I recently took a road trip through several of the states that were fraught with injustice during the Civil Rights Movement. One of our pit stops was Birmingham, Alabama where we visited Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of one of the most horrific bombings of that time period and the adjacent Ingram Park, a staging location for many civil rights demonstrations.
Today, Ingram Park contains several sculptures and memorial statues that serve as a testament to the day to day struggles of the time. The sculpture at the corner facing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands in remembrance of the four young girls excited to be in Sunday School that fateful morning in 1963.
It amazes me how the scene clearly encapsulates both the loss of young lives and the indomitable spirit of youth. Despite the inevitable violence faced by so many during the time period, youth were not deterred and were willing to risk their lives to fight to end segregation in the South. Prior to sending the Freedom Riders from Nashville, student leader, Diane Nash stated, as recalled in the recent PBS documentary, Freedom Riders, “We know someone will be killed, but we can’t let violence stop nonviolence.” Youth were on the front lines as evident by the sit-in movement started by four North Carolina A&T University students. Not to mention the fact that 75 percent of the Freedom Riders were between the ages of 18 and 30 and a large majority of participants in Freedom Summer were young as well.
I am inspired by historical accounts of youth who sparked social change then and I am equally inspired by youth leaders today. Regardless of the negative stereotypes associated with Millennials, I see a complex group of young people dedicated to solving challenges facing their communities. According to a recent global survey of Millennials by Telefonica, over 60 percent feel they can make a local difference and over 40 percent believe they can make a global difference.
Youth have always been a dominating force in social movements and as history shows, young leaders play a pivotal role as influences of social change. That said, it is equally as critical today as it has been in the past that the dynamism of youth be connected with opportunities to bring their energy, ideas and creativity to the forefront.