NEW YORK – Phyllis G. Mack moved to Harlem from Charleston, W.Va., after she graduated from college in 1963. Although she was at the top of her class at West Virginia State University, no one in her home state would give her a job because she was black, she said.
“I moved to Harlem, and I got a job in about two minutes,” Mack said.
On Monday, she was at the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9 theater, where portraits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. line the walls. She was with her daughter, her son-in-law and her grandson to see “Selma,” a film about the 1965 marches for voting rights and King’s part in them. She said they were seeing the movie as a family, to share the history and the importance of the movie’s lessons – especially for her grandson, Stefan Mack, 15.
“The movie was very vivid to me,” Phyllis Mack said. “It was just as I remember it.”
Her daughter, Stephanie Mack-Cade, said she had wanted to see the movie with her mother, but even more, she wanted her son, Stefan, to see it.
“It’s important for me to show my son all the history that’s been lost,” she said, “because he doesn’t learn enough about it in school.
“He doesn’t understand how important gaining the right to vote was in his mother’s lifetime, and it’s important for him to learn about how much farther we have to go,” Mack-Cade continued, referring to the protest movements in response to the deaths of unarmed black men during altercations with the police in Ferguson, Mo., and on Staten Island, as well as discriminatory voter identification laws.
Several people who saw “Selma” in Harlem on Monday, Martin Luther King’s birthday, had participated in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s.
Mildred Tarver, 82, also a Harlem resident, said she was at the March on Washington in 1963. She was born in Augusta, Ga., and said she had friends and relatives in Alabama who were involved in the marches on Selma.
She was there to see the movie with her great-niece, Ivory Sligh, 20.
“These very young folks really need to see it,” Tarver said. “They don’t know what we came through, and a lot of us walked and died for what they have today.”
Patt Franklin was waiting outside the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, hoping to get into a free screening of the film.
Franklin, who lives in Harlem, said she had worked in Atlanta for five years as a secretary for Vernon Jordan at the Southern Regional Council, the civil rights organization devoted to addressing racial injustice.
In the early days of the movement, she said, she walked into work, and some employees asked her if she was registered to vote.
“I didn’t know what they were talking about, but they grabbed my coat and we all went down to the registrar and I got registered,” she said.
Franklin said she was not subjected to the intimidation tactics used to prevent black citizens from registering to vote, like poll taxes or questions that were nearly impossible to answer – how many bubbles in a bar of soap was a common question in Alabama – that are depicted in the movie.
But she too said she hoped young people would see the movie en masse. “The only way we’re going to change is to know our history,” she said.
Many black business leaders agreed and worked with Paramount Pictures, which made the film, to provide free tickets to students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades all over the country. Several cities had expanded the program to include students in other grades.
Charles Phillips, chief executive of Infor, a software company, said the project began after he and several friends saw the movie and started exchanging emails about how important it was for young people to see it.
“This was a transformative time in the black community and in the country,” he said in a phone interview last week. “And most of our kids didn’t know about it, so we asked ourselves, what can we do to recapture our heroes, especially since the story the film tells is more relevant than ever?”
He said those in his group originally raised money among themselves to buy 27,000 tickets in New York City, which were snapped up in two days. Eventually, they raised $2 million, enough for tickets for 275,000 students to see the film in 27 cities.
Ben Villareal and Veronica Black, Harlem residents, said they went to the movie because “with all the stuff going on with Ferguson and Eric Garner, it seemed prudent and timely.”
Villareal, who teaches English at Kingsborough Community College, said he had heard the movie was not entirely accurate and had distorted President Lyndon B. Johnson’s feelings about voting rights legislation.
“Whether the film is 100 percent accurate or not, it tells a story that many people may not know already and that can be important,” he said.
Black, who is a teaching fellow at the DreamYard Project, an after-school arts program in the Bronx, agreed: “It’s a film, not a documentary, and certain artistic license is allowed.
“It’s our duty as educators to go back and question, is this really what happened? You can’t necessarily take a movie at face value.”
Some of the lessons seem to have gotten through to younger audiences already, even before they saw the movie.
Natasha Smith, 14, a student at Harlem Village Academies, was seeing the film Monday afternoon with friends after they had received free tickets through their school.
“The things that are happening now, the shootings and police brutality, makes this so important,” she said, adding, “What Martin Luther King had to fight for, that’s still going on today.”