By KYW community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The National Liberty Museum, in Old City, rolled out the red carpet today for three students who submitted the winning essays and video speeches marking the 50th anniversary of historic march in Selma, Ala. led by Dr. Martin Luther King.

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The 2015 “Selma Speech and Essay” contest drew nearly 800 entries nationwide.   Judges, including rapper Common, sifted through the submissions, whittling them down to the top three, who were honored today in a full scale celebration.

“I feel so blessed to be here and to receive this distinction,” said Rockaway, NJ tenth-grader Ifeoma White-Thorpe, who tied for first place and won $5,000, thanks to her stirring spoken-word essay about decreasing freedoms among young black young men following the shooting last year of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“I began to question: what is freedom, and how free am I?” White-Thorpe says in her videotaped essay.

St. Louis, Mo. senior Evan Lehmann shared the first-place honor for his speech about “white silence” and his decision to protest amid riots in his home city.

“It’s exciting to know that my perspective is valued,” he said.

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Rosselle, Ill. student Edan Armas won third place.

“We read so many negative stories about young people, and young people are amazing,” National Liberty Museum CEO Gwen Borowsky said at today’s ceremony.

The students also saw special video messages from David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay (the star and director of the movie Selma, respectively).

Former US senator Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), who marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965, was the keynote speaker.

The essays and speeches of the top 12 entrants are now on display at the museum.

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