A new generation takes up Martin Luther King Jr.'s torch
Fifty years after King's March on Washington, young civil rights activists push dreams of their own.
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.
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.
Their foes are not Eugene "Bull" Connor in Birmingham, Ala., with his high-pressure fire hoses and German shepherd police dogs. Their foes are not state troopers wielding billy clubs, waiting on the other side of Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Today's racial prejudice is far more insidious, say activists. It has become institutionalized and systemic, leaving many young people to ask themselves, "If not us taking up the cause, then who? If not now, then when?"
Those were the questions Sammie Dow posed to the youth who gathered in Orlando, Fla., recently for the 104th annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Mr. Dow, age 26, began his journey with the organization when he was in eighth grade. Last fall, he took over as national director of the youth and college division.
With the advent of landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, some have questioned whether groups like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are still relevant. And today's youth – their grandparents' and parents' struggles relegated mostly to family albums and textbooks – haven't always seen the point behind the rhetoric.
Yet the NAACP's youth and college division – more than 25,000 strong – represents the fastest-growing segment of its membership today, thanks in part to a targeted recruiting push and the election of the youngest president in the group's history: Ben Jealous, 40, who took office five years ago.
Organizers see the influx of young people as crucial to invigorating the modern fight for civil rights a half century after King's rendezvous with history on the National Mall. Historically, the movement has always been led by young people, Dow says. Today's Millennials will become tomorrow's torchbearers, and by pairing them with seasoned elders, NAACP officials hope they will continue the legacy, perhaps not always in method but at least in spirit.
Instead of marching, they are filing online petitions. Instead of relying upon press coverage from newspapers and television networks, they have become their own media outlets, capable of spreading their message to millions within seconds.
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The Dream Defenders in some ways represents old-school activism. The group formed shortly after Trayvon Martin's death in early 2012, when it staged a three-day, 40-mile march from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Sanford, Fla., where the shooting occurred. Their "Takeover Florida" campaign here in Tallahassee was even more aggressive – a nonviolent, partial occupation of the Capitol building that tested the group's willpower as well as state officials' goodwill.
As the protest dragged on, there were small triumphs. Entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte dropped by. The Rev. Jesse Jackson spent the night. No one left in handcuffs, unlike last October when 15 members of the group were arrested for blocking a road in Boca Raton, Fla., during the presidential debates.
Scott met with them briefly but refused to call the special legislative session they were seeking. Instead, he suggested they pray for unity. Two weeks later, state lawmakers partially relented: They agreed to hold a hearing on the stand-your-ground law this fall. The demonstrators finally ended their sit-in on August 15, after 31 days, making it one of the longest demonstrations in the Florida capitol in recent history.
Typifying the people involved with Dream Defenders is Melanie Andrade, a student at Florida A&M University here in Tallahassee and president of the school's Defenders chapter. Ms. Andrade has lived in three different gated communities in Polk County, in the center of the state, and talks emotionally of being questioned by police in her front yard just because, she says, of her ethnicity.
"Trayvon Martin went through something we all go through every single day," Andrade says. "Every time we wake up in Florida, every time we wake up in America, we have to deal with the school-to-prison pipeline. We have to deal with being criminalized in our schools, criminalized in our shopping centers, criminalized in our malls, and, worst of all, criminalized on our front lawns, criminalized in our own driveways. This is not an 'issue.' This is not a 'concern.' This is our everyday life. Every single day."
Some historians have paralleled Trayvon's shooting with the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, introducing a new martyr into the nation's civil rights narrative. Emmett, a native of Chicago, was visiting family in the Mississippi Delta when he was accused of whistling at a white woman and was kidnapped, beaten, and shot by two white men who were acquitted but later confessed to the murder.
Trayvon, a resident of Miami Gardens, Fla., was visiting his father in Sanford, while on a 10-day school suspension. He was accused of arousing the suspicions of Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch captain who was acquitted after testifying that he shot the unarmed teenager in self-defense.
There is no denying that Emmett's murder, along with the June 1963 assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, fanned the flames of the civil rights movement, galvanizing activists to continue seeking both their freedom and an end to the violence. Trayvon's death so far has inspired a number of demonstrations across the country, becoming a cause célèbre for a new generation of activists – people like Rizo and Andrade – on a whole range of social justice issues.
"Trayvon has brought youth into a movement of their own that they're able to create," says Lecia Brooks, director of outreach for Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "I think the murder reminded them it could have been them. It's just so close."
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Stephen Green is carrying on King's legacy, too – usually by sitting at a folding table rather than trying to occupy a governor's office. Mr. Green, to be sure, was shaken by the Zimmerman verdict. At the NAACP annual convention, the 21-year-old gave a speech that roused the crowd, young and old alike.
"We can love radically; we can give unconditionally; we can engage in transformative peace," he shouted, as murmurs swept through the audience. "Be not dismayed! God will take care of you! We! Shall! Not! Be! Moved!"
Yet when he isn't preaching the gospel of hope, Green can be found at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he is the NAACP student chapter president, registering people to vote along with student body president A.J. Simonton. Together, the duo registered more than 1,000 people last fall for the presidential election. This semester, they plan to continue their mission of making sure every student in Atlanta shows up at the polls.
