Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Lesson in Courage: Oprah Celebrates Selma & The Legends Who Paved the Way

Extraordinary people often possess extraordinary courage. I was reminded of this undeniable truth last weekend when my husband and I flew to the west coast to attend a special "Legends" weekend hosted by Oprah Winfrey. Being in Oprah's presence, experiencing her graciousness as she and Stedman Graham welcomed guests into their world, and observing the fine way in which she honored our civil rights legends were tremendous lessons in courage.
Winfrey (center) with David Oyelowo (left of Winfrey) and Ava DuVernay (right of Winfrey) honor the legends of civil rights (Seated L-R) Ambassador Andrew Young, Diane Nash, Juanita Jones Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Marian Wright Edelman and Rev. C.T. Vivian. (Standing L-R) Congressman John Lewis, Julian Bond, Sidney Poitier, David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, Quincy Jones, Dick Gregory, and Berry Gordy.

Common, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay and Carmen Ejogo.
On Saturday, December 6, guests attended a screening of the movie, “Selma” directed by award-winning filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, with Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey as “Annie Lee Cooper.” Later that evening, we attended a star-studded "Celebrating Selma & The Legends Who Paved The Way" gala at the beautiful Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara. The next morning, Oprah and Stedman hosted guests at their breathtaking estate in Montecito where we enjoyed a powerful gospel performance by The Winans Brothers, Kim Burrell, Ledisi, Bill Withers and his daughter Kori Withers, who has the voice of an angel. 

Scene from "Selma" movie. 
Selma is the story of a courageous movement. The film, shot in a remarkable 32 days, chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma tells the real story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.

Oprah Winfrey with one of my personal heroes, Sidney Poitier.
Watching the movie in the company of civil rights legends and the Hollywood elite was overwhelming. Collectively, we felt the power of this brilliantly directed and produced film and after, talked openly about the fear and suffering these courageous souls endured in Selma, Alabama. 

So much of what our civil rights icons and everyday citizens faced is in some respects being relived today as the country fights to change how law enforcement officials police people of color, particularly black men. The director, actors and producers who took the stage after the screening were met with thunderous applause. Once the applause ended, however, a hush fell over the theater. What struck me most in this moment was the feeling that young people need to see and understand what happened on Bloody Sunday and in subsequent marches as people from all walks of life fought for voting rights and equality for black people. Each of us, but especially young people, needs to understand the historical context for what is taking place in present-day America. Every conversation my husband and I engaged in that evening—shared reflections with Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Cookie Johnson, Shonda Rhimes, Robin Roberts, Gayle King, Deborah Roberts and Al Roker—brought us back to the point that our youth need to understand this period in our history so they will know that this struggle didn't begin, nor does it end with them. It is my hope that the film will elicit an elevated level of discourse as we fight to ensure that black lives matter.

Leslie Gordon and Shonda Rhimes
I cannot think of a better word to describe the Legends Who Paved the Way gala than magical. It was simply magical. Oprah spared no expense. South African lifestyle guru and party planner to the stars, Colin Cowie and his event production team provided guests with an experience we won't soon forget. From the powerful video treatments honoring legends Ambassador Andrew Young, Berry Gordy, Rev. C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, Dick Gregory, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Congressman John Lewis, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Juanita Jones Abernathy, Julian Bond, Marian Wright Edelman, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Quincy Jones, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, to the soul train line while the O'Jays sang their classic, "Love Train," this gala was an affair to remember. To see these finely dressed folks including Tessa Thompson, Deion Sanders, Tracey Edmonds, Cory Booker, Gayle King, George Lucas, Mellody Hobson, David Oyelowo, Jessica Oyelowo, Holly Robinson Peete, Rodney Peete, Berry Gordy, Eskedar Gobeze, Kevin Liles, Erica Liles, Jeff Jacobs, Holly Jacobs, Andrea Wishom, Charles Young, Oprah and Stedman getting down on the dance floor was a site to behold.

Leslie Gordon and Tamron Hall
On Sunday, December 7, Oprah and Stedman warmly welcomed each guest to their estate, and the lovely Gayle King was also a gracious host. Guests, dressed in sophisticated garden attire, enjoyed mimosas and sparkling beverages as we gathered for a pre-brunch concert. The shared feeling of joy and celebration that took hold when Oprah stepped onto the stage is difficult to put into words. The moment gospel greats Bebe Winans and Kim Burrell opened their mouths, we knew then that we weren’t prepared for what would happen next. When I say they took us to church, this is no exaggeration. Their voices rose to the heavens as they sang lyrics filled with inspiration and encouragement. Guests from Maria Shriver to Smokey Robinson, from David Oyelowo to Phylicia Rashad, were reduced to tears as these powerful voices made the audience reflect and celebrate. Bill Withers and Kori Withers performed “My Father’s Son,” followed by Bebe and his brothers leading guests in Withers’ classic, “Lean On Me.” Bebe walked through the audience with the microphone in his hand, stopping before Smokey Robinson, Congressman John Lewis, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Ledisi who each lent their voices and had the crowd on their feet. Just when we thought we couldn’t take much more of the emotionally charged, spirit-filled performances, Oprah wrapped it up and led guests to an exquisite brunch where conversations with our civil rights legends flowed and guests happily posed for pictures—all a beautiful expression of one of most powerful weekends we’ll ever experience.
AJ Calloway, Senator Cory Booker, Ed Gordon and Samuel L. Jackson
My take away from the "Celebrating Selma & The Legends Who Paved The Way" weekend? Courage. Rising above adversity takes courage. Greatness takes courage—courage to use our gifts and our influence to do great things; to share our blessings; to treat people with kindness and love, no matter their station in life. 

Life takes courage—courage to fight oppression and injustice; courage to decide that we’re worthy of pursuing the best that life has to offer with honesty and integrity; courage to sit among kings and queens and know that we’re worthy of having a seat at the table; courage to decide that an exceptional and solid work ethic is the difference between success and failure. 

I saw courage on every single face at Oprah's estate on Sunday. Guests had the courage to be vulnerable and let the tears flow when Bebe, Marvin and Carvin Winans sang, "Millions didn't make it, but I was one of the ones who did." We had the courage to look into eyes of the person sitting next to us and share our joy. Courage to raise our level of consciousness about what's going on in the world today and decide to take action. Courage to shake the hand of a complete stranger and find common ground. Courage to surround ourselves with people who lift our spirits. Courage to engage in discussions about hope for the world and enormous possibilities for our lives. Courage to change the narrative of race in America and provide guidance and inspiration for our children and future leaders. Courage to dream. Courage to love. Courage to be. That’s what extraordinary people do. They find and embrace courage.
Oprah Winfrey and Leslie Gordon
Oprah Winfrey and Leslie Gordon
Ed Gordon, Quincy Jones and Leslie Gordon

Phylicia Rashād, Bill Withers, AJ Calloway and Angela Bassett
Back row: Carvin Winans, Ed Gordon and Earvin "Magic" Johnson
Front: Leslie Gordon Marvin Winans, Bebe Winans and Cookie Johnson
AJ Calloway, Senator Cory Booker, Leslie Gordon and Samuel L. Jackson

Ed Gordon (right) enjoying a moment with one of his music idols, Bill Withers.
Tasha Smith, Ledisi, Angela Bassett and Leslie Gordon
The lovely Gayle King (my favorite morning anchor).
"Selma" will be released in select cities December 25, 2014.
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