Author and activist Cornel West (center), members of the clergy and other demonstrators protest outside the Ferguson, Mo., police station on Oct. 13, 2014.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

There’s a social-justice movement taking hold across the nation. Michael Brown’s death, which turned Ferguson, Mo., into a battleground this past summer, has helped catalyze a larger struggle for racial and economic justice in America.

And St. Louis, where 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr. was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer, has witnessed roiling street demonstrations that recall the heyday of the civil rights and black power eras. Taking a page straight from the civil rights era, activists launched a “weekend of resistance” that featured civil disobedience, direct action protests, tense standoffs with police and arrests.

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The issues raised—ending police brutality, raising the minimum wage, transforming race relations—attracted a cross-generational group of activists. Dozens of protesters stood outside Busch Stadium and reminded baseball fans of the political stakes that dwarfed the outcome of a Major League Baseball playoff game. “This is not a happy time,” one demonstrator told the New York Times. “They come here and watch a baseball game while we die; we go out and get pepper sprayed and hit with tear gas for peaceful protesting.”

Ferguson’s legacy has triggered outrage and inspiration. Young people, from St. Louis to California, Chicago to Boston, have become re-engaged in the political process.

They’re forging a new vision of democracy in America—one found on city streets where too many young black people fall victim to police shootings, and even larger numbers face burdens of poverty and failing public schools. They recognize that America’s criminal-justice system is incapable of recognizing black humanity, let alone our citizenship.

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A generational divide still exists, however, between old- and new-school civil rights activists, with younger people at times chafing at the outsize presence of veteran organizers and older folks—sometimes forgetting the audaciousness and impatience of their younger selves. But a cross-section of activists, from NAACP presidents to rappers, have developed a working relationship that promises to help turn outrage into substantive policy transformation.

We stand at a pivotal moment in American history. Brown’s death picked at the scab of larger questions of racial and economic inequality that haunt the nation. And African Americans, as usual, have been called to the front lines in the ongoing struggle to press their country to live up to its democratic ideals.

Cornel West, who was arrested with a group of clergy on Monday in Ferguson, has been pilloried for his at-times vociferous criticism of President Barack Obama’s failure to forthrightly combat the growing income, wealth and opportunity gap between the 1 percent and the rest of the nation. But even if one disagrees with the tenor of West’s critique, the facts on the ground that he alludes to are real.

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The national wishful thinking that produced the fantasy of a “post-racial” America is implicated in the ongoing denial of racial injustice and economic oppression that is a reality for millions of Americans.

And the age of Obama is also—maddeningly and tragically—the age of Ferguson. But instead of boldly confronting this complex and contradictory reality, too many have bought into a narrative that replaces the genuine social-justice achievements of the New Deal and Great Society eras with a watered-down vision of progress that denies the horrifying depth of contemporary injustice.

The irony is that, until recently, many young people embraced a vision of social change that, despite its rhetorical flourishes—“We are the ones we have been waiting for”—was largely top-down. In 2008, millions of young people, inspired by Obama, became politically active for the first time. Six years later, the limits of such activism are clearer than ever. Many fervently hoped that Obama might serve as the political proxy for the radical hopes and dreams of at least three generations.

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But that hasn’t come to fruition.

Demonstrations across the nation now offer a different vision. Ferguson and St. Louis represent the proverbial tip of the sword of a new movement for racial and economic justice in America; one where young people are helping to lead a larger civil and human rights movement capable of boldly confronting the rising inequality, poverty, unemployment and violence that are impacting so many communities of color, and are representative of nothing less than an existential threat to democracy.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.