OAKLAND, Calif. - At just 6-years old, Selma is not your ordinary kid. The 1st grader at Chabot Elementary School in Oakland is making her mark locally and nationally, by delivering speeches highlighting the work of historical Black American figures.
Selma Jeyathurai White won first place in the National Frederick Douglass Oratorical Contest for her age group.
Selma’s parents, Byron White and Dashini Jeyathurai, virtually entered her in the contest put on by the National Park Service, by submitting a video of her reciting an excerpt from Douglass’ "The Race Problem."
"The true problem is not the negro… but the nation," she said emphatically in a video rehearsing the speech.
In February, she and her family will travel to Washington D.C. and recite the speech again when she receives her award. "I learned that he helped many people who were slaves," said Selma of her experience.
It’s not the first time she’s competed in a contest like this. Last year, when she was just a kindergartner, she delivered a speech competing in the Oakland Unified School District’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Fest.
She’s currently preparing for this year’s MLK Oratorical Fest, entering with Dr. King’s famous Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
"I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment, when 22-million negroes from the United States of America are engaged to end a creative battle to end a long night of racial injustice," she rehearsed.
Byron and Dashini said the key ingredient to Selma’s success is her dedication to memorizing the complex literature.
"It’s easier to get the intonation right and get the emphasis right if you understand some of the meaning," said Byron, who personally works with her to make sure she understands the material’s significance.
"Selma comes from a multi-racial background and we thought this was a really cool opportunity to introduce her to Black orators of the past and it’s a way of connecting your present and your past," Dashini added.
She spends hours practicing the speech, including hand gestures for emphasis.
"I practice with my parents every day and they give me suggestions about how to make it better," Selma said. "I love saying the speech because you get to be on stage and also the prizes."
Even her name carries weight. "Selma" means peace and serves as a reminder of the 1965 civil rights marches in Alabama.
"Selma and Montgomery marches were something with historical significance. She was born in 2017 and a lot of what was on our mind was justice, democracy, and the right to vote," said Byron.
Selma’s parents said they are proud of her hard work and look forward to seeing the impact she makes going forward.
"You never know what path your child is going to take, but we hope that path is, that she is a leader and that she is standing up for what is right and what is just," said Dashini.
It seems Selma has a head-start on making the world a better place.
As part of her prize and experience, she and her family will get the chance to tour the Douglass Cedar Hill home while they’re in the nation’s capital next month. Selma will participate in the OUSD MLK Oratorical Fest later this month.