''Your world,'' Joyce Ladner warned the children of her old comrades in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as they celebrated the 50th anniversary of their movement in Raleigh, N.C., last week, '' is far more complicated than ours was.'' True enough, but that hasn't stopped the offspring of those graying organizers from charting their own course to social change.
Now ranging in age from their late teens to their early 40s, the SNCC children may have had no other choice but to march in their parents' activist footsteps. Echoing a widely held sentiment among the younger generation, Maisha Moses, daughter of Janet and Bob Moses, director of SNCC's Mississippi project during the 1960s, describes how her world was shaped by movement history: ''We soaked it up and we grew up feeling like we were part of it.''
For some, like James Forman Jr., son of SNCC's late executive director, the movement's ethos became a family lifestyle. His parents, he says, ''actually organized our family life in the same way SNCC was organized. Whenever we had a problem, we had a meeting. The meetings were long and very contentious. You get the picture.'' The result, he says, is that the children learned, ''You can't just talk about change, you have to live it. The idea that we are the ones we are waiting for is something we were all raised on.'' Or, in the words of Fisk University social scientist Tarik Smith, son of SNCC activists Frank and Jean Smith, ''the only ones out here doing things are the ones who are out here doing things.''
Some of the young generation, like Cleveland Sellers' son, Bakari, have gone into politics. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 2006 at the age of 22. Many others have become educators. The younger Forman, for example, co-founded (with David Domenici, the son of former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici) the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. It focuses on helping at-risk young people to get back on track and find a career. The program now serves 600 students at three campuses. Last year, 90 percent of its graduates went on to post-secondary education programs.
Fourteen years later, that idea has evolved into a way of life. Young people like April Dortch and Lekecia Tyce who first encountered Bob Moses as junior-high-school-age students in Jackson are now in their 20s and hold staff positions in YPP. The program has mushroomed from its original nine members to 150 staffers who teach math and personal development in cities from Los Angeles to Cambridge, Mass.. ''Since its inception, YPP has been about the idea of young people taking control and demanding a better life, not just for themselves but also for the community,'' explains Hector Acevedo, a 23-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who works as a youth organizer in Cambridge. ''We are trying to help young people find a healthy balance within themselves.''
That growth has a political dimension. In Mississippi, for example, YPP has a small plot of land on which it hopes to create an agricultural training center to help people learn to produce their own healthy foods. It is also a component of the elder Moses' push for a constitutional amendment to guarantee a quality education for every American child. As Albert Sykes, a YPP staffer in Jackson who first met Moses when he was in sixth-grade student in the Algebra Project, outlines the organization's goals: ''We are transitioning from the sit-in movement of 1960 to a stand-up movement of young people.''
For cynical old codgers like me, who sometimes wonder if younger folks have the spunk to complete the unfinished business of social change, listening to young people like Sykes and Acevedo and seeing the work they are doing is inspiring and reassuring. The torch has been passed. The next leg is being run. When it comes to fighting for a better world, the children of SNCC prove that the apple did not fall far from the tree.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.