This week, there has been much news coverage of the 50th commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King’s prophetic “I Have a Dream” speech and the quarter of a million people who joined him and other leaders of the civil rights movement that day. Most of the coverage has been a powerful witness to the civil rights movement, and I have been inspired in so many ways, often finding myself either with tears rolling down my cheeks or with my heart swelling with gratitude. How I wish I could have been in Washington DC this week. I will be returning to photos and videos and speeches for a long time, both of this week and the movement that inspired the original March on Washington.
I am in awe of Dr. King giving the single most powerful speech in American history since the Emancipation Proclamation when he was only 34 (one year older than Jesus). I am in awe of Rep. John Lewis speaking at the March on Washington at the age of 23 and for his life long commitment to civil rights. I am in awe of the thousands of young people all over the country who sacrificed everything in the civil rights, women’s and anti-war movements of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. We owe a great debt to those heroines and heroes. Thank you.
However (and I know this will be controversial), this week has resurrected a long-standing struggle for me as a Gen Xer (people born from 1960-1980) who is Christian pastor and an activist. For as long as I have been socially aware and working towards social justice, I have heard repeated comments about how young people just aren’t as committed as young people back then. I have heard that young people are just looking out for themselves, that they have it easy and that they just don’t know what they have. Of course, people were quick to point out to me that I was one of the exceptions, but I heard and hear the implication—my generation and the younger generations have dropped the ball. Ouch. Unfortunately, I heard this repeated this week a midst the celebrations.
We cannot assume that young people today are not as committed, as aware, as visionary as folks were 30-50 years ago. The social movements of the 20th century were beyond powerful and we have seen so much progress because of them. I realize that I might be offending some folks, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but truly we are comparing apples and oranges. When we look at the differences of the generations and the social ills each faced, I think we will see that young people now are just as focused on social justice and are doing amazing work. So where do we start?
1) Let’s not forget that even in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the mass movements were growing, those young people in the streets were only a minority of the young people of their time. Just like we shouldn’t assume all Gen Xers and Millennials are uncommitted, we cannot assume that all young people in the 1960’s were marching and protesting and being arrested. These movements were huge, but they were not a majority position.
Was there a higher percentage then than young activists today? Who knows, but it demeans the movements of history when we equate baby boomer with social radical, Gen Xer as apathetic couch potato and Millennial as self-absorbed screen addicts.
2) The earlier movements seem to have clearer and more tangible foci. There were clearly defined and visible social sins and the people who upheld them. Ending segregation. Ending Jim Crow. Attaining voting rights. Ending the Vietnam War. Keeping abortion safe and legal. I don’t mean to say that there wasn’t confusion and frustration and disagreement among activists. Of course, there was complexity. Of course, there was ambiguity. But today, most of the social and economic injustices are almost impossible to discern, let alone address with a mass protest movement. Each injustice is deeply intertwined with and supported by other systems of oppression. We cannot separate racism from the war on drugs. We cannot separate rising health care costs from poverty. Injustice mostly survives because it has gone underground. It thrives on our ignorance and on its invisibility.
So then, how do we address immigration, mass incarceration, marriage and gender inequality, corporate welfare, the disappearing middle class, a stalled congress, violence in the Middle East, healthcare, the disintegration of the public schools, racial profiling, the rising debt crisis for college grads, the drug war in Mexico, the NSA and privacy, the gutting of the VRA, the systemic attack on labor unions, Stand Your Ground Laws, dramatically increasing gun violence and monthly school shootings when each of these depend on the others and have taken root in the post modern concept of “progress?” Oh, did I mention big money in Washington? Where do we start?
