Don't Forget the Climb to the Mountaintop
Youth must know the histories of freedom struggles beyond MLK and Mandela, says a civil rights vet.
We may have come a long way from those cruel days, but those days should not be forgotten, not least the price so many paid so that young people today can indeed be free to help decide the kind of country in which they want to live and whom they want to represent them. I was uplifted when young people of all races followed the path my generation blazed and filed out of their classrooms into the streets and byways to register voters for the historic campaign that led to Barack Obama's election. And I am holding my breath now as I read that disillusioned young voters are more likely to skip Election Day in 2012.
Did Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner die for the next generation to be disillusioned when things didn't go as they had hoped? Did John Lewis get disillusioned when he took more blows to his head from racist white policemen's billy clubs than maybe any other civil rights activist? Did Brenda Travis get disillusioned when her high school principal expelled her after she was arrested for taking part in civil rights sit-ins in McComb, Miss., or when she was sentenced to a year in a harsh Mississippi prison for participating in the sit-ins?
I'm thinking yes, and maybe, just maybe, if they know their history, young people today will realize that freedom isn't free, and that the freedom they enjoy today comes at a price: the price of vigilance necessary to maintain it. I want young people -- of all races and colors -- to know where they came from, and even if they have no one in their family directly connected with the civil rights movement, they have the American Family that benefited mightily from it.
Once they know this history, if they choose to claim it, they, too, can say -- with the certainty spoken by Barack Obama in 2008 -- that they, too, stand on the shoulders of giants and that they, too, can move to ensure their country lives up to its promise with the kind of confidence that history surely inspires.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Company.
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