First Lady Michelle Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by inviting a group of predominantly black grade school students to the White House on Tuesday and showing them a documentary that chronicles the life of civil rights activist Whitney Young – who was raised in segregated Kentucky and became head of the National Urban League.

The documentary “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights,” is narrated by actress Alfre Woodard and is special to the first lady because she graduated from the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago in 1981. The documentary was produced by Bonnie Boswell, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and Whitney Young’s niece.

“And as you’ll see in this documentary, Whitney Young was one of the main organizers of that historic march, which gathered together hundreds of thousands of people of all races and all backgrounds with the important goal of making change,” Obama told the diverse group of students from Maryland and Virginia, including the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Southeast, D.C. “In fact, Mr. Young spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just a few minutes before Dr. King gave his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.”

“But what we learned from this documentary is that Whitney Young drew on his decency,” the first lady said.  “He drew upon his intelligence and his amazing sense of humor to face down all kinds of discrimination and challenges and all kinds of threats.  But one of the things I want you guys to keep in mind, as Bonnie mentioned, is that what this documentary shows us is that there are so many unsung heroes in our history whose impact we still feel today, just regular folks.  They’re not always going to be the Barack Obamas, the Dr. Kings, the Malcolm Xs.”

“For every Dr. King, there is a Whitney Young or a Roy Wilkins or a Dorothy Height, each of whom played a critical role in the struggle for change,” she added.  “And then there are the millions of Americans, regular folks out there, whose names will never show up in the history books.”

Tuesday’s event at the White House auditorium was sponsored by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The goal of the initiative, according to the White House, is “Strengthening the nation by expanding educational opportunities and improving educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages, and helping ensure that all African Americans receive an education that properly prepares them for college, productive careers, and satisfying lives.”

The initiative was established by President Barack Obama to raise awareness about education and employment challenges facing African Americans and to close the achievement gap between black and white students.

On Tuesday, the first lady explained to students how the civil rights movement transformed the nation through grass-roots activism.

“I’m talking about the maids who walked miles home from work every night during the bus boycotts in Montgomery,” she said.  “We won’t know the names of those men and women, and the young people who faced down fire hoses and police dogs and angry mobs.  We know some of those names, but we won’t know all of them.  I’m talking about the mothers and the fathers who taught their children to stand with dignity during a time when it was hard to get your kids to dream big.  But those parents, throughout all that they saw, still taught their kids to dream bigger than the world ever could expect of them.”

“Each of those people played a critical role in the difficult and often dangerous work of building a better future for all of us,” Obama added.  “And the thing I want you all to remember, as you watch this film, is that we are here because of that struggle.  I’m here because of that struggle.  And even though you may think you have some struggles, your paths are a whole lot easier because of the work these men and women did.  And today, as a result of their work, we’re living in a more just and more fair society.”

Michelle Obama’s event for students comes one day before President Barack Obama delivers a much-anticipated speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered his powerful address to 250,000 people who answered King’s call for racial equality and jobs in 1963.

“So that leads me to something else I want to ask you all and have you think about as you watch the film — a question that Barack and I, we often discuss with our daughters.  And that question is, how are you all going to continue what these folks started?” the first lady asked the students. “I want you to think about that.  What are you going to do?  What will be your contribution?  Think about that, because you got to start building up that energy now.  It starts now.  I want you to think about that.  How are you going to make your community and our country safer? Each and every one of you has the power to do that. How are you going to make this entire country more prosperous and more free?”

(Photo: Shevry Lassiter)

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