It's an ambitious undertaking, helped by the close-knit community shared between students at Morehouse, nearby Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University – the three historically black colleges that make up the Atlanta University System.
During "hump day" social gatherings at Morehouse and "market Fridays" at Spelman, they carried iPads to register people online. They set up tables in the school cafeteria and knocked on doors in the suburbs, educating people about polling places and the importance of exercising their rights.
"Our predecessors went through real trials and tribulations to be able to exercise that right," Mr. Simonton says. "It's your vote. It's your voice. And if you don't vote, your voice isn't heard."
He tries to make them understand that voting for the president is not enough. They must also choose a Congress that will support him. Complacency is not an option.
"For some people, Obama is the realization of Dr. King's dream, and that provides apathy," Green says. "We cannot get to the point where having a black president in the White House allows this."
As for Simonton, an Indianapolis native, he admits he was "blessed" to come from a privileged background, with a father who is an engineer and a mother in the pharmaceutical industry. He attended a predominantly white, Jesuit high school, but when he graduated, he found himself asking what it meant to be a young black man in America.
He found the answer at King's alma mater, Morehouse, where he learned it was OK to live comfortably inside his own skin.
"I saw all these other students, many of whom I looked up to, and they were well dressed, well spoken, well traveled," he says. "They just embodied what I wanted to be."
But the Trayvon case has made him acutely aware that society still may determine his character by his color. Just as he and Green push voting as the path to freedom, he also sees law school and a future in public office as a way to confront inequalities in education and criminal justice.
"A lot of people in my generation think marching is outdated," he says. "I'm inclined to believe you have to use whatever your talents are to work toward achieving justice. Marching is important, but there are new ways."
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For the wired Millennials, the strongest tool in their arsenal is the understanding and manipulation of social media.
Twitter, in particular, has proved to be the go-to method for receiving news, discussing issues, and coordinating a response. With the use of a single hashtag, thousands of people can quickly share relevant information. The Dream Defenders have been communicating with Twitter and Instagram followers through the #TakeOverFL hashtag. Technology has helped unite young activists on a wide range of issues, not just racial problems in the US.
"The world is much smaller now, in great part because of technology," says Ms. Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "When young people are able to see that girls in Afghanistan are unable to receive an education because they are girls, it resonates with them."
The modern civil rights movement is also far more diverse than it used to be. It encompasses Millennials from a wide variety of socioeconomic and geo-ethnic backgrounds, including many Hispanics and whites. Rizo, protesting in the governor's office, is from Venezuela. Mr. Rocco, sitting next to her, is from Chile. The movement also includes many women.
One reason for the diversity among activist Millennials is the diversity of the generation itself. Census data collected by the Washington-based Pew Research Center indicates that, of those between the ages of 18 and 29, 61 percent are white, 19 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are black, and 5 percent are Asian. By contrast, American adults over age 30 are 70 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black, and 5 percent Asian.
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On election night in 2012, Renee Ombaba, a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, was watching returns with Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, when she began receiving text messages asking if she was OK.
About 40 students had gathered at the student union, shouting racial slurs and burning Obama campaign signs, and before long, the disturbance had attracted nearly 400 onlookers. Ms. Ombaba's friends and family were worried. When she'd decided to attend the university, many had asked her why she would want to leave Jackson State University, which is predominantly black, to attend "Ole Miss," where the 1962 enrollment of James Meredith, the school's first black student, prompted a riot in which two people were killed and hundreds injured.
During her first semester, she asked herself the same question, not so much because of the campus atmosphere but because of her own perceptions of it. But through incidents like the postelection ruckus, she has found her own method of trying to foster better race relations. Immediately after the disturbance, she helped organize a candlelight unity walk. Now she is using the college's 50th anniversary civil rights commemorations as part of a broader education campaign, explaining the importance of understanding the South's racial history, what progress has been made in civil rights, and what needs to be done to move Mississippi forward.
Yet promoting racial tolerance is not enough, she says. For true healing to occur and for King's dream to be fully realized, blacks and whites must work toward meaningful relationships, getting to know the person beneath the skin color.
"We love the South, we love the state, and we love this place we call home," Ombaba says. "If you love this place, you should be willing to learn about it and want to change it. What keeps me here and keeps me focused is that I love where I'm from."
Though Ombaba plans to remain in Mississippi after graduation, many young people do not – a statistic fellow graduate student Jake McGraw is trying to combat through "Rethink Mississippi," a sort of ideas salon for the state's best and brightest college students and young professionals. Like Ombaba, the Oxford native's civil rights work is rooted in his love for Mississippi – as a place, as an incubator of raw talent in art, literature, and culture. But he is disillusioned by the rampant poverty and injustice.
"Some deal with it by leaving and never coming back," Mr. McGraw says. "Others use it as motivation to stay and fight for change. I've known since high school that I was going to be one of the latter."
He believes if he puts like-minded people in a room together, they can come up with solutions for five key problem areas – education, health, economics, criminal justice, and social justice. But first, the state's past and present inequalities must be addressed.
