According to Bill Lewis, co-chairman of investment banking at Lazard, that simple inquiry quickly led to an initiative supported by more than a score of African-American business leaders in New York. The goal? To provide funding
that would let tens of thousands of New York City middle school students see the film "Selma" for free.
Now, African-American business leaders in two dozen other cities have taken up the challenge of #SelmaforStudents
, with the hope that nearly 300,000 middle and high school students across the country will have seen "Selma" in its first week.
What is it that so quickly and powerfully united these business leaders? What is it about "Selma" that struck a chord, leading them to launch this "first-of-its-kind" initiative? It was not driven by a studio or even by the film's high profile producer Oprah Winfrey, who expressed surprise, excitement and pride at hearing of the plan.
Instead, as Lewis and others expressed to me, it was their own response to seeing the film that compelled such personages as Charles Phillips, CEO of Infor, Ken Chenault, the CEO of American Express, Tony Coles, former CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals, Ursula Burns CEO of Xerox, Edith Cooper, Goldman Sachs' Global Head of Human Capital Management, and 22 others to shape, develop and implement their plan in a series of email exchanges over one weekend.
Without question, "Selma" resonates strongly at a time when our country is gripped by race-related protests. For many African-Americans, the civil rights challenges of 2015 have served as a sobering reminder of the ongoing salience of race and racism in American life. The movie provides a sense of historical context for these ongoing struggles, but more importantly, reminds us of the sacrifices that made possible the success we enjoy today.
The leaders who created the initiative are direct beneficiaries of those early sacrifices, and they know it. Most serve on boards of civil rights organizations and African-American and other cultural institutions and are leading philanthropists for causes that elevate African-American history and struggle.
The push to expose students to "Selma" speaks to their desire that young people today be aware of our rich history and the continuing advocacy still needed for racial equality. It provides an opportunity for young people to reclaim and engage a critical--though distant, for them-- part of African-American history. And it also allows these leaders to acknowledge the arc of their own journey.
Many have suggested that the television miniseries "Roots" shaped a generation, prompting African-Americans to openly engage the history and devastation wrought by slavery and compelling our country to confront its original sin.
"Selma" has the potential to play a similar role, engaging young people with a history that has powerful resonance for the challenges and struggles we confront today, and bringing to life the courage, the determination and humanity of a generation of African-Americans on whose shoulders we all stand.