WASHINGTON – Mary-Pat Hector of Atlanta was operating much like a 1960s civil rights activist as she laid plans for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. She was constantly on the phone as she confirmed event details, tweaked the draft of the speech she gave at Saturday’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial and prepared for a presentation.
Mary-Pat is 15 years old.
Just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott at age 26, and Rep. John Lewis helped to lead freedom rides at 23, young Americans like Mary-Pat are not letting age get in the way as they seek more than a contributing role in the push for social reform.
Young people are eager to influence this year’s March on Washington, says Jessica Brown, national coordinator for the Black Youth Vote coalition, which organized several youth events around Saturday’s march to the Lincoln Memorial.
“Of course you have the seasoned people who are there, and they are always rightfully going to have their position,” Brown said. “But you’re starting to see the pickup of the youth saying, ‘This is our time, this is our moment, this is the opportunity we have to show the world and the nation, that we’re here and we’re ready to work and organize to get things done.’”
In 1963, those “seasoned people” were A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who birthed the idea of a Washington march to appeal for jobs and justice, and ultimately attracted 250,000 people. Today, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, who were 8 and 5 years old, respectively, in 1963, are the veterans who brought thousands to the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday. The King Center also has organized a ceremony on Wednesday, the actual march anniversary, when President Barack Obama will speak.
Friday night, students and young adults gathered at Howard University in Washington for a mass meeting and rally ahead of Saturday’s march – activity patterned after the student rallies that were held before major demonstrations during the civil rights movement.
Anthony Miller, president of the Howard University Student Association, said students recognize the historical significance, and some are using this moment to express their continuing anger over the shooting death of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
“They want to be able to do something positive and something that will uplift this situation and really bring it to light,” Miller says. Students want “to effect a positive change and push this country in the right direction,” he said, “And I think this is an excellent opportunity.”
Janaye Ingram, who runs the Washington office of Sharpton’s National Action Network, spent hours on the phone recruiting students. “This is their moment to make a change. It’s reminiscent of what happened in the ‘60s, when the movement was led by them,” she said.
Students and other young people made significant contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1957 a group of black students, later called the Little Rock Nine, helped integrate all-white Central High School in Arkansas. The Freedom Riders challenged segregation by riding buses through the South in integrated pairs. There were numerous others who held sit-ins at restaurant counters, skipped school to participate in marches and were attacked by police dogs and water cannons during public demonstrations.
“When you have been sitting on a lunch counter stool and someone walk up and spit on you or pour hot water or hot coffee on you and you say you’re committed to non-violence, you have to grow up,” Lewis said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” ‘’To go on the Freedom Rides in 1961, the same year that President Barack Obama was born? And to be beaten. You had to grow up. So by the time of the March on Washington, I was 23, but I was an older person.”
Saturday’s march included several youth speakers – the youngest, Asean Johnson of Chicago, just 9 years old.
Lewis, who was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the youngest of the “Big Six” leaders from the 1963 march, represented the movement’s already battle-tested young foot soldiers. His elders asked him to tone down the more fiery passages of his speech after seeing a draft; Lewis told MSNBC that he agreed to make the changes, not wanting to disappoint King and the other leaders.
Now 73 and a Democratic congressman from Georgia, Lewis was under no pressure to mince his words Saturday. He reminded the crowd of the vicious beating he endured in the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Ala., and encouraged today’s youth to resist efforts to erode his generation’s hard-fought victories.
“Back in 1963, we hadn’t heard of the Internet. We didn’t have a cellular telephone, iPad, iPod,” Lewis said. “But we used what we had to bring about a nonviolent revolution. I say to all of the young people: You must get out there and push and pull and make America what it should be for all of us.”
Unlike the narrow focus on jobs and freedom in 1963, this year’s march seeks to address an array of issues. Sharpton expanded the march’s original goals, combatting high black and youth unemployment, to include a call for action after the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act, and to protest “stand your ground” laws and stop-and-frisk police tactics.
“We’re looking at the issue that went on in Florida, we’re looking at what’s going on with the Voting Rights Act, so youth are really upset, and they’re deciding maybe this is a good point to collectively come together, continuously build on our network, and take it back to our community to continue working,” Brown says.
Sasha Costanza-Chock, an assistant professor of civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says young people’s willingness to simultaneously address “multiple dynamics of oppression” shows how youth activism has matured.
“You have a lot more young people now talking about ... the ways that different structures of race, class, gender and sexuality cannot be fought only one at a time. They have to be looked at together and struggled for together,” Costanza-Chock said.
Today’s young activists are equipped with a tool that older generations didn’t have: social media. It empowers them to rally large numbers of people to a cause in a very short span of time. Using these methods are Florida’s “Dream Defenders,” the student group that held a sit-in outside of Gov. Rick Scott’s office for 31 days, demanding a special session to repeal the “stand your ground” law.
The group traveled to Washington for the march anniversary, and encouraged supporters to follow their journey on USTREAM, an online live video service.
“It’s been easier than ever to mobilize people, to hold people accountable, and to get attention for whatever issue you care about. So I think it’s just changed the game,” said Ryane Ridenour from Generational Alliance, an umbrella group of 22 youth organizations.
Mary-Pat, who serves as national youth director for Sharpton’s organization, said working on multiple issues and leveraging social media in this way “can be overwhelming,” but she understands that this is the nature of working on intertwined causes.
Ultimately, she wants this march to serve as a moment in which history will say her generation showed “we just don’t march and make a lot of noise, but we actually make an impact.”