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Cover Story

A new generation takes up Martin Luther King Jr.'s torch (+video)

Fifty years after King's March on Washington, young civil rights activists push dreams of their own.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent / August 24, 2013

A close-up of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C., is seen in this photograph. This is the cover story in the Aug. 19-26 double issue of The Christian Science Monitor.



Tallahassee, Fla.

Rosanna Rizo clutches her iPhone, searching Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office for a place to sit. Every spot is occupied, from the palm tree-embossed chairs to the gold-colored couch. Finally, she drops to the floor and squeezes beside friends Giovanni Rocco and Issis Alvarez, making sure to keep her toes behind the yellow tape that zigzags across the forest green carpet.

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Monitor staffer Pat Murphy goes behind the scenes with correspondent Carmen Sisson from Greenwood Miss., on her coverage of a new generation of civil rights activists.

The demarcation, while not exactly haute décor, has become a necessity since July 16, when the Dream Defenders – a youth-led activist group – moved into the state Capitol in hopes of pressuring Governor Scott to call a special session of the state Legislature. The members want Florida to repeal its controversial "stand your ground" law – and discuss broader concerns surrounding racial profiling – in the wake of the not guilty verdict that exonerated George Zimmerman in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Ms. Rizo rode 10 hours to join the protest here because she's concerned about her 16-year-old brother, who she worries could be shot someday for simply wearing the wrong clothing. "I ... get so angry," she says. "We have to tell our brothers, sons, cousins not to do this or that or not to wear a hoodie because it can get you killed."

The scene in the governor's office is the same throughout the building, where more than 100 protesters have set up a surprisingly sophisticated command post.

En masse, the mostly Millennial mélange overwhelms, which is part of its strategy.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the same tactic on Aug. 28, 1963, when he led nearly a quarter of a million people down the streets of Washington, D.C., demanding jobs and freedom while spreading the gospel of an egalitarian world. Now, as the 50th anniversary of the march draws near, a new generation of activists faces another challenge – how to retrofit King's dream for a markedly different era.

The battle has moved from the pulpit to the statehouse, from city sidewalks to Facebook and Twitter. The landscape has changed as well. With the end of Jim Crow laws, the zeitgeist has shifted from a fight for civil rights to what many say is a more nascent concern – human rights.

Hot-button issues like racial profiling, police stop-and-frisk practices, and social justice have joined global causes like immigration reform, women's rights, and issues affecting other minority communities, suggesting a blurring of the lines between the ideological underpinnings of today's youth-led civil rights movement and that of the 1960s. Call it Civil Rights 2.0.

For all the progress that has been made, much remains to be done. The young protesters here cannot remember a world of segregated lunch counters and water fountains designated "colored" or "white." They cannot imagine being barred from the college of their choice or being told their dreams cannot come true because of the color of their skin.


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