It’s been about a week since I went back to my hometown of Oakdale, Louisiana to show the movie Selma to the students there. I am excited to report to all the supporters and donors that the day went off without a hitch and was a success. There were about 55 people in attendance – of course I wanted more- but the people who came were attentive and focused. There were tears and revelations. Students, parents, and grandparents have reached out to me to express their thanks for making the effort and generating curiosity in the students. Mission accomplished! But before I keep describing the day, I’ll back up for the folks who haven’t been following my project so far.
On January 10th, I saw the movie Selma and left the theater overflowing like a cornucopia of emotions. Two hours with Ava DuVernay’s depiction (with that talented cast!) of the Selma to Montgomery marches and the push for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 left me both weak and fired up all at once.
Why weak? Because seeing this slice of our nation’s history reenacted in living color reached me in a deep and painful place. And because DuVernay clearly checked all sugar coats at the door. It’s one thing to read about the disgusting, hate-filled murder of the 4 Little Girls in Birmingham, but it’s an entirely different emotional journey to hear the sweetness of young children skipping along making kiddie chit-chat and then feel dread rising in my chest. I squirmed in my seat a bit and counted the children on the screen in that scene. My eyes took in the shiny shoes, white tights, stained glass. I thought to myself – Wait…is this about to be what I think it is? Then irrational hope rose up in me. These are just children…surely they can be spared the brutality of this moment? The TERROR of this moment. Spare them this time.
But honestly, it was me looking to be spared. Because the horrific truth of the fate of these children is what it was. And so it plays out on-screen as it had in 1963. The terrorists killed those children. And I flinched and gripped my seat out of shock despite knowing good and well how the story goes. It’s different to see it play out. Ava DuVernay’s handling of that moment let me know how she’d be handling this entire film – no one in the audience would be let off the emotional hook. Selma makes you face some of our country’s ugliest scars – and it tells the story from the point of view of the black people who pushed the movement forward with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the central protagonist. This is groundbreaking and heartbreaking, but you walk out of the theater reminded that the people who lived it, LIVED it.
And while they lived the terror, they exhibited strength, courage, heart and smarts. And THAT is where my being fired up comes in. I felt inspired and appreciative of what I had just seen for so many reasons. I was glad to see Dr. King shown as a strategic thinker. An activist and a resister. A family man with marital problems. A fairly young man. A man, period. Sometimes it seems his legacy has been sanitized to the point I wonder if kids think he’s fictional. And the story of the Civil Rights Movement keeps getting skimmed over with only the feel-good glory being touched upon…it’s important to show the guts too. I appreciated seeing the network of people involved in the movement. And wow – the women! It was so good to see them highlighted for their contribution to the fight. How so many people had to work together, while not always agreeing on how, to make the urge for justice spread. And it was good to see the fear in the activists rise and rise only to meet with their resolve to keep going anyway.
After taking it all in, I decided the most important thing I could do next was to share the experience. These marches happened 50 years ago, but it’s clear many of the issues behind the marches are still very much on the table. My hometown immediately came to mind. As I mentioned, I’m from the good and deeeeeep South. I know when I left Oakdale in the late 90’s, the high school there still had the practice of a separate black and white homecoming court and we just rolled with it like it was an acceptable thing. For every person there who understands that the Civil Rights Marches and Voting Rights Act are an important part of American History, there are probably at least two who believe it’s best to shut up about these events because they see them as only for and about black people picking at their own wounds. Once you throw in the fact there is no movie theater within a 45-mile radius of the town, you realize the motivation factor would need to be sky high for young people to actually make it to that ticket counter for Selma. So it was a no-brainer for me to try to bring Selma there. All the students in Oakdale could benefit from seeing how Americans pull together in the face of violent injustice to bring about change.
And so, it happened. With the help of so many kind and supportive people in a little over one month I got the blessing from Paramount, took over the school gym and showed the film. After the movie, about half the students joined us on at center court to have an intimate discussion. I have to shout out those who helped me pull this off in such short order.
- Obviously, Paramount Pictures. Thank you for helping to make this possible.
- Shawn Sanders and FunFlicks of Louisiana get 5 HUGE stars for their service. More than on-time, professional, seamless experience. Based on my experience with them, I would highly recommend their services to anyone.
- Principal Nancy Willis for leaning in and embracing the idea to have this event on her campus and saving us the hassle & cost of having to bus the kids to the nearest movie theater 45 miles away! Thank you to her staff members Brad Soileau and Randall Gordon for spending some of your morning making sure everything worked properly in the gym.
- Every single donor and person who shared the donation link helping us raise all we needed to pull off the event in 17 days! (Full list of donors)
- Thank you to the educators and community leaders who promoted the event and came to chaperone and engage the students in discussion afterwards: LaDeisha George, James McKay, Pamela Williams, Sally Moreaux, Tremeka Todd Waller, Shomona Thompson, Shon Hayes, Trinity Terrell, Mike Beezie. Thanks to Charles Phillips, CEO of Infor for the advice & support on standby, Angela Thomas & Steven Sumbler for your words of advice and encouraging ideas in the weeks leading to the event. Thanks to Tavares Garrison for going with the flow and working for me on your vacation to make sure this went smoothly.
- Thank you to writer and activist Luvvie Ajayi, aka Awesomely Luvvie, for joining us via Skype afterwards to help decompress after the film. I totally went for a hail mary pass thinking I wonder if I reach out to Luvvie, even though she does not know me from Adam, would she respond and do the Q&A? And respond she did. I felt a little stunned! When I got that ‘yes’ reply back from Luvvie, I did ALL the happy dances. Please check out her take on the film as well.
- And of course a HUGE thank you to the students who came (and the parents who allowed them to come). Your minds and hearts are the vessels I wanted to fill. Learn the history so you can build upon it. Learn how the past has led us here and understand the WHY behind the racial divides of the present so we can intelligently move toward a more just future. Learn about the leaders and understand how in so many ways, they are just like you – people – often young people- with families, challenges, flaws, and abilities. Learn yourself and dare to use your unique talents for the causes that spark your passion.
Here is the full text of MLK’s speech at the conclusion of the Selma Marches for the curious….and oh, how I hope you are curious. 🙂