Do Youth Carry the Civil Rights Torch?

July 23, 2004 — -- At 66, Marsha Joyner has been involved in civil rights issues her entire life. Her family has owned the Afro-American Newspaper chain in Baltimore, Md., since 1892. In 1954, she was one of the first five “colored” girls to attend Western High School there after Brown v. Board of Education integrated public schools.

So it was only natural that, during the push for civil rights in 1964, she was at the forefront as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which coordinated actions such as sit-ins to fight to end segregation and coordinated voter registration of blacks in the South.

"It was a total commitment on everybody's part to change the way life was under Jim Crow," said Joyner, who lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. "Now it seems rather tame … we had sit-ins, we went to jail, but it wasn't nearly as hostile as the Deep South. It's easy to say that in retrospect. At the time, it seemed horrible to me."

July not only marks 40 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing racial discrimination. It's 40 years since Freedom Summer, a campaign by thousands of activists in the Deep South to register blacks to vote; 40 years since the establishment of Freedom Schools in Mississippi to teach poor black children; and 40 years since violent conflicts against such efforts, culminating with the murders of activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Many of those who were active in the civil rights movement remain involved with social causes today. But with all the progress of the past four decades, some wonder whether their efforts are, or can be, fully appreciated by younger generations.

Difficult to Comprehend

Julian Bond, a SNCC founder and its communications director in 1964, currently is chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "There was almost a crisis a day the whole summer," he recalled of Freedom Summer. "We had roughly 1,000 people in Mississippi and they were daily being arrested or beaten or chased or harassed, you know, something was going on every moment every day."

Bond said his own children, the oldest of whom is in her early 40s, do not fully grasp the experience, and students he teaches at American University and the University of Virginia relate even less. "It's hard for them to imagine the back of the bus or the segregated lunch counter," he said, "and if they can't imagine it, think about a 19-year-old. The common comment is, 'Oh, I wouldn't have put up with that,' and of course they would have put up with that."

Joyner recalls living in an upper middle-class neighborhood inhabited by doctors and lawyers. They all were black, but she did not learn until she was older that the zones resulting in segregation were established by law.

"There are times when I find it hard to believe that life was like it was — the open hostility, the segregated housing," she said, adding, "So when you look back at the things that have changed, you think, my lord, the changes are incredible. But young people today do not have a sense of the hostilities, the meanness. Anything that was said, you'd dare not fight back. You couldn't stand up and say, 'I have a right to this' without somebody standing up and saying, 'nigger, what the hell are you talking about?' It was just so different."

"Even my own grandchildren say, 'Oh, grandma, stop, come on.' They don't believe it," she said, adding, "I'm very glad now that this generation doesn't have to go through that, that they don't have to know."

Living History

While activists wonder whether their legacies are appreciated, there are young people who have taken the initiative to learn more about the fight for civil rights.

While he was a student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio three years ago, James Lautzenheiser participated in a study tour based on civil rights. Fifteen people traveled in vans visiting 25 cities, meeting with activists and seeing the significant sights of the movement. "I feel more attached to the cause for civil rights," said Lautzenheiser, who now works with the AFL-CIO in Ohio. "I have a more tangible connection to the history of the civil rights movement here in the United States."

Similarly, as a junior in high school, Aaron Jenkins was part of Operation Understanding DC, a leadership program for Washington, D.C.-area black and Jewish high school students to study civil rights and work toward a future without discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism. They also met with a variety of speakers and toured the United States during the summer.

Before the program, said Jenkins, who is black, he did not know anyone Jewish and had only studied the basics of the civil rights movement.

"It's one thing to study something in a book. It's another thing to walk the streets where something happened," said Jenkins, who at 23 has graduated from Williams College and is working with the city council in Washington, D.C.

He recalled visiting the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and hearing a witness retell the story. "He gave an insider's presence. He said Dr. King had just finished smoking a cigarette. I didn't know he smoked … it really made the history come alive."

The Future

When considering what future generations should learn about the movement, Lautzenheiser said education about civil rights should begin early. He recalled hearing about Malcolm X and Rosa Parks in high school, but not having an in-depth curriculum available until college. "It is something that my generation and even people younger can understand," he said. "The problem is there isn't enough attention being put on the civil rights movement."

Both Joyner and Bond said they hope more young people will head to the polls this election because voting was such a crucial part of the civil rights movement. "They don't seem to have the same sense of outrage or any sense that they can do anything about the things they are outraged about, in terms of voting, in terms of mounting some kind of protest against some evil," Bond said.

"I think so many of these younger people think if I make a speech about it or I hold a press conference about it, it's the same thing as doing something about it, and that's not the same," he added. "Not to say there aren't any young people doing things, because there are, but comparatively speaking the numbers and the energy and the outrage is nowhere near being equal."

Jenkins countered that assessment. "The youth of today, you often hear, are not like the youth of the civil rights movement. They don't have a cause," he said, adding that he thinks they simply are not focused on one issue.

Four years ago, many young people had "the sense that I can change something if I really try and other people are interested," he said, but the contested outcome of the 2000 presidential election turned them off from voting and getting involved in causes they believe in.

"I disagree. I think youth actually are looking for something to fight for, looking for something to stand for," he said. "There are so many things happening, you have to find that thing, to find that fight that people will galvanize around."