Liberty Bell Rings for Winners of SELMA Speech and Essay Contest

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Finalist Evan Lehmann, former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, finalist Edan Armas, Youth Service America President and CEO Steve Culbertson, and finalist Ifeoma White-Thorpe. Photo courtesy of the NLM.
Finalist Evan Lehmann, former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, finalist Edan Armas, Youth Service America President and CEO Steve Culbertson, and finalist Ifeoma White-Thorpe. Photo courtesy of the NLM.

The winners of the National Liberty Museum’s SELMA Speech and Essay Contest, supported by the John Templeton Foundation in partnership with Paramount Pictures, were announced on April 21, 2015. In the year that marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, the top prize was awarded jointly to two teens, who each received the $5,000 Grand Prize at a ceremony in Philadelphia. The ceremony included a keynote speech from former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, an original Selma marcher and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The competition about individual freedom and self-determination received nearly 800 submissions and garnered over 4.7 million media impressions. Celebrities such as John Legend, Kerry Washington, and Ian Somerhalder also helped to spread the word on social media to encourage young people to apply.

The two winners, Ifeoma White-Thorpe from Denville, New Jersey, and Evan Lehmann from St. Louis, Missouri, learned that the judges had awarded them an equal score at the ceremony. Third place was given to Edan Armas from Roselle, Illinois, with nine other submissions receiving honorable mentions. All three winners were congratulated in a video message by the star of the film SELMA, David Oyelowo, and the film’s director, Ava DuVernay.

The three finalists recited their speeches and essays in front of the audience and were met with standing ovations. “The finalists’ ability to use the power of their own words to inspire others, to practice the rights of individual freedom and self-determination was evident in the delivery of each essay,” reported The Philadelphia Tribune.

Evan Lehmann reflected on the inequality he sees in his home town, noticing how it came into the spotlight following the death of Michael Brown in August 2014. “No matter how many times people in 1965 or people in 2015 try to silence our first amendment right, peaceful organizing will prevail,” he said. “Every protest, every march, and every outspoken person can help inch towards the reclamation of our autonomy and self-determination. A community with voice creates better schools, better government, and a better life for us all.”

Ifeoma White-Thorpe’s theme was about letting freedom ring, an echo of Dr. King’s famous remark, “Let freedom ring.” She confessed to believing the fight for freedom was over: “But when my brother no longer felt safe walking to the bus stop, or putting his hood up on rainy days, I began to question what is freedom, and how free am I today.” In a striking further observation, White-Thorpe described how the move towards freedom must begin with oneself. “I will be outstanding, so that others will respect me,” she said.

To enter the contest, students were asked to submit a 500-700 word speech and video responding to the following prompt: “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?”

“We were blown away by the number of inspiring young people from around the country all who could speak so eloquently and passionately about their civil liberties and about what Selma means,” says Gwen Borowsky, CEO of the National Liberty Museum. “To us, everyone who entered this contest is a winner and it is a very encouraging sign about the future of our country. We invite others to come and experience how the finalists have used the power of their words, and ask themselves, ‘How will you use yours?'”

“The passionate voices of the finalists rise above politics and speak to the present and future they need and want,” adds Jim Pitofsky, Managing Director of Strategic Alliances at the John Templeton Foundation. “We were thrilled to align with SELMA to create a constructive outlet for young people to express themselves as they grapple with current events and modern-day concerns and opportunities around freedom.”