In the late 1950s, a series of nonviolent demonstrations sprouted up across the Southeast in opposition to Jim Crow laws. Different groups such as CORE, SNCC, and SCLC organized sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches, which garnered much attention and eventually forced the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The efforts of our forebears opened the door for political and economic equality, but in recent years there have been more intense efforts to strip us of our rights through the courts and through legislature with Shelby v. Holder, Merrill v. Mulligan, Voter ID laws, and more while we sit idly by. It would be pitiful if our indolence causes us to lose our gains, but we have created a precarious situation we will not recover from unless the same commitment and sense of duty seen in the 1950s and 1960s manifests itself again. But sadly, many do not know where to start, and it is my goal to inform you what we can do to urge a new generation to create progress and a fairer world.
We have to create a desire for justice in younger generations through civil rights education, which will hopefully lead to stronger intergenerational relationships. The consequences of inability of action, although not on a similar scale, are similar to the repercussions of Reconstruction: political persecution, only those intent on suppressing the Black vote will go about it in much more subtle ways. To combat this, we need to redefine and sharpen our goals, not to commercialize it and make it more appealing, but to fit today’s struggles. We are not at risk of being beaten for going to the polls, but we are at risk of being beaten by police while marching against police brutality, being beaten by police when we are pulled over because of the color of our skin. The same applied in the past to a greater extent, and there are many former activists willing to recount and share their stories, ready to compel the sympathetic younger generations to join the movement. I am proposing the establishment of community events where youth can interact with those civil rights activists and each other, spaces where a dialogue on injustice can be created and knowledge can be shared from the older to the younger. These programs will hopefully spread awareness of the movement and interaction with the community.
Once these programs form, their participants need to create active relationships with the local community. Community engagement in civil rights has long been a proven model for increasing followers, and only through bringing to the collective consciousness the danger of being idle and voting against our interests can we have a chance at making progress. Through collaboration with local businesses and foundations these organizations can grow their influence and communicate the importance of civic engagement and civil disobedience to adolescence. Recognizing the needs and concerns of the community is crucial in Civil Rights and in social justice movements at large; one only has to look at the Black Panthers and SCLC, the UFW [Chavez] and ANC [Mandela], and all of whom were able to bring masses into their movements and force the hand of the government into overturning oppressive laws. Furthermore, through sponsorships and collaborations with local restaurants, stores, and charities these programs can gain some of the funding needed for operation and provide community services that will in turn attract more people. With the trust of the community and influence, these organizations can help organize marches, especially in the wake of high-profile injustices, increase community outreach, and register voters, so tangible political change can be made. I would recommend that these groups target their efforts towards older people who did not register in the past and younger people, groups that have been neglected and neglected their civic responsibility not because of a lack of care and concern towards politics but because the process has been made intentionally difficult. Social progress has historically been accomplished through the actions of the government, and by persuading people to register we can help preserve our freedoms and rights.
But will this help in the long run, you might ask? As previously mentioned, by electing officials and congressmen that will truly work for the peoples’ benefit, we can hopefully for future generations preserve the foundation this country was built on: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while continually expanding the freedoms and opportunities promised to us. By interacting with the elders of the civil rights movement, adolescents will not only gain knowledge on strategies and civil disobedience but also form intergenerational relationships and encourage a progressive society. Through the establishment of intergenerational programs as described earlier, we can use the resources and abilities everybody has to offer to help address community issues and to build a greater sense of community and belonging. The only way to stop disenfranchisement and the destruction of our rights is for those in different generations, the elders of the Civil Rights movement and the activist youth, to work together to accomplish the common goal of social egalitarianism. Increased engagement and aggressive efforts to address social inequality will allow us youth to be more actively involved in the civil rights movement and hopefully inspired by the accomplishments of those past to renew and amplify the initiative of social progress, the initiative our forebears worked on in the 1950s and 1960s so that we can vote without being threatened, so that we can eat and shop in the same establishments as whites, so that we can be treated with basic respect and dignity, so that we today can carry on their mission and fight for justice and equality.