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Students march to 'Selma'

Nearly 50 years ago, hundreds of people crossed a bridge in Alabama — and braved beatings at the hands of police — to assert their freedoms as Americans.

On Wednesday, 180 more crossed St. Paul Street in midtown Baltimore en route to a screening of a film about those demonstrations in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

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The students of St. Frances Academy faced no violence as they marched the one-mile stretch from their school on East Chase Street to the Charles Theater. But by the time they'd seen "Selma," the two-hour Hollywood blockbuster now in theaters, some seemed to feel they'd been to their own mountaintops.

"I knew a little about those times, but I didn't realize how brutal things got," said Christian Lipscomb, a 16-year-old junior. "This day has been life-changing, very humbling. I'm proud of what those [marchers] did."

The faculty at St. Frances — an independent high school, founded in 1828, with a predominantly African-American student body — decided weeks ago to use "Selma," a film about the Alabama marches starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a vehicle for teaching students about the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

It's one of several area schools that have used the film as a teaching tool, or plan to. Amy Rosenkrans, director of humanities for Baltimore City schools, named four: Thomas Johnson Elementary/Middle School, Leith Walk Elementary/Middle School and Claremont School, all of which have screened the movie and staged discussions, and Forest Park High School, whose students were to view it Friday.

The Forest Park students, who have been researching the civil rights movement, were to take part in a discussion on the film's historical accuracy.

"It's an amazing opportunity for our students to actually see what groups of people went through during the 1960s for the right to vote," Rosenkrans said. "We really want our students to understand that they can make a difference, and seeing how Martin Luther King and John Lewis worked together in Selma lets our kids know they can make a difference, too."

A group of local fundraisers led by Eddie Brown, founder of Brown Capital Management in Baltimore, donated about $130,000 for tickets.

The St. Frances faculty originally planned to have the students take buses to White Marsh to see the film in a cineplex, but a group of students — balking at what would have been a $20 price tag — came up with what they felt was a better idea.

They'd search the area for theaters that were showing the movie, hoping one was close enough that they could march there, creating an event that would bond the community and celebrate the original marchers.

A march of their own, faculty members said, would also give them a chance to vent their feelings about recent events, such as the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012 and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by a white policeman last summer.

"Students will link past and present by marching in peaceful protest regarding recent police brutality throughout the nation," Brian Boles, the school's director of development and an event organizer, said last week.

Although Selma happened decades before the students were born, another St. Frances staffer said, there was plenty of interest.

"They wanted to show not only that black lives matter, as the saying goes these days, but that all lives matter, that we're one country," said Danaz Williams, assistant director of the boarding program at St. Frances.

St. Frances makes good on the message. Though more than 80 percent of the students are African-American, the school offers a program in Jewish studies. Laura Waterhouse, who teaches religion in the 10th and 12th grades, said it's one of many ways the school teaches that good people of all races must work together, as they did during the civil rights movement.

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The Selma marchers suffered threats, tear gas and beatings as they marched to Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965 to assert their right to vote.

The students weren't confronted by those challenges. But they did have to deal with Mother Nature.

On their original date of choice, snow caused a two-hour delay at the school, forcing a postponement.

They rescheduled for Thursday of this week. But when weathercasters called for snow, teachers acted quickly to move the march up a day.

There was no stopping them Wednesday. They lined up in front of St. Frances at 9 a.m. and walked across to Biddle Street, then west toward St. Paul. Traffic slowed and drivers waved as the throng made its way up the sidewalk.

Some students were silent, listening to earphones. Others were lively, flirting, laughing and socializing.

Williams wove his way through the group, singing protest songs from the 1960s such as "We Shall Overcome" and starting a variety of chants.

"No Justice!" he shouted.

"No peace!" a few dozen students replied.

Keyon Smith, a 17-year-old junior, led a group toward the front that shouted "Hands up; don't shoot!" a reference to the testimony of some witnesses that Brown was in the act of surrendering when Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot him Aug. 9.

Other witnesses have said Brown was charging Wilson at the time.

A Missouri grand jury declined to indict Wilson last November, a decision that sparked protests in the St. Louis suburb and around the country.

Smith sees a clear parallel between the civil rights movement and what happened in Ferguson.

"It's still about equality," he said. In his view, it's one thing to learn history from books, another to see it in the cinema.

"We can hardly ever visualize what our ancestors were like, what they went through," Smith said. "Seeing this movie will give us a better understanding."

The crowd was hushed during the film's most dramatic moments, such as when Alabama state policemen readied billy clubs covered with barbed wire and bull whips while waiting for peaceful demonstrators to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River on March 7, 1965.

There were whistles and cheers when the actor portraying President Lyndon Johnson, Tom Wilkinson, told a nationwide television audience in the film that he would present Congress with a voting rights bill.

Waterhouse said students would be challenged to debate the film's themes later in the day, including the relative importance of nonviolence in protest.

"They're young, emotional and impressionable, and there's a natural tendency to gravitate toward whichever side is most passionate," she said.

Baba Olumiji, a social studies teacher at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle, said his school took 94 students in seventh and eighth grade to see the film Jan. 30. They then had to write reviews and draw comparisons between what they learned in class and the film.

"I'm grading those papers as we speak," Olumiji said Wednesday. "We wanted students to have a strong understanding of events and to be able to clarify historical misconceptions before they saw the film."

At the Charles, Lipscomb, who is African-American, looked stunned as the credits rolled. Out in the lobby, where her schoolmates were gathering for the march back to school, she said the screening had given her plenty to think about.

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"This movie shined a light on things I didn't know," she said. "People of my race have gone through so much and handled it so bravely. I want to be sharing that message 50, 60 years from now."

Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.

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