Stephan James as John Lewis, civil rights activist and future congressman
Selma, Alabama, Spring 1965
Release Date: December 25, 2014
Director: Ava DuVernay
Costume Designer: Ruth E. Carter
On the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, today’s post celebrates the life and legacy of the late John Lewis, the prolific civil rights activist and longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives who had been an instrumental force in the fight for voter and racial equality.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been cited as a direct result of the Selma to Montgomery marches, which opened the eyes of the public to the reality of racial injustice when state and local police—acting on orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace—resorted to extreme violence in response to the nonviolent activists. Ostensibly securing the right for all to exercise the right to vote in the United States, this landmark legislation was a major milestone during the era’s civil rights movement though—even more than a half-century later—we still have considerable progress to make.
Lewis had just turned 25 when he and fellow activist Hosea Williams led more than 500 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where they were assaulted by police with clubs and tear gas and sent scrambling for safety. The events of March 7, 1965, soon to be known as “Bloody Sunday”, physically scarred Lewis for the rest of his life but also cemented his legacy as recounted in Jay Reeves’ AP obituary, which describes Lewis’ unflinching stoicism in the moments before the attack:
Lewis stood motionless with his hands in the pockets of his raincoat, a knapsack on his back.
This image endured through the decades, and even Lewis himself understood the worth of putting considerable effort into tracking down a similar knapsack and coat for the 2015 Comic-Con International in San Diego, where he attended to promote his three-part graphic novel memoir March. After the news of Rep. Lewis’ death last month, many shared photos of the congressman cosplaying as his younger self during these events, walking with hundreds of children and convention attendees in tribute to the famous march that had taken place more than 50 years earlier as detailed in Sandra E. Garcia’s article for The New York Times.
“I had the opportunity to recreate what I wore on March 7, 1965 and march with some amazing young people,” Lewis himself posted on his official Facebook page.
Ava DuVernay’s masterful Selma is centered around David Oyelowo’s magnificent performance as Martin Luther King Jr., presenting the famous minister and activist in all of his complexity, a man who balanced sincerity in his beliefs with the shrewdness required to be truly effective. Writing for the Miami Herald, Rene Rodriguez praised the fact that “unlike most biopics about heroic men who shaped our history or helped bring about change… Selma doesn’t feel like freeze-dried hagiography.”
In a section of his blog, Information is Beautiful, that evaluates how faithfully a recently released film “based on a true story” follows known history, David McCandless bestowed Selma with a 100% rating to conclude that all on-screen events are either completely or mostly true to history, while acknowledging the most frequented addressed point of contention that the film may have exaggerated Lyndon Johnson’s opposition to aspects of the movement. As the only movie of the 18 evaluated to carry this perfect score, Selma is noted by the site to “painstakingly recreate events as they happened and takes care to include everybody who was involved.”
Of these many figures involved, Selma also includes activist and minister C.T. Vivian, who also died on July 17, 2020, the same day as his friend John Lewis and just two weeks shy of his own 96th birthday. Portrayed by Corey Reynolds, Rev. Vivian is shown wearing a raincoat as the SCLC members are being introduced in Richie Jean Jackson’s kitchen.
The film begins with King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, where he praises the men and women of his movement who are “motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness,” a speech rewritten to some degree by DuVernay as the rights to many of King’s speeches had already been sold by his estate for a separate and yet unproduced biopic. While King may not have said them in this context, the description of a human “motivated by dignity” stuck with me long after I first saw Selma.
What’d He Wear?
A key element to how Selma was able to so faithfully recreate the events and moments behind the passing of the Voting Rights of Act of 1965 was the historically informed costume design by Ruth E. Carter, a talented three-time Oscar-nominated designer who would later win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in recognition of her work on Black Panther (2018). In addition to paying homage to the sophisticated suits and gold Rolex worn by Martin Luther King, Jr., Carter’s costume design also reflects a deep level of attention paid to dressing all to resemble their 1965 counterparts as closely as possible, an endeavor she called out on her Instagram while the film was in production.
This naturally included the enduring image of Hosea Williams and John Lewis leading the vanguard across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, from both men in their raincoats, white shirts, and ties to Bob Mants of SNCC standing directly behind them in his own dark coat and flat cap.
A reliable raincoat is a must for any man, the ideal protective garment for anyone “expecting the unexpected.” With his simple light-colored raincoat neatly buttoned over suit and tie, Lewis looks poised, professional, and prepared, presenting the image like a man commuting to work who may be expecting inclement weather, ready to go the distance… both geographically and metaphorically.
“Coats were a form of armor,” Carter shared in a 2015 interview with Gina Marinelli for Refinery29. “It was like they knew that they were going to be faced with this brutality. So, not only did they put a coat on because they were going to march 50 miles, but because they could pad underneath to protect themselves. And, if you put your hands in the pockets of your coat while you were marching in the front line, it was a symbol of peaceful protest.”
The cinematic Lewis, portrayed by Stephan James, “debuts” the famous raincoat in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) is meeting with Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch). In this instance, he wears the coat open over a white open-neck shirt and cream cardigan.
The first march attempt was organized locally by James Bevel, Amelia Boynton, and others on March 7, 1965 and soon became infamous as “Bloody Sunday” for the fierce attacks against the demonstrators after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Of the more than 60 marchers who were treated for injuries, Lewis himself suffered a skull fracture and would carry the physical scars from that day for the rest of his life. Across the country, millions of Americans were outraged at the violence captured in news footage and photographs out of Selma, mobilizing support for the activists.
