A half-dozen civil rights activists spoke to D.C. students Tuesday, urging them on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington to find their passions and to fight the injustices they see around them.
“This struggle requires you to figure out what you individually can do,” said Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Little Rock Central High under the protection of the U.S. military in 1957.
“The Little Rock Nine were 14, 15 and 16, just like this audience,” said Green, speaking at the School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens. “This was a movement of young people your age.”
The event, Fifty Years of Struggle, was organized by the King Center and Discovery Education and broadcast online to students across the country.
Green was joined by a panel of fellow civil rights figures who spoke about the power young people have to change the world. They included Carolyn McKinstry, whose four friends were killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.; Andrew Young, a onetime aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who later served as a congressman from Georgia and ambassador to the United Nations; and Angela Farris Watkins, an educator and niece of King’s.
It was a panel discussion meant more to impart lessons from the past than to stir debate. But debate erupted once, when author William Leventhal suggested that, given the widening income gap in America, wealthy people — people like Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey — “should be doing more.”
“People with personal wealth have to provide the mentors and the jobs for young people,” Leventhal said.
That drew immediate objection from several panelists, including Doris Crenshaw, who was a member of the NAACP Youth Council when Rosa Parks was arrested for taking a seat in the front of a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955.
The message to young people should not be that they need help from the rich, she said. Young people must take responsibility for themselves.
“We need to start looking inwardly at what we do,” Crenshaw said, recalling how she and her fellow student activists used to hold dances every Wednesday night to raise money for their cause.
“When you go to the mall every week,” she told the Walls students, “take some money out of your pocket and put it into the empowerment of yourselves.”
Also onstage were Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and School Without Walls senior Sinclair Blue. Blue said that when she was invited to take part in the conversation, she first doubted she had anything to offer.
“There are all these amazing people I’d be sitting on stage with,” Blue said. “But after some reflection, it reaffirmed what I’ve always believed, and that is that youth have the power to do anything they want and to make any change they want to see possible.”
Henderson spoke about education and opportunity as key civil rights not yet available to all children, a theme that echoed throughout the event, including in remarks offered by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Duncan paid homage to the progress the country has made over the past half-century. But the enormous achievement gap between white children and black and Latino children, and between affluent and poor children, shows how much more progress there is to be made, he said.
“If you can ride in the front of the bus but you cannot read, you’re not truly free,” he said.
The event was recorded and is available online.