Young Blacks in MLK's Shadow

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.


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.

What has been missing is a sustained national movement toward social justice. We can't lay claim to a cause with the same size and scope of the civil rights movement. But we're also fighting a very different battle.


My generation recognizes that an important aspect of the current march toward justice is controlling the narrative, and we have found a way to do this through new media. Blogging and social media have allowed us to wrest our story from mainstream news sources that often neglect or mishandle their coverage of black people (see CNN's Black in America series). The Web has offered an unprecedented opportunity for anyone to share his or her story and to reflect on the breadth and diversity of black opinion and experiences.

In addition, social media and black-centric news websites have served the community in much the same way that black-owned and -operated newspapers, black radio stations and the black church operated during the civil rights movement: as places to disseminate information to large numbers of people and to organize for action. We witnessed this during the earthquakes that struck Haiti last year and more recently during the controversy surrounding the offensive Nivea ad and Vogue Italia's "slave earrings." These are new tools for a new fight.


Most recently, young people used Twitter, Facebook and online petitions to help galvanize support to halt the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia last month. Though it was an unsuccessful campaign, the effort spoke to the power of social media and the desire of young people to act on important issues.

Black Millennials are also increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of various social-justice movements. We have been exposed to ideas that black folks had previously shunned or at least had considered very low priority. Young black people have gotten involved in feminism, LGBT rights, environmentalism, health and other areas of activism, bringing diversity of experience to these movements.


While the older generations may not understand all of this, it isn't exactly their place. They are in a position to pass down the wisdom from their experiences while moving out of the way in order to allow the next generation the opportunity to lead with fresh ideas. Millennials will have to figure out how to build a movement, because the work is far from over, but we also shouldn't beat ourselves up as if we've done nothing. This is our moment to figure out what's important to us and how we can make a difference.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.

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