Lewis’ famous coat for the march appears to be a beige gabardine. The Prussian collar has a throat latch closure with a six-button fly front with an extra button sewn in toward the bottom hem. The sleeves are set-in with a half-tab at each cuff closing through a single button. The coat appears to be unlined, making it a cooler-wearing top layer particularly suitable for a long march through Alabama, with a long single vent in the back and slanted hand pockets.
Around the time that the film was in production in 2014, Patrick Saunders of The Georgia Voice engaged now-Representative Lewis in a Q&A that concluded with a question about how, of all the marchers, Lewis appeared to be the only one wearing a backpack, to which the congressman provided a detailed response outlining the backpack’s origins and contents:
As a matter of fact I went to the Army surplus store and bought this backpack. I really thought we were going to be successful walking all the way from Selma to Montgomery. And somehow, some way, I thought maybe we would be arrested and we would go to jail, so while in jail I wanted to have something to read. I had two books in the backpack. I wanted to have something to eat—I had one apple and one orange. One apple and one orange wouldn’t last that long. Being in jail, you know I had been arrested and been to jail before, the sad thing about being in jail for two or three days, you need to brush your teeth. So there was toothpaste and a toothbrush in there.
I don’t know what happened to that backpack, I don’t know what happened to the two books. I don’t know what happened to the trench coat. One of the books was by a professor of political science at Harvard and the other book was by Thomas Merton, the monk. I just wished I had them. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are always asking me what happened to them and I tell them I really don’t know.
Consistent with historical record, Selma frequently depicts Lewis wearing white shirts with a tab collar, the device that fastens under the tie knot either with a button—or a snap, in Lewis’ case—to promote a neat, dignified appearance (assuming the shirt is fully fastened and the tie correctly knotted.) The tab collar saw a resurgence during the ’60s, likely consistent with the narrower tie widths that would look cleaner with it. For the first two marches, Lewis is shown wearing the same slim dark tie that I’ll go into more detail describing below.
For the attempt on March 7, Lewis is depicted wearing dark taupe brown wool trousers with button-through back pockets (with at least one of the buttons torn loose during the attacks on the bridge) and finished on the bottoms with turn-ups (cuffs) over his black calf leather cap-toe oxford shoes.
Two days later, after the brutality of Bloody Sunday aroused national support for the civil rights movement, King returned to Selma to join Lewis, Williams, and hundreds of clergy and supporters from across the United States for a second attempt across the bridge. This abbreviated march on March 9, 1965, would be dubbed “Turnaround Tuesday” for King’s decision to turn the 2,500 marchers around before crossing the county line.
John Lewis again wears his raincoat with shirt and tie, though his white shirt has a more conventional point collar. He wears the same tie as earlier, which we see more of as he wears the raincoat open to reveal the set of olive, tan, and brown “downhill”-directional stripes across the center.
For the March 9 event, Lewis presses into service a dark gray business suit that he had also worn previously at Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral and would later wear when marching alongside King into Montgomery. In some light, particularly while King speaks in Montgomery, the suiting presents a subtle sheen which suggests the possibility of a mohair/wool-blended construction as was popular during the ’60s.
The suit has a single-breasted, two-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, and straight flapped hip pockets. The matching flat front trousers have plain-hemmed bottoms.
Two weeks after Bloody Sunday and with Judge Frank Minis Johnson having ruled in favor of the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights, more than 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma on Sunday, March 21, 1965, to join King on the 54-mile march along U.S. Route 80 to Montgomery.
While Ruth E. Carter again remained true to what the principals wore that day, including King’s dressed-down off-white fisherman’s cap and light blue sport shirt, she found a deeper significance to why the actual figures had abandoned their more austere suits, coats, and ties for this third crossing of the bridge, explaining to Refinery29 that, “by the time we got to the third march, people and their children were singing, it was jubilant, and the thought was that they were protected. They didn’t necessarily need to wear their armor this time, they were actually going to make the 50 miles.”
Lewis reflects King’s celebratory blue hues, wearing a similarly shaded powder blue wool V-neck sweater over his white shirt and taupe trousers. Note how neatly the actual figures’ wardrobe (as seen in the photo at right) matches Ruth E. Carter’s costume design, with the minor exception of the cinematic Lewis wearing a white tab-collar shirt and tie as opposed to the pale blue button-down seen in real life.
Upon arriving at the Alabama state capitol building in Montgomery on Thursday, March 25, with now approximately 25,000 supporters for the delivery of King’s famous “How long, not long” speech, the men are dressed back in their usual protest “uniforms” consisting of dark business suits, white shirts, and skinny ties. Lewis returns to his dark gray suit and white tab-collar shirt, this time worn with a solid brown tie and a natty pair of dark brown double monk-strap shoes.
It’s fitting that our last look at John Lewis in Selma shows him standing in business suit, white shirt, and tie, the regulated dress code for the House of Representatives, in which Lewis would represent Georgia’s 5th District for the last 33 years of his life before his death of pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020.
How to Get the Look
Selma costume designer Ruth E. Carter put extensive work into making sure each character’s sartorial details aligned with historical record. In the case of John Lewis (Stephan James), this meant dressing him in just the right beige raincoat, white tab-collar shirt, and dark skinny tie for an earnest young man ready to make “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the name of progress.
- Dark gray mohair/wool blend suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button suit jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets
- Flat front suit trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton dress shirt with tab collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Black slim tie with olive, tan, and brown “downhill” center stripe set
- Black calf leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black socks
- White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
- Beige gabardine raincoat with Prussian collar, throat latch, six-button fly front, slanted side pockets, half-tab cuffs, and single vent
- Gold wedding band
- Gold-cased wristwatch with round tan dial on dark leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
From John Lewis’ New York Times op-ed, which he directed to be published on the day of his funeral last Thursday:
Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.