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Success and pain in ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’

I don’t do a lot of movie reviews, but there’s a great film I can recommend if you get the chance.

“Tell Them We Are Rising” is the inspiring story of historically black colleges and universities, about higher education, and ultimately about our economic and social trajectory as a nation.

Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson and his team from Firelight Mediahave produced a beautiful and engrossing film that offers much more than a history of HBCUs as a haven for African American intellectual pursuit and personal fulfillment. It shows that because of historically black colleges and universities, the lives of African Americans, who have been cultivated as leaders, citizens, and participants in our democracy — and indeed the lives of all of us as Americans — are stronger and more vibrant.

The story is personal for me. I’ve been an advocate and supporter of HBCUs since my days as a college freshman at Bates College in Maine and the establishment of the Benjamin Elijah Mays Medal, awarded in honor of the then still-living distinguished Bates graduate who had preceded me on campus by more than 50 years.

Dr. Mays was a groundbreaking civil rights leader and college president who led Morehouse College for 27 years, serving as mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and playing a pivotal role in the desegregation of the Atlanta school system.

He spoke eloquently and often about the notion that we are all responsible for our own futures — but that we also have a responsibility to others.

Dr. Mays’ words and deeds affected me deeply as a young, first-generation college student, and have inspired me over the course of a lifetime of work in higher education and philanthropy, both as an advocate for racial justice and equity, and as a champion of HBCUs. Indeed, I’m reminded of Dr. Mays and his words daily when I spend time with my globally-minded teenage son, Benjamin, who my wife Colleen and I named in his honor.

At Lumina Foundation, we see ourselves as a catalyst to increase postsecondary educational attainment for all Americans, in as many high-quality learning contexts as possible to serve the country’s rich array of people, geographies and backgrounds. HBCUs are central to that work.

Unfortunately, I know from personal experience that HBCUs face many challenges. Indeed, they are the only group of institutions of higher learning whose right to exist is questioned by people who fail to understand that the legacy of HBCUs is merely an expression of their potential.

Why do we still have HBCUs? Unfortunately, that’s a common question asked, sometimes publicly, more often in private, but frequently with a cynical and uninformed view of historically black colleges and universities and their capacity to drive the still-rising talent and spirit of America.

“Tell Them We Are Rising” answers that question with a definitive and unequivocal lesson about how HBCUs have played a central role in the unfinished ascent of African Americans in American society. This film, these ideas, make a powerful case for the fact that HBCUs are not just an important part of our history, they are absolutely essential to our future.

Jamie P. Merisotis is President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. This is adapted from his remarks at the screening of “Tell Them We are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, on Feb. 12. The film was made with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Lumina Foundation.

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