Selma Film Sparks Youth Dialogue

On Saturday, January 24, eleven students from five public schools (in the Center for Inspired Teaching’s Real Word History program) and two private schools in Washington, D.C. gathered for an informal discussion about the film Selma in the atrium of the National Portrait Gallery. Three teachers were also present.

The discussion started with the film Selma and moved effortlessly—without a single pause in the discussion—to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Ferguson, the ignored role of women in the civil rights movement, the relative effectiveness of non-violence vs. militancy, identity, the labels ‘Black’ vs. ‘African-American’, colorism within the Black community, race relations, color blindness, gentrification, Judaism vs. Zionism, religious extremism, etc.

The students were supplied with catalysts which they occasionally referred to—at least in the beginning—but other than that, they were left to their devices.

The teachers remained silently on the sidelines. Students were supplied with a list of suggested questions about the film, a list of the film’s scenes with a key quote from each scene, and a photocopy of the cover of the January 26 issue of the New Yorker Magazine featuring Dr. King, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Wenjian Liu. Here are some of the catalyst questions.

  1. What justice issues from the movie are people still fighting for today?
  2. Did the events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown and the choke-hold death of Eric Garner (both “trigger events”) create a ‘Selma moment’ akin to the national outrage after Bloody Sunday?
  3. What are some of the other similarities/differences between Selma and Ferguson?
  4. How can the lessons from the Civil Rights Movement be applied to current conversations about racial profiling and police brutality?

The students were quite open and honest with each other and clearly appreciated hearing from the different perspectives represented and about each other’s experience with race and identity.

The discussion was slated to last an hour, but a core group of six students continued for three hours. In fact, several indicated that they would have continued if the faculty chaperones did not have to leave. Here are two students’ reflections on the dialogue.

Although we were not all on the same page, we were able to discuss our differences in a respectable manner and build off of each other. Being in such a friendly atmosphere made it easy to talk about a wide variety of issues in our daily lives and connect them to both the present and the past. One topic that I found the most important was defining what a person’s race actually means, and whether or not you can choose what you identify as or if it’s something that society defines for you. —Shani Billings, School Without Walls

It was a very fluid conversation and everyone seemed comfortable and willing to comment and participate. We really discussed everything there is to discuss, beyond Selma and even beyond race. —Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller, Maret

The students were from Anacostia, Phelps, School Without Walls, Roosevelt, Eastern, Maret, and Georgetown Day School (GDS). Most were from the Real Word History program. This summary of the seminar was prepared by Maret High School teacher Ayo Magwood, who also took the photos. The other teachers who recruited students and attended the session were Cosby Hunt (Center for Inspired Teaching) and Lisa Rauschart (GDS). 

See Teaching About Selma for lessons and resources on the Selma freedom movement.