaborators, including members of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), who think King is doing less to help the cause.
The marchers walk down Selma before a crowd of armed troopers. They tell the marchers to turn back before charging toward them and using more violent force against them, including throwing tear gas and beating them with their billy clubs. This event, which would be known as "Bloody Sunday", is shown on television before the whole nation, and is seen by people such as Johnson and Wallace. This comes to the attention of attorney Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who in turn discusses this with Judge Frank Minis Johnson (Martin Sheen) to overturn a mandate that would stop the march. Judge Johnson refuses as he does not want to oppose Wallace.
President Johnson gets fed up with the situation and demands that both King and Wallace stop their actions. He sends John Doar (Alessandro Nivola) to meet with King to postpone the march. King tells him he ought to convince Wallace and Clark to be nonviolent.
A number of white citizens, including Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs) and several clergymen, come to Selma to join the marchers in their next march. The people go on with their march and are met by the troopers once again. Only this time, no violence occurs. The marchers kneel down solemnly. King once again comes under fire from his collaborators since they feel that they only got away that time because they were standing by white citizens, and were therefore immune to violent retaliation. Furthermore, a couple of white supporters are viciously assaulted and murdered one night by two racist white men for following the marchers.
Eventually, King and his collaborators are brought to court. Coretta is there to support her husband. Judge Johnson rules in favor of King and the marchers to allow the march to take place.
President Johnson and Governor Wallace meet and Johnson finally confronts him over the whole ordeal that has taken place. Johnson later holds a press conference where he makes a statement to announce that he is sending a bill to Congress to eliminate the restrictions on voting for the black community. This is met with applause all around. Additionally, Johnson praises the courage of the activists involved in the marches.
The activists all gather for the final march to Montgomery. This is juxtaposed with actual footage of the real life marches. King delivers one more speech about how the black citizens are equal to the white citizens. As he continues his speech, we see some text on the film's real life counterparts - Andrew Young was appointed UN Ambassador under President Carter after serving three terms in Congress, and was later elected mayor of Atlanta for two terms. George Wallace unsuccessfully ran for president four times and was paralyzed by an assassination attempt in 1972. Sheriff Jim Clark was defeated by an overwhelming black vote and was never sheriff again. Viola Liuzzo was murdered by a Klansman hours after the march while trying to escort marchers back to Selma. Coretta Scott King established The King Center and successfully lobbied for a holiday in her husband's honor. She never remarried. Five months later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with Martin Luther King, Jr. at his side. King would go on to lead the American civil rights movement for 13 years through nonviolence until his assassination in 1968. He was 39 years old.
King concludes his speech by saying that freedom is coming closer thanks to the grace of the Lord.
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