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Paramount Pictures Selma Essay Contest

With generous support from the John Templeton Foundation and in partnership with Paramount Pictures and the film SELMA, we launched the national Selma Speech & Essay Contest to engage U.S. high school students in thinking, writing and speaking about current issues of individual freedom and self-determination. The Contest was open from December 2014 – February 2015, marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma March. Entrants wrote an essay and then videotaped themselves reading it.

Congratulations Winners!

To view and read the submissions of the three finalists and the nine honorable mention winners, click on their names. Additional information about the contest can be found below.

Three Finalists

Paramount Pictures Selma Essay Contest

Edan Armas, Grade 12, Lake Park High School, Roselle, Illinois, adult sponsor Youla Simos

Ifeoma White-Thorpe, Grade 10, Morris Hills High School, Rockaway, NJ, adult sponsor Dr. Carol Gill

Evan Lehmann, Grade 12, Parkway North H.S., St. Louis, Missouri, adult sponsor LuAnn Fallahi

Nine Honorable Mentions

  1. Honorable Mentions

    Ashley Chico, Grade 10, Lake Highland Preparatory School, Orlando, Florida, adult sponsor Cece Scott

    Ethan Davis, Grade 12, East Chapel Hill High School, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, adult sponsor Patricia Berge

    Jonathan Johnson, Grade 12, Home-schooled, Irvington, NJ, adult sponsor Tracye Johnson

    Layla Kousari, Grade 12, Parkway North High School, St. Louis, Missouri, adult sponsor LuAnn Fallahi

    Madeline Kujabi, Grade 10, Bishop Grimes Junior/Senior High School, Syracuse, NY, adult sponsor Marni Nolan

    Giana Moreno, Grade 11, Trinity High School, River Forest, Illinois, adult sponsor Margaret McNair

    Brandon Oppong-Antwi, Grade 12, Eastern York High School, Wrightsville, PA, adult sponsor Natali Monaghan

    Danielle Sanders, Grade 11, Pelham High School, Pelham, Alabama, adult sponsor Connie Hayes Nolen

    Maxwell Turk, Grade 10, Northview High School, Johns Creek, Georgia, adult sponsor Camillie Janess

Paramount Pictures Selma Essay Contest Winners
All of the winning video speeches are presented in a Museum Exhibit. The three top winners had the opportunity to listen firsthand.

  1. About the Contest

    The National Liberty Museum launched the Selma Contest in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Selma march for voting rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in conjunction with the release of SELMA in January 2015, which high school students were required to see before submitting an entry. The purpose of the Contest was to empower students to speak up about their constitutional rights, the preciousness of our freedoms and how contributing to our democracy is the responsibility of all US Citizens. Students had to answer this question in their own, original speech and essay: “The movie Selma tells the story of how Martin Luther King, Jr. and others peacefully protested to advance voting rights. What do you think needs to be done today to protect individual freedom and self-determination? What are you doing or will do to peacefully advance those rights?”

  2. Did You Know?

    At the age of 15, a young Martin Luther King, Jr. entered a high school public speaking competition with his submission called, “The Negro and the Constitution.” He was in his junior year, and he won the competition. On the bus ride home, young King and his three companions were told to give up their seats to a white couple who had just boarded the bus, and they stood for several hours on their way back to Atlanta.

    It has been widely written that the high school speech Dr. King wrote inspired his “I Have a Dream” oration, since all of the concepts in his competition submission were encapsulated into the historic 1963 speech. There are striking parallels between the two writings.

  3. Overwhelming Response

    The Museum received nearly 800 submissions from high school students of all different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and points of view. Entries were submitted from 43 states, as well as Washington, D.C., the Virgin Islands, Guam and military bases abroad. Each of the entrants took the Contest topic seriously, and every young person who participated is a winner. “It’s incredibly moving to see how passionate these students from all walks of life are about using the power of their voice. What they have accomplished here has given us great hope for the future of the United States.” Gwen Borowsky, CEO, National Liberty Museum.

    We were also overwhelmed by all of the different individuals and organizations that spread the word about our contest, including many state departments of education, school districts, youth and service organizations and education associations across the country, SELMA Director Ave DuVernay, John Legend, Quincy Jones, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, Ian Somerhalder, Norman Lear, The Ford Foundation, VolunTEEN Nation, Bono’s organization (ONE), State Farm, MTV, and Google+.

    The Selma Contest captured national attention and received more than 1.6 million media impressions from outlets across the country.

  4. Meet the Judges

    The finalists were chosen by an impressive panel of judges, including:

    • Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr); a Grammy-winning hip hop artist, actor, author, model, and activist. In 2014, Common played Civil Rights Movement leader James Bevel in the widely- acclaimed Selma movie.
    • Dr. Marvin W. Berkowitz; the inaugural Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Character Education and Co-Director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
    • Xavier de Souza Briggs; an American sociologist and planner, known for his work on social capital, civic capacity, and community building, as well as the concept of the “geography of opportunity,” which addresses the consequences of race and class segregation for the well-being and life prospects of the disadvantaged.
    • Van Jones; an American environmental advocate, civil rights activist and attorney. In 2014, Mr. Jones launched two brand new initiatives: #cut50 is a bipartisan communications campaign to cut the prison population in half in 10 years — by forging unlikely alliances, popularizing alternatives to incarceration, and turning the moral and economic catastrophe of mass incarceration into a mainstream, voting issue. #YesWeCode, a national initiative of DreamCorps Unlimited, aims to train 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level computer programmers.
    • Shiza Shahid; an entrepreneur and social activist of Pakistani origin. She is the co-founder and global ambassador of the Malala Fund, the organization representing the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.
    • Douglas O. Tozour; President Emeritus of the National Liberty Museum, and C.E.O. and Founder of Tozour Energy Systems, Inc., a company that provides HVAC systems, energy solutions, and service of the complete comfort systems in buildings. Its new Sustainability Center is the most advanced of its type in the nation.
  5. The Prizes

    The Contest had planned to award three top winners and seven national finalists. The nominations were so impressive the finalists were increased to nine. The prizes are as follows:

    • First Place Winner: $5,000
    • Second Place Winner: $2,500
    • Third Place Winner: $1,000
    • Nine Honorable Mentions: $500 each
    • $300 cash prize for each teacher/mentor who sponsors one of the top 12
The Selma Speech & Essay Contest was made possible through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and in-kind charitable gifts from Paramount Pictures.

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