Shirley Chisholm, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, John Johnson, Fred Hampton, Ida B. Wells. They were among the most brilliant and influential people involved in the desegregation effort and the founding of the Black Power Movement. Desegregating the schools in the South, fighting to pass the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, assuring that water fountains could be used by anyone who was thirsty, regardless of race, were crowning achievements of the movement.
However, the general consensus is that youth today have little or no appreciation for their efforts. Whatever the reason, the level of passion for civil rights seems to have been re-directed.
According to 25-year-old Governor State University graduate student Gloria Robinson, who is studying elementary education, young people have either forgotten the important lessons learned from the Civil Rights Movement or take them for granted.
“Black kids just don’t have any appreciation for the work their ancestors did so that they can be educated,” said Robinson. “They come to class, argue, cuss, fight. Some days I feel more like a disciplinarian than a teacher. I sometimes wonder, do they know what their grandparents had to endure for them to be here?”
Robinson,the youngest of four children, grew up in the south suburb of Markham, but her parents, who are both in their 60s told her about their experiences during the civil rights struggles in the South.
“My mother grew up in Arkansas at a time when, if you walked down the wrong street, you might not be coming home,” said Robinson. “My dad lived in predominantly black Oxford, Miss., where the same basic rule of staying on your side of the fence applied.”
Robinson said that while the school has a mandate to educate youth about civil rights, it must begin at home.
“Parents need to let their children know how important these people were to moving our country to where it is now. We need more black males in the classrooms teaching our history and more cohesive families at home driving these lessons home.”
The feeling that Civil Rights should be transferred from parent to child was also echoed by Katherine Freeman, a 24-year-old University of Illinois graduate student.
“Young people don’t think about the movement because they don’t have to think about it,” said Freeman, who is a community health major.
“Parents need to sit them down and tell them how important this time in our history was-because we want to show them what is possible in their own academic and social endeavors.”
Freeman is a native of Rantoul, born to an African-American father and Panamanian mother. She says she faced identity issues early in life, wondering where she would fit in at her nearly all-white Catholic high school. Her parents were instrumental in helping her embrace her diverse heritage, while also learning as much as she could about her African ancestry.
“In high school I began reading prose of African-American leaders like Thurgood Marshall, and it really opened my eyes to the greatness of my people,” said Freeman. “I think if more of our youth were encouraged to learn as much as they can about their history, they would have to have more appreciation for the movement because they would know the why, when, where and how. I believe the more informed they are about these days, the more they will appreciate what they have now.”
“I think if the youth have lost sight of the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s because we don’t have the same ‘we’re in this together’ attitude that we once had,” said Eliot Hines, a 21-year-old history major at Chicago State University. “Perhaps it’s because of the change in the family dynamic, more single family homes. However, I definitely feel that it has been not so much forgotten, but less appreciated.”
Hines says his initial introduction to civil rights occurred at a young age when his father, who grew up in Memphis in the ’50s, began telling him stories of his experiences with racism.
“My father told me how at a young age, he had a cop stop him and threaten him with a gun because he was in the wrong area, and he was only eight,” said Hines. “When Dad was telling me this story, all I could think about was why? Why would someone not like you because of the color of your skin? It made no sense then and probably even less sense now.
“We need more youth scholars to sit down with our youth and impart this same knowledge to them,” said Hines. “We need to let them know that these leaders’ efforts are appreciated and that we have not overlooked them. It will take the same level of community organization that birthed the movement, but it can be done.”