Reggie Selma was CNN’s first African American White House cameraman. Sometimes, when crowds gathered, he would invite a small child up to be an honorary CNN reporter as he was setting up for broadcast, thinking he may inspire their career path. Little did he realise on a day in Dublin in 1984 that he would be the one who ended up inspired.
“Anyone who talks to me for more than five minutes walks away knowing two things: I love my family and my hometown is Birmingham, Alabama.”
Reggie Selma, already a man of sunny disposition, lights up when he speaks about his home and family. He had a warm and loving childhood in an equally warm and loving neighbourhood defined by camaraderie and community spirit.
Yet it wasn’t always such a bright place. It has “a dark past”, a past marked by the awful effects of Jim Crow laws, which essentially amounted to “legalised racism”.
Selma grew up surrounded by ‘Whites only’ and ‘Coloureds only’ signs. His parents had to pay $15 each – around €110 in today’s money, according to Selma – to vote. A bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan killed four little girls, including one of Selma’s 11-year-old neighbours, while they attended church services in 1963.
That bombing – known as the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing – proved to be a turning point for the civil rights movement. Selma credits the courage of peaceful protesters with paving the way for him to become CNN’s first African American cameraman assigned to the White House.
For Selma, much of this legacy came flooding back to him on a press visit in 1984 when he was setting up for a live broadcast of then US president Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland.
If he had the time, and if crowds were gathered, as they were that day, Selma often liked to pick a kid from the throngs of people and bring them up as an honorary CNN reporter. “You never know who you’re going to inspire.”
So, Selma picked one – a boy, nine years old. Smiling widely and brightly, immediately charismatic and precocious in a way that instantly charmed everyone around him. He did his piece and, as he stepped off the stage, Selma realised he had never asked his name.
It was the name, Selma went on to explain, that ignited within him a storm of strong emotions, and inspired the call he put out on the Inspirefest 2019 stage to conference attendees.
To find out about Selma’s mission, check out the video in full below.
Updated, 1.10pm, 11 June 2019: This article was amended to clarify that Reagan visited Ireland in 1984, not 1964.