Young Blacks in MLK's Shadow

Young African Americans haven't squandered King's legacy; their fight is just different.

Howard University students protest Troy Davis' death sentence. (Washington Post).

Martin Luther King Jr. is a towering historical figure. For some, he is the greatest American ever to live. Most people in this country, regardless of their political affiliation, consider him to be an inspiration.

This respect and admiration is quite different from the opposition he faced while he was alive, but it's this posthumous popularity that has allowed him to become the first non-president to be honored with a monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The 30-foot-tall granite sculpture of a deeply serious-looking King now stands between memorials honoring Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, serving as a large and imposing reminder of the patron saint of black America. He is literally towering over us.

And as we get set for the memorial's dedication Oct. 16, originally scheduled to take place on the anniversary of the March on Washington and "I Have a Dream" speech but postponed by Hurricane Irene, it's important to discuss the generations he left behind to execute his dream. With no grand, history-making movement to define a generation, it might be easy to write off young blacks as having dropped the ball in the fight for justice and equality. But that would be unfair.

The hip-hop generation, loosely defined as those born between 1965 and 1984, and more so the Millennial generation -- generally considered those born after 1981 (myself included) -- live in the shadow of those who came of age during the civil rights movement: black America's "greatest generation." We are inundated with stories of sit-ins, Freedom Rides, police beatings, fire hoses and attack dogs.

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This is our history, and certainly we should embrace it. However, too often this history is used to guilt us into appreciating freedoms that we may otherwise take for granted or to chastise us for not working hard enough to continue the fight. The message that we -- as the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the movement -- have received is contradictory to activist desires.

We were told to walk through the doors that our elders worked so hard to open. What we have done is try to fulfill the dream to the best of our abilities as it has been taught to us. We are steadily incurring more and more debt in the form of student loans to pursue higher education because the message we have received throughout our lives is that education is the key to success.

It's what MLK died for, according to every elder black person I have ever come in contact with. That's not the most exact interpretation of what King lived and died for, to be sure, but it's what we were raised on. The activism gene has been suppressed.

And yet we are not a completely apathetic bunch. There have been instances of great organizing and resistance among young people, as evidenced by the large number of college students who worked to protest the Jena 6 case in Louisiana years ago and the murder of Oscar Grant by an Oakland, Calif., police officer.

I know young activists involved in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the organization that puts together the Black August celebration in order to raise money and awareness for political prisoners, as well as a few who have embarked on their own endeavors by heading activist organizations to provide assistance to single mothers and address HIV/AIDS. We are showing up and doing the work.