Selma Invites Students to Discuss Education and Civil Rights

President Obama has said, “the story of the Civil Rights Movement was written in our schools.” Secretary Duncan has echoed that, “education is the civil rights issue of our generation.” This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the 25th anniversary of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, and the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches.

A recent event brought together more than two dozen students from New York and New Jersey high schools to show the film, Selma, with the film’s director, Ava Duvernay. The event was hosted by the United Nations and commemorated the new Memorial to Victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The evening aimed to “expose the legacy of slavery,” but also to emphasize the message of nonviolent organizing and the importance of education and civil rights in an international context. Selma tells the story of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery that spurred the Voting Rights Act of 1965. More than a historical narrative, Selma shows how people of all backgrounds and life stories can come together in nonviolence to achieve progress.

Students at the event got to meet and take selfies with director Ana Duvernay. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Students at the event got to meet and take selfies with director Ava Duvernay. (Photo credit: Invision Agency)

DuVernay is the first black woman director to have a film nominated for an Academy Award.  At the event, she announced that a copy of the Selma DVD along with classroom resources will be sent to every U.S. high school, for educators to choose to use in their classrooms. When asked about the power of film in teaching history in the classroom, DuVernay said that “films are really empathy machines; they allow you to walk in someone else’s shoes, to be in someone else’s skin.” The civil rights movement is “furthered and fostered, and how it is advanced and matures certainly is steeped in the classroom.”

Students at the event were reminded of the continuity of history and their responsibility as citizens. Emily, a senior at Stuyvesant High School, said the movie showed that, “you have to get out there and speak for what’s right, especially if you are being oppressed.”

Maisha, another Stuyvesant senior, added that, “the movie very well depicts that peaceful methods of protest work.” A third student, Rabia, noted the power of film in teaching history to students. In Selma, “you can see and feel what [civil rights leaders] were going against, that the odds were not in their favor … [and] you feel what they stood up for … and [believe] that you can also take that risk now to stand up for what you believe in, even if you feel it might not work.”

Philip Mott, a social studies teacher from Stuyvesant High School in New York noted that the civil rights movement “is a legacy that has been passed on to us that we have an obligation to pass on to our students.”

Taylor Owen Ramsey is an education program specialist in ED’s New York Regional Office.


  1. I am an English Teacher at South Gate High School in South Gate, California a small city south of Los Angeles. We are part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. I am seriously interested in a copy of Selma along with its teaching resources for my students. In American Lit my students read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have A Dream Speech”, and so the Film Selma would help my students better understand the context and historical significance of this march.
    Thank you.

  2. Reviewing and editing of all publications is paramount. The twice misspelling of Ava DuVernay, not “Ana” DuVernay, a key figure in the article, is careless. Blogs are read and appreciated, but I think “Homeroom” the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education needs to pay attention to it’s “homework.”

  3. As per the California Education Code (233.5) each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the following:

    A.) The principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism, and true comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American equality.

    B.) The meaning of equality and human dignity, including the promotion of harmonious relations, kindness toward domestic pets and the humane treatment of living creatures, to teach them to
    avoid idleness, profanity, and falsehood, and to instruct them in manners and morals the principles of a free government.

    C.) Each teacher is also encouraged to create and foster an
    environment that encourages pupils to realize their full
    potential and that is free from discriminatory attitudes
    practices events or activities, in order to prevent acts of
    hate violence, as defined in subdivision (e) of Section 233.

  4. I totally agree with Secretary Duncan that ” “education is the civil rights issue of our generation.”. Schools, families and community organizers/leaders should work together to make civil rights a top priority in our collective school work, community education, training and development programs. Together we stand and succeed, apart we fall and fail. Failure is not an option here.

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