"You can't talk about any other issue in Mississippi without talking about race," says McGraw, who is white. "For every single major issue, you're going to have racial disparities."
One of his biggest concerns is education and what he sees as a subversive resegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Private academies and residential self-segregation have led to majority-black and majority-white schools once more, and the quality of education varies.
"We pretend like we're dealing with these big, complex, pervasive issues, but we're dealing with them in a dry, narrow way," McGraw says. "I want to shift the dialogue in the state from these narrow, hot-button issues to the deeper, more entrenched, more insidious problems, because I think we've barely scratched the surface."
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Marquise Lowe is trying to deal with the problems with dry erase boards, calculators, and an indomitable will. He and other instructors at the Young People's Project (YPP) in Jackson, Miss., are working to help disadvantaged kids, and by extension carry on King's legacy, by honing their math skills.
On a Saturday afternoon, around two dozen students of all ages are gathered in YPP's office, playing ice-breaker games.
"One," says a youngster.
"Two, three, four," quickly follows another.
"Five ..." Hesitation.
"Oh, you're out!" Mr. Lowe says, high-fiving the student who lost the round, as well as the handful of other boys who have gradually crept closer, hoping for his attention. The counting exercise may seem simple, but consider this: Here is a group of youngsters sitting in an office learning math skills on a weekend in August, in the middle of summer vacation.
YPP was founded in 1996 as an outgrowth of the Algebra Project, an innovative program formulated by civil rights pioneer Bob Moses in Cambridge, Mass., after he learned that his oldest daughter's middle school did not offer algebra. Before long, the project had expanded to more than 200 schools throughout the country, including here in Mississippi, where Dr. Moses risked his life in 1964 to register hundreds of black voters amid the heat and violence of "freedom summer."
With the Algebra Project, he began tackling what he saw as the modern civil rights battle – math literacy. Without good math skills, he reasoned, students were at an immediate disadvantage, held back from jobs, higher education, and other chances for success.
YPP expands on that tradition of grass-roots activism, training students to lead math labs and workshops for their peers on the theory that if you teach one person a skill, that person can teach 10 others. And slowly, inequalities are replaced by opportunities.
Lowe, 30, entered the program as a sixth-grader who loved math but had little hope for a promising future. Abandoned by an absent father and a drug-addicted mother, he grew up in Jackson's Lincoln Gardens housing projects with his grandparents. Though his home life was filled with love, the streets outside were tough. He found role models in Moses and his sons, Omo and Taba.
"I saw people get robbed and almost killed in shootouts on a weekly basis, and I understood that was a life I didn't really want, because I knew what came with it," Lowe says. "To see them not have to go that route made me feel like I could go to school and have nice things."
The program has had a similar effect on Larry Johnson. He entered YPP at the end of his eighth-grade year and credits it with helping him reach his latest milestone – beginning his first semester at Jackson State University, where he plans to major in mathematics and become a high school algebra teacher.
He listens to Lowe, he says, because he feels as though he understands him. He grew up in a single-parent household as well, dodging drugs and gangs to stay in school. Lowe kept him from feeling sorry for himself and taught him to think positively, drawing empowerment from his growing confidence in the classroom.
"You see, I used to be like y'all," he says to a group of teenage girls, who giggle shyly. "This program really helped change my life. It's no telling where I would be without it."
He doesn't tell them about his two cousins, YPP dropouts who were recently involved in a shooting and are now in jail. When he stops to grab a slice of pizza, the girls compare notes.
"Was he serious or was he playing?" one asks about Johnson's homily on the effect of YPP.
"He was serious," 14-year-old Trinity Stewart says softly. As Johnson walks away she watches him intently, lost in thought.
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Hours before he was to give his most powerful speech, Martin Luther King Jr. was still tweaking the words, pacing his hotel room as he worked on rhythm and intonation, stopping intermittently to scrawl revisions before beginning his pacing anew.
And then on that fateful day in August, after a week of writing and rewriting, he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and let the Baptist preacher in his soul take over, delivering what was to become the most significant 17 minutes in civil rights history.
A half century later, King's measured baritone continues to echo, in the lives of those he sought to free and in the voices of many of the young people – the Melanie Andrades, the Stephen Greens, the Renee Ombabas – just stepping into the rapids, joining the mighty stream. They will work to write and rewrite some of society's scripts, and, if they don't, their forebears – people like Cynthia Gardner – will be there to urge them to do so.
Ms. Gardner, from Tallahassee, remembers things today's youth cannot fathom. When she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1960, her father – the only driver in the family – insisted on taking her the entire 900 miles. Though he became weary, he was unable to find a motel that would accept blacks. They finally found shelter at a dilapidated rooming house in Raleigh, N.C.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, Gardner and many others believed the battle was over, but they were wrong, she says. The fight for human dignity will always be a compelling, and necessary, struggle. It is a war without end.
"I think a lot of us thought we were finished, that we had reached the end of the road after so-called integration," she says. "I think we thought, 'Oh, our journey is over.' Really, we had just taken a few steps."