Jesse Jackson Sr. talked about the "parallel histories" of the American and South African quests for racial justice as he recalled some of the leaders and foot soldiers of each struggle during the ANC's 100th anniversary celebration recently. As I listened, I found myself wondering how many of the younger generation in either country could relate such stories off the tops of their heads. The stories of those struggles aren't told in their fullness and complexity in the schools of either nation.
Recent studies in the U.S., for example, report that the younger generation's knowledge about even the civil rights movement of the 1960s — let alone the generations-old history of black resistance to unjust laws designed to keep them "in their place" — is practically non-existent. They might know about Martin Luther King Jr., and maybe Rosa Parks. But what about all the others who led President Barack Obama to say that he stood "on the shoulders of giants"?
The same is true of the younger generation in South Africa, whose members are referred to as the "born frees" (born after Nelson Mandela was released and became the country's first president who was elected by all the people). Many of the "born frees" in South Africa know the name Mandela, but they know the names of few others who walked beside him or blazed the trail for his long walk to freedom.
To address young Americans' lack of knowledge, I wrote To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement for young readers — ninth grade though college — based on my own experience as one of two students to desegregate the University of Georgia, as well as my subsequent journey through the civil rights era. The title was inspired by the enduring and prescient speech Dr. King gave in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. He was encouraging the striking sanitation workers who had brought him there, telling them there would be "some difficult days ahead," but that he had "been to the mountaintop," had "seen the promised land," that "we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
I wrote this chronicle of the movement not just for the record, but to give this generation the history that will help them appreciate the groundbreaking freedom trail they and their country traveled. I hope to help them understand that 1) there can be no progress without struggle and 2) it is important to remain vigilant in order to protect the gains of the past, and to hold America and its leaders accountable when our hard-won democratic rights are threatened, as they appear to be today, in some instances.
As I read reports of efforts to put obstacles in the paths of young black voters today in order to help ensure certain outcomes in the next national elections, I am reminded of the ways in which white racist Southerners prevented blacks from registering to vote for years prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s: making them take literacy tests that even the white administrators probably couldn't pass and publishing the names of blacks who had attempted to register at a time when hooded night riders and other not-hooded whites made sport of killing "uppity blacks" with impunity. The law — or at least those in charge of enforcing the law — was on their side.
Young civil rights activists and local blacks who joined black voter registration drives were often killed, or otherwise brutally made to pay for their efforts. But they joined the effort prepared, if necessary, to die. They did so in the righteous belief in a Constitution that extolled and affirmed the rights of all America's citizens, regardless of race, creed or color, and also with the conviction born of the faith in their own values that one day, righteousness would prevail.
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.