Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh,
And know they love you.
–Graham Nash, recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970
The students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and their young peers have, in a matter of weeks, galvanized one of the most significant social movements in our country’s recent history. They pulled off massive marches in Washington, D.C., and in more than 800 locations across the country and the world.
This kind of feat would have taken their elders months to organize, if they could even pull it off.
These courageous young people have invigorated a magical and hopeful movement for justice and change. They have shown us what democracy and citizenship really look like, at just the moment that so many of their elders have begun to despair that the great American experiment in popular rule may be coming to an end.
As anthropologist Margaret Mead famously proclaimed:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
It is my hope and belief that when history is written, the date of the March For Our Lives – March 24, 2018 – will go down as a life-changing and world-changing date for this generation, just as as August 23, 1963, the date of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was for an earlier generation.
And as a baby boomer who met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in person as a child, whose mother took him to the 1963 March on Washington, and has been an activist ever since, I know from experience that all kinds of unplanned connections come from these experiences that can change participants’ lives and ultimately, the destiny of society.
Organizers and participants meet people they wouldn’t otherwise have met, make new lasting connections, stay up late into the night talking about how to change the future, and begin to build grassroots organizations that become the lasting vehicles for change.
Of course, a march is only one day. And the enthusiasm from that day can fizzle when it comes up against the reality of realpolitik. But the students are already showing the sophistication to understand that their ultimate success will depend on building from the excitement of the March to doing the hard work of continued political mobilization and building lasting organizations and alliances to carry on the fight.
As one of the slogans of the March goes, “#REV: Register, Educate, Vote.”
Recently-minted activists also begin to make connections between various issues and the larger political, social and economic forces of society.
It may be gun violence that sparked this March. But it starts to become evident that the lack gun regulation is directly related to the massive amount of money spent by the NRA and is weapons-manufacturing benefactors to buy politicians.
And that same money-driven politics that blocks action on climate change that could determine, not only whether this generation is safe in its schools but safe on this planet.
Already, the largely white and middle class students from Parkland are joining with poor and minority young people who have been experiencing gun violence in their communities for years. And they may begin to ask why society dedicates resources to middle class school districts while leaving poor, black and brown districts behind. They may start to think about the school to prison pipeline.
And speaking of safety from assault rifles in schools, they may also start to think about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the threat of wars with the like of Iran and North Korea that could ultimately kill millions. They are already, redefining gender roles. It’s hard not to notice that many of the young leaders and spokespeople are young women and people of color.
Increasingly, the governing principle of this youth movement is the new word “Intersectionality,” which posits that race, class, gender, sexual orientation and disability are not separate but a complexly interwoven web.
How Young People Change History
The March Against Violence reminds us that, historically, it has often been young people who have been the catalysts for important social change.
Martin Luther King was only 28 years old when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, which helped spark the civil rights movement and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only nine years later. He was only 39 when he was assassinated in 1968.
Some of the students from a nearby black college who first-sat in at segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, S. Carolina and who joined the Freedom Rides were as young as 18.
The anti-Vietnam War movement was led largely by students.
In the late 1960’s, it was young women who began meeting in small groups and originated the modern women’s rights movement that is seeing its reimagination in the Me Too movement today.
And going back to the 19th Century, it was young people who stood on the barricades in the social justice movements of their era, memorialized in Victor Hugo’s novel and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical “Les Miserables.”
To be fair, there have been elders along the way who have provided assistance. It was Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, founded in 1932, that trained some of the early civil rights workers in the art of non-violent protest.
Ella Baker, the trailblazing civil rights activist whose name should be known far and wide, and Bayard Rustin were key mentors to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and then to the students who started the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, encouraging them to maintain their independence from the only slightly older Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. King and other African-American ministers.
The Chicago 7, charged with conspiracy for their role in the anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention were mostly young, except for David Dellinger, born in 1915, who had spent a lifetime in non-violent protest and was a key mentor to them.
The elder mentors who were most effective in working with the youth movements of the past were those with the good sense not to try to dominate but to cede leadership to the younger activists, while imparting some of their experience to help them on their way. There are people today, veterans of the last five decades of social protest, who can hopefully play a similar role today.
Given these historical precedents, if I were an older politician trying to protect the status quo, I would be shaking in my boots at what we witnessed in the hundreds of Marches For Our Lives this past weekend.
There’s little that can diminish the power of a woke generation of young people.
To quote the (no longer, but forever, young) Bob Dylan, in whose lyrics Jennifer Hudson, backed by gospel choir, led the crowd at in singing to close the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C.:
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.