WASHINGTON (AP) — Mary-Pat Hector of Atlanta was operating much like a 1960s civil rights activist as she laid plans for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. She was constantly on the phone as she confirmed event details, tweaked the draft of the speech she gave at Saturday’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial and prepared for a presentation.
Mary-Pat is 15 years old.
Just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott at age 26, and Rep. John Lewis helped to lead freedom rides at 23, young Americans like Mary-Pat are not letting age get in the way as they seek more than a contributing role in the push for social reform.
Young people are eager to influence this year’s March on Washington, says Jessica Brown, national coordinator for the Black Youth Vote coalition, which organized several youth events around Saturday’s march to the Lincoln Memorial.
“Of course you have the seasoned people who are there, and they are always rightfully going to have their position,” Brown said. “But you’re starting to see the pickup of the youth saying, ‘This is our time, this is our moment, this is the opportunity we have to show the world and the nation, that we’re here and we’re ready to work and organize to get things done.'”
In 1963, those “seasoned people” were A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who birthed the idea of a Washington march to appeal for jobs and justice, and ultimately attracted 250,000 people. Today, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, who were 8 and 5 years old, respectively, in 1963, are the veterans who brought thousands to the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday. The King Center also has organized a ceremony on Wednesday, the actual march anniversary, when President Barack Obama will speak.
Friday night, students and young adults gathered at Howard University in Washington for a mass meeting and rally ahead of Saturday’s march — activity patterned after the student rallies that were held before major demonstrations during the civil rights movement.
Anthony Miller, president of the Howard University Student Association, said students recognize the historical significance, and some are using this moment to express their continuing anger over the shooting death of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
“They want to be able to do something positive and something that will uplift this situation and really bring it to light,” Miller says. Students want “to effect a positive change and push this country in the right direction,” he said, “And I think this is an excellent opportunity.”
Janaye Ingram, who runs the Washington office of Sharpton’s National Action Network, spent hours on the phone recruiting students. “This is their moment to make a change. It’s reminiscent of what happened in the ’60s, when the movement was led by them,” she said.
Students and other young people made significant contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1957 a group of black students, later called the Little Rock Nine, helped integrate all-white Central High School in Arkansas. The Freedom Riders challenged segregation by riding buses through the South in integrated pairs. There were numerous others who held sit-ins at restaurant counters, skipped school to participate in marches and were attacked by police dogs and water cannons during public demonstrations.
“When you have been sitting on a lunch counter stool and someone walk up and spit on you or pour hot water or hot coffee on you and you say you’re committed to non-violence, you have to grow up,” Lewis said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” ”To go on the Freedom Rides in 1961, the same year that President Barack Obama was born? And to be beaten. You had to grow up. So by the time of the March on Washington, I was 23, but I was an older person.”
Saturday’s march included several youth speakers — the youngest, Asean Johnson of Chicago, just 9 years old.