American Dreamin’: How Children Gain Access to the Civil Rights Movement

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By José Luis Vilson

Every few months, usually during the anniversary of a major event (Martin Luther King’s birthday/passing, the March on Washington, Malcolm X’s birthday, for instance), one of my friends says, “Why don’t kids know this?” Akin to the conversations we have about music, culture, fashion, just about anything that moves, someone gets their grump on and signals the coming of the Apocalypse as an inescapable consequence of our children’s ignorance.

To that end, I say, “Stop the bull!”

I get tired of these questions for two reasons:

1. We forget how our generation looked at us in our youth.
2. We forget how young our leaders were when they passed.

We’re so quick to judge our youth that we lose the opportunity to reach out to them on a real level. That especially goes for my fellow educators, a few of whom pull out the grouch card at a moment’s notice. “These kids,” usually ends with a sentence that ostracizes the children who we need to reach. “They don’t understand,” translates to “I’m frustrated because they don’t have enough context yet and I don’t know how to give it to them.”

As adults, we assume responsibility for passing traditions and stories down to our kids, and if we can’t do that, we better bring them to someone who can. We need to connect the past to the things that they get. For instance, the Trayvon Martin murder and ensuing verdict galvanized youth all over the country. School shutdowns have prompted students to revolt against their school districts alongside teachers, parents, and other concerned adults. Students losing their parents and family members because they didn’t have “papers” stoked the fires in the bellies of youth, thus calling themselves DREAMers. The stop-and-frisk critics caught steam from civil-rights organizations and others, sure, but it was the children who confront the humiliation of s&f on a daily basis who grew the movement in a meaningful way.

The involvement of youth brings seismic change to any movement. Imagine if we told Malcolm Little that he was worthless before he was sent to jail, converted to Islam, and became the righteous legend we now know. Imagine if we told Rosa Parks at 19 that she wouldn’t amount to much when she was working numerous jobs around her neighborhood, before she got involved in the NAACP and eventually sparked the Montgomery Bus Boyott. Imagine if we told Dolores Huerta that she should stick to teaching elementary school at 18, before she co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez.

Imagine if we told Dr. Martin Luther King to stick to his church at 19, when he was still finding his way through college.

We must realize that, as adults, we try our best to guide our youth, and plant as many seeds as possible in them before we run out. Often, we won’t see those seeds blossom until we run into them accidentally on the street or find a letter from a mysterious sender…if at all. The time to tell them why you’re so passionate about the March on Washington–and other historically significant incidents–is now.

We can’t wait for the next big media event. As John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the original 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom speaker said, “To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say, “We cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually but we want to be free now.”

We cannot wait.


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