Students who went to the White House.Â (l-r) Vicente Payan, Miguel Hernandez, Dwayne Keith, Khristean Daniels, Josiah Marshall, Mayo Williams, Erik Henderson II, Ernesto Villasenor
As a part of the Legendary Singer’s Enduring Vision for Giving Back, the Ray Charles Memorial Library Saluted youths during his 80th Birthday Celebration
An incredible journey to Washington, D.C., has infused hope, change and vision into eight Compton High School students.
The life-changing event, exemplary of the style and class of the late, great Ray Charles, was possible due to the musical genius’s legacy of helping others fulfill their dreams. The young people were part of a 120-student contingent selected to learn about the civil rights movement and network with fellow students from around the country.
This celebration of progress, hope and inspiration culminated Feb. 9 when the Ray Charles Memorial Library sponsored the young men from the inner city of Compton, Calif., to attend the White House’s Civil Rights Educational Program and the PBS-aired concert “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.”
Their golden opportunity was in keeping with Charles’ vision for his foundation: instilling hope and providing a chance for the underprivileged to realize their full potential. That vision, together with Charles’ enduring music, are the focal points of the recently launched “Ray Charles 80th Birthday Celebration.” Upcoming highlights of the 20-month celebration include an American Masters tribute by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the opening of the Ray Charles Library in Los Angeles.
“Ray Charles taught those he touched about the unlimited human potential and the genius inherent in each person individually,” says Valerie Ervin, President of The Ray Charles Foundation and The Ray Charles Memorial Library. “The participation of these eight Compton High School students has changed the course of their future unlike any other experience, leaving an indelible, positive and hopeful mark on their individual lives and spirits.”
The opportunity to visit the White House and meet fellow high school students from New York, Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle and Washington, D.C., left a lasting impression on the Compton students (Khristean Daniels, Erik Henderson, Miguel Hernandez, Dwayne Keith, Josiah Marshall, Vicente Payan, Ernesto Villasenor Jr., and Mayo Williams), who dubbed themselves the “Compton Eight.”
“I learned that nothing in life is impossible; it can only be difficult,” noted Hernandez.
Echoing the same sense of hope and inspiration, fellow student and aspiring attorney Villasenor said, “I came away inspired, prepared to tear down the walls that will prevent me from doing what I pursue to do with my life. The opportunity to visit the capitol and get inside the White House before I even turn 18, by far has been the biggest accomplishment and most memorable event in my whole life!”
Among the unforgettable highlights of the trip for Villasenor were: meeting R&B legend Smokey Robinson, listening to the music and hearing stories from some of the original Freedom Singers, “who told us their stories of how life was in the South during the days of segregation and the rising of civil disobedience,” and sitting with President Obama and his guests.
“I never met Mr. Charles, the eight young men from Compton never met Mr. Charles, yet nearly five years after his passing, his legacy granted us the mind-blowing opportunity to travel with Ms. Ervin, to Washington D.C., and participate in the White House’s Civil Rights Educational Program and Songs of Civil Rights Movement Musical Celebration. Please believe me when I say, dreams come true,” said chaperone Ramsey Jay Jr.
He succinctly sums up the dream-come-true White House visit, “With absolute class, pure dignity and the utmost respect, these eight future leaders truly represented the memory of Mr. Ray Charles.”
The climax to everything these young men experienced in the nation’s capitol was a magical, dreamlike evening spent at a White House concert where the hosts were President and Mrs. Obama. Even though blizzard-like conditions, frigid temperatures and, frozen, slippery sidewalks prevailed outdoors, hearts were blazing with enthusiasm inside. The audience included Vice President Joe Biden; United States Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner; Senior Advisor to the President, David Axelrod; civil rights icon and former Chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond; and NAACP President, Benjamin Jealous. Also attending were President Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, and their grandmother, Marian Robinson.
Commemorating Black History Month, the White Civil Rights Educational Program was produced by the Grammy Museum and led by the museum’s Executive Director Bob Santelli. The event culminated with “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.” Produced by Santelli, AEG Erlich Ventures, the National Black Programming Consortium and PBS affiliate WETA, the concert featured a diverse array of voices that personified the moving and intense history of the civil rights movement.
Master of ceremonies at the electrifying concert at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman. The show began with Bob Dylan performing “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” followed by gospel great Yolanda Adams with her rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Folksinger legend Joan Baez led the crowd in a sing-along of “We Shall Overcome,” and Jennifer Hudson and Smokey Robinson teamed on “People Get Ready.” Natalie Cole then vocalized “I Wish I Knew How It Felt to Be Free” and “What’s Going On,” while John Mellencamp sang “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” The President introduced the final song of the evening as everyone joined on “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The inspiring concert later aired on PBS, but the “Compton Eight” experienced it.
Earlier that day, The Blind Boys of Alabama sang “Perfect Peace” to end an hour-long workshop held for the students. Also performing were The Freedom Singers (featuring mother and daughter Bernice and Toshi Reagon, as well as Rutha Harris and Charles Neblett) and Yolanda Adams.
Aiding the Ray Charles Memorial Library in sending the eight Compton students to the White House was the L.A. Kings Care Foundation, which provided matching shirts and ties as well as scarves and hats. Additional wardrobe sponsors included the Los Angeles companies Marina Imports, Al Mac Will, WSS-Warehouse Shoe Sale, Honey’s Kettle Fried Chicken and Freshman 101.
Compton student Josiah Marshall shared his Kodak moment of the California-to-D.C. experience saying that it was “going to the White House and understanding the significance of what I accomplished as I walked through those doors, and how gracious I felt to all the people who contributed to making this experience possible.”
Fellow traveler Mayo Williams reflected on the final day as they spent time with the larger group of students: “We later ate dinner with everyone, and afterward gathered to display our gifts in a talent show we called ‘The Perfect Storm 2-10-10.’ There were many performances, such as people playing guitar, singing, doing poetry and rapping. But after that, we gathered in a circle to express appreciation for the trip, our sponsors, parents, each other and God. It was a loving, peaceful environment that we created in that moment and at that moment we had deemed that room sacred.”
While it was a trip of numerous firsts for the Compton students who ventured to the District of Columbia (the first time many of them had seen snow and made a snowball and the first time to dine at a five-star restaurant), Ernesto Villasenor wraps up the scintillating experience with the following sentiments.
“I came back with a story to tell. . . . This opportunity is by far the most memorable thing that has happened to me, from which I have and will cherish everything about it. As a young leader in my community and the entire nation, everything I have learned will be brought and spoken out to the community, to let them know that anything is possible when you set your mind to it.”