The late Coretta Scott King once said, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it with every generation.”
With every generation, movements for political change have been buttressed by the energy, talent, resolve, creativity and dedication of young people. Indeed, it was the dedicated organizing of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that helped dramatize the ills of Jim Crow segregation. Young people such as Ruby Bridges, the Tougaloo Nine, Diane Nash and children of the Birmingham March demanded that America live up to her promise. James Cheney, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair became martyrs in a movement to affirm the most basic rights of American citizenship.
Young people propelled the anti-war movement to point out the hypocrisy of fighting for democracy abroad while failing to secure and protect it here at home. It was that confluence of military service and civil rights activism that made the senseless murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson so egregious.
Jackson was a deacon, community leader and activist who fought in Vietnam only to return to Alabama and be denied access to the ballot. He was an American patriot shot in the stomach by a state trooper and left to die in a substandard hospital marked for “Coloreds Only.” Jackson’s death in Selma prompted John Lewis and 600 other brave foot soldiers to set out on a march from Selma to Montgomery, beaten by state troopers in what would become known as the Bloody Sunday March.
That resilient spirit led young people to launch divestment campaigns on college campuses across the U.S. as a show of solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement. Through vigils, protests and film screenings, students elevated public awareness of South Africa’s racial caste system while demanding that American institutions no longer finance the separation. And it was that same resiliency that drew students to the National Mall for the 1995 Million Man March. Young people returned to their campuses and communities armed with an increased self-awareness that was reflected through various elements of pop culture and community organizing.
And now, as America comes to grips with its latest mass shooting, a brewing demand for gun reform is being led by young people saying “enough” and “no more.” The murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. is viewed by many as a watershed moment in a decades-long pattern of mass shootings at schools such as Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. While determining what qualifies as a “school shooting” is heavily debated, the disruption of peace for students, faculty and families is indisputable.
Over the last week, I have watched young people affected by this latest violence boldly criticize legislators and demand effective policy measures. Seeing them stand up evokes the same sense of pride I felt hearing students in Flint and Chicago decry a pattern of political indifference that puts their lives in danger. The pain in their voices is palpable and endearing. Together, young people are affirming the impossibility of not politicizing an epidemic borne out of policy choices financed by groups with political interests.
From massive demonstrations to impassioned speeches, young people are poised to translate their rage and frustration into positive social change. Frankly, it’s too early to know whether this latest organizing will be an isolated moment or the foundation of a coherent movement. It feels like we are always one beat away from the next tragedy or political controversy that can both numb and distract us. Yet, it’s particularly troubling when pundits paint this newest effort as the most significant youth-led movement since the 1960’s.
The last five years have been marked by dedicated efforts of young people across the United States to demand greater accountability and recognition of the mechanisms that diminish their life chances. And we need to affirm that. Young people have harnessed the power and energy of social media, flooding our timelines with hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDon’tShoot.
Young activists forced us to question what it means that more people seemed to be upset by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee than a 12 year-old Tamir Rice taking multiple shots. We have seen massive uprisings beginning in Ferguson and spreading to Staten Island, Cleveland and Los Angeles. On campuses in Missouri, Connecticut, California and Texas. At statehouses in Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida.
The Dream Defenders organization was founded to tackle Florida’s Stand Your Ground law that led to the deaths of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin. In 2013, the group held a 31-day demonstration at the state capitol to highlight ongoing concerns about racial profiling and injustice. They argued that the future of young people in the Sunshine State was contingent upon a collective commitment to protecting and affirming their worth. And yet, many youth activists have been vilified as troublemakers rather than change agents.
Young people have the power of revolution at their fingertips. They have greater access to technology than any other generation. Our coverage of and reaction to this latest student organizing, not just in Florida but across the United States, must acknowledge that movements don’t occur in a vacuum. They are inspired by, formed through, and channeled via the efforts of those who come before.
Pointing out these differences in no way takes away from the brave actions of Parkland students and their allies. Quite the contrary. It is an affirmation that we need to address the myriad ways students are organizing to demand change, even when that organizing doesn’t fit our model of respectable civic engagement. From Parkland to Pullman, young people will be America’s saving grace.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American Politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.