A Great History Lesson
On Saturday, February 10, 2023, I attended a meeting of the South Carolina Democratic Party Executive Committee. The meeting has reinforced my belief that without a fresh strategy to attract and engage younger generations, particularly young Black Democrats, the party’s survival is at stake.
The meeting kicked off with an hour-long message from Jim Felder. Let me begin by saying that I deeply respect Dr. Felder for his commitment to civil rights and his firsthand witness to most of South Carolina’s civil rights history since the sixties. He began his speech with a video montage about the civil rights movements in South Carolina. The speech was both informative and insightful, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
The challenge is that his speech did not have a clear objective in relation to the meeting and its attendees. The audience consisted mostly of older individuals who have firsthand experience with civil rights history, and younger individuals who may not feel a strong connection to it. It’s worth noting that this lack of connection is not due to a lack of empathy, but rather because civil rights history may not have direct relevance to their lives.
Then vs Now
Let me explain. The young people who were in attendance began their political journey with the election of President Barack Obama. They were raised to believe that we had “overcome,” that we and they had arrived at the color-blind society. Race is no longer important, and we now live in an America where equal rights are a reality. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
It seems that the older generation, of which I am a part but not at all in agreement with, seems to think that we are best suited to determine the way forward in a world that we will not likely inhabit. We believe that we know best because we lived through the civil rights movement – because we may have known civil rights leaders personally – that we have somehow acquired wisdom solely by virtue of having done so. But our recollections can be selective at best and self-serving at worst.
Our memories seem to be selective in one particularly offensive way. We seem to have forgotten that virtually all of the leaders of those historic events that were the impetus of the civil rights movement were young men and women who were roundly disapproved of by most of the then-current (older) leadership. The older leadership wanted those courageous young men and women to “go along to get along,” “stay the course,” and “not rock the boat.” Those young people, being impatient by nature and courageous because of their youth, refused to wait. Freedom now was their cry.
Determined to take matters into their own hands, they proceeded with their plans, regardless of the “Old Guard’s” approval, even though their leaders later disapproved and disavowed their actions.
At Saturday’s meeting, it was clear that the young people felt that they were being taken for granted and that they were not being heard or listened to. The older folks, the leaders, did nothing to allay the young people’s concerns when they were told that “this is not the place to discuss this” and that they need “wisdom.”
Notable young leaders who shaped history
The problem with this approach is that it is both condescending and clearly counterproductive. But more importantly, that intentionally disregards one of the most important aspects of the civil rights movement. It was, by and large, young people who made it happen. Almost always without the initial approval of old folks. This is important because it foretells the future since the past is often a prologue. We therefore must recognize the importance of the contribution and sacrifice of young people in the civil rights movement.
Let us not forget that;
- The Greensboro Four Sit-In initiated by Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr (now Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond, who were all 17 or 18 years old, is considered the beginning of the civil rights movement.
- Claudette Colvin was 15 years old when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery Bus, more than nine months before Rosa Parks.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was 26 years old when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and 28 years old when he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
- John Lewis was 25 when he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and led 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus bridge on what is remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”
- James E. Clyburn, now a Democrat Congressman was in his 20s when he led a protest in South Carolina.
It is absolutely crucial to recognize the invaluable contributions and selfless sacrifices made by young men and women to advance the civil rights movement. Their tireless efforts were absolutely essential to the success of the movement, and we cannot underestimate the importance of including them at every level, in every function, and in every role within the Party.
Letting young leaders rise to the challenge
We must never forget that throughout history, it has been young people who have taken up the fight for justice and change, whether through peaceful protest or armed struggle. The power has always been in the hands of the youth. Despite our seniority, we cannot expect the young people of today to blindly follow our orders without question. Those days, if they ever truly existed, are over.
We must once again look to the bravery, resourcefulness, and passion of our young people to lead the charge in the fight for freedom, justice, and equality. It is their fight to lead, and they will determine the course of the battle. We must offer guidance when needed, but it is up to them to devise the strategies and tactics necessary to win.
It’s time for us “old folk” to stand in solidarity with them, pass the reins of power, and trust that we’ve laid a strong example for them to follow. It’s time for us to advise, and let them lead.