Lewis, who was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the youngest of the “Big Six” leaders from the 1963 march, represented the movement’s already battle-tested young foot soldiers. His elders asked him to tone down the more fiery passages of his speech after seeing a draft; Lewis told MSNBC that he agreed to make the changes, not wanting to disappoint King and the other leaders.
Now 73 and a Democratic congressman from Georgia, Lewis was under no pressure to mince his words Saturday. He reminded the crowd of the vicious beating he endured in the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Ala., and encouraged today’s youth to resist efforts to erode his generation’s hard-fought victories.
“Back in 1963, we hadn’t heard of the Internet. We didn’t have a cellular telephone, iPad, iPod,” Lewis said. “But we used what we had to bring about a nonviolent revolution. I say to all of the young people: You must get out there and push and pull and make America what it should be for all of us.”
Unlike the narrow focus on jobs and freedom in 1963, this year’s march seeks to address an array of issues. Sharpton expanded the march’s original goals, combatting high black and youth unemployment, to include a call for action after the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act, and to protest “stand your ground” laws and stop-and-frisk police tactics.
“We’re looking at the issue that went on in Florida, we’re looking at what’s going on with the Voting Rights Act, so youth are really upset, and they’re deciding maybe this is a good point to collectively come together, continuously build on our network, and take it back to our community to continue working,” Brown says.
Sasha Costanza-Chock, an assistant professor of civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says young people’s willingness to simultaneously address “multiple dynamics of oppression” shows how youth activism has matured.
“You have a lot more young people now talking about … the ways that different structures of race, class, gender and sexuality cannot be fought only one at a time. They have to be looked at together and struggled for together,” Costanza-Chock said.
Today’s young activists are equipped with a tool that older generations didn’t have: social media. It empowers them to rally large numbers of people to a cause in a very short span of time. Using these methods are Florida’s “Dream Defenders,” the student group that held a sit-in outside of Gov. Rick Scott’s office for 31 days, demanding a special session to repeal the “stand your ground” law.
The group traveled to Washington for the march anniversary, and encouraged supporters to follow their journey on USTREAM, an online live video service.
“It’s been easier than ever to mobilize people, to hold people accountable, and to get attention for whatever issue you care about. So I think it’s just changed the game,” said Ryane Ridenour from Generational Alliance, an umbrella group of 22 youth organizations.
Mary-Pat, who serves as national youth director for Sharpton’s organization, said working on multiple issues and leveraging social media in this way “can be overwhelming,” but she understands that this is the nature of working on intertwined causes.
Ultimately, she wants this march to serve as a moment in which history will say her generation showed “we just don’t march and make a lot of noise, but we actually make an impact.”