“One dream can change the world.”
The above is the promotional tag line for Selma, the powerful, award-winning film directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that dramatized one of the most pivotal chapters of the civil rights movement. That the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by King, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and John Lewis could inspire such an impactful and critically acclaimed film nearly 50 years later is testament to just how important a turning point this was in American history, and African American history in particular.
However, there is now a generation of young Americans for whom such historic moments hardly seem real, much less relevant to their day-to-day lives. These young people, who will remember Trayvon Martin and the #BlackLivesMatter movement as cultural touchstones of their lives, are most in need of the inspiration and sense of legacy Selma provides. They are also among those least likely to see such a film, in the absence of extraordinary effort.
Just such an effort was conceived at a New Year’s Eve dinner a little more than a week before the film’s wide theatrical release on Jan. 9. On that evening a small group of accomplished black executives, CEOs, and business leaders–accurately described as the children of King’s dream–discussed how they could enable New York City’s seventh, eighth, and ninth graders to see Selma. The group gathered that night included American Express CEO Kenneth I. Chenault and his wife, Kathryn; Lazard Managing Director and Investment Banking Co-Chairman William Lewis and his wife, Carol; former be 100s executive and attorney Fletcher “Flash” Wiley and his wife, Bennie; and Infor CEO Charles Phillips and his wife, Karen.
Talk immediately became action, as Phillips, a member of the Viacom board of directors, contacted Viacom President and CEO Philippe Dauman, who connected Phillips with the leadership team at Paramount Pictures. Only four days after the New Year’s Eve gathering, more than two dozen African American business and community leaders had joined the effort, ultimately enabling 75,000 tickets to be available to New York-area school students to see Selma the first weekend of its wide theatrical release.
But this amazing story doesn’t end there. The initiative, now called Selma for Students, has been replicated in 33 cities (and counting), raising more than $2 million and making more than 300,000 tickets available to students. The leaders of these efforts in cities across the country read like a who’s who from the pages of Black Enterprise, including Brown Capital Management CEO Eddie Brown and his wife, Sylvia (Baltimore); Ariel Investments President Mellody Hobson, and BDT Capital Partners Principal Robbie Robinson (Chicago); U.S. Ambassador Ron Kirk and IGT board member Paget Alves (Dallas); and television producer Debra Martin Chase and DirecTV SVP, Associate General Counsel and Chief Ethics Officer T. Warren Jackson (Los Angeles).
According to Lewis, a new not-for-profit entity has been established, designed to make use of the infrastructure and apparatus of the Selma for Students effort, “which will engage in periodic ‘pop-up philanthropy’ pursuits in the future.” This is a powerful example of 21st-century activism, one that I celebrate as a model for others to follow as the struggle for justice, enfranchisement, and freedom championed by Dr. King and other movement leaders of Selma is carried forward to future generations.
We often hear the call to “Keep the Dream Alive” when honoring the legacy of King and hard-won battles for voting and other civil rights, especially during Black History Month. Film director DuVernay, Phillips, and other “children” of King’s dream should be commended for putting those words into action, while building a bridge of education and enlightenment from Selma that will inspire future generations to pursue new dreams that will change the world.
Earl Graves Sr. is the founder, chairman, and publisher of Black Enterprise.