3) Unlike the 1950’s and 1960’s, every major American institution is now on the verge of collapse–healthcare, social security, public education, mental health care, public assistance, higher education, the Church, the government, dare I say aloud, democracy itself (think Super Pacs, folks). There is no stability in any of our institutions, and this fact weighs heavily on the younger generations. While Congress refuses to work together and the political parties become more polarized, the Millennials (young people born 1980-2000) are watching with real fear and trepidation. Who is going to have to fix the mess when these collapse? The people born after 1980, that’s who. When did these institutions start to become unstable? The 1980’s, when the Me-Generation came of age. A bit of irony here…
4) Today’s younger generations (Gen X and Millennials) are the first generations in the history of the US (with exception to the Great Depression) to earn less than their parents across the board. People born into the middle class are struggling to stay there. People born into poverty are often living in more severe conditions than their parents and grandparents and have even less opportunities available as corporations move their factories to China. This fact does not discriminate—if you were born after 1960, you can expect to be worse off than your parents. But let me be clear about something—this is not because all young people in their 20’s and 30’s want to live like their parents did in their 50’s and 60’s. This is not because the younger generations want instant gratification and refuse to plan for the future. This is because the single most marketed product in the US economy is credit (otherwise known as debt). Credit makes more money for Sears than its products. This is because childcare costs are through the roof and childcare providers are poorly paid. This is because young adults who are fortunate enough to go to college come out with student loans that reach five to six figures, and the job market has crashed. This is because the housing crisis (which was all about marketing credit to those who couldn’t afford it) hit young families the hardest, young families who bought their first homes on the top of the bubble and now find themselves underwater.
This is because previous generations have not passed along to the younger generations financial wisdom that made the Great Depression generation great. This is because we now equate patriotism with spending, and our entire financial system depends on people spending beyond their means.
5) Finally, and most importantly, let’s not blame people under 40 for the state of the world. This is sorely misguided and self-sabotaging. People under 40 do not sit on the Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act and declared that corporations are people. They do not sit in the boardrooms of the Super Pac companies that are buying elections and legislation. They do not occupy, in any large scale, government positions of power. They are not the ones deadlocked in Washington or passing draconian legislation that severely limits the rights of women, racial minorities and the poor. They are not the ones who are denying marriage equality to same gender couples. They are not the ones gerrymandering voting districts to shape elections; they are not the ones who are closing polls in rural areas and inner cities. It is not because the younger generations are morally superior. It is because we have not have never had enough power to warrant any worry over losing it–we have never had enough power to be corrupted by it. Please, let’s put blame where it is deserved—the people in power who will do anything necessary to stay there.
AND you know what? Despite all this, young people are still the backbone of all our protests and activist movements today.
- It is the young people who stayed at the Wisconsin capital for days on end to protest the Budget Repair and who, as I write, are getting arrested for illegal observing (whatever that means.)
- It is the young people who are fighting to organize workers throughout the country on campuses, in public education, in factories.
- It was the young people who started and sustained the Occupy Wall Street movement, some of them getting tear gassed while on their knees.
- It was the young people who staged the 31 day sit-in in Tallahassee, FL, after the Zimmerman verdict, and it is those same young people who are pushing for the end of racial profiling, the end of the school to prison pipeline for males of color, the end of Stand Your Ground.
- It is the young people in the immigration rights movement who are supplying the emotional energy, the ones who sit in front of buses and chain themselves to fences, who walk across the border in caps and gowns and get arrested on their way back into the only country they have ever known, who intentionally get arrested and sent to detention centers so that they can mobilize the immigrants inside.
- It is the young people who rallied behind State Senator Wendy Davis (born in 1960) in Austin and made her filibuster their own. It is the young people of San Antonio, TX, who elected Julio Castro (age 39) as mayor and his twin brother, Joaquín Castro to the US House of Representatives.
- It was the young people who came out in droves to vote in 2008 and again in 2012 to elect the first President of color. The young people were Yes We Can.
- It is the young people in North Carolina who are leading the charge for voting rights for students, people of color and the poor, taking on the Republicans throughout the state in legal battles that they probably won’t win, but disallows the GOP to keep the intentional stripping of voting rights out of the limelight.
- It is the young people who are walking alongside the older generations in Washington DC, walking the same steps of the leaders of the past, honoring the sacrifices of those who came before and promising to continue their work of bringing justice to God’s children.
So during this week of commemorating and celebrating the great figures of history, let us also celebrate the ones who are taking up the mantle of Dr. King’s dream. For if it weren’t for these in our midst, Dr. King’s dream would die. Let us cherish their energy and their vision and their stamina. Let us honor the obstacles they are overcoming to be beacons of justice and peace to our world today. Thank you, young people for all that you doing and what you continue to do. You too are an inspiration. Thank you, God, for our past, for our present and for our future, and most of all, for your Spirit that guides us.