Creating a New Leadership for a New Era: Thoughts on Teaching the Responsibility for Social Activism in Our Schools

By Harris, Rosemary | Black History Bulletin, Summer-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Creating a New Leadership for a New Era: Thoughts on Teaching the Responsibility for Social Activism in Our Schools


Harris, Rosemary, Black History Bulletin


Now, like never before, there is a need for young people to assume the roles of leadership, to advocate for equity, to be purposeful in agitating for positive change in our communities. To their credit, the authors in this volume make that plain. Those who excel are those who can visualize themselves in such a future. Those who will excel are those who know their past. As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) approaches its centennial, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) nears its 60th year, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) turns 50, it is even more important that students know this part of our political and activist past--because it is time for them to take their own places: to begin creating change.

We must acknowledge, however, that it is sometimes difficult for young people to look in the mirror and see themselves taking the places of W. E. B. DuBois or Ida B. Wells Barnett, Charles Steele, Fred Shuttlesworth, or Stokley Carmichael--not to mention Malcolm or Martin or Rosa. They just don't see it. Many of today's young people--though thankfully not all of them--simply cannot see themselves as activists. Maybe it's because they do not know our glorious political past. Maybe it's because they didn't hear it in the classroom, as they will in the lesson plans crafted by the educators here. Maybe it's because they didn't hear it at the dinner table--and certainly didn't hear it on the news.

For more than 20 years, the news about African American youth has not focused on their activism, but on their dysfunction. The news has focused on the achievement gap, on baby daddies and baby mamas and on the sheer staggering numbers of young black people behind bars. While I think it is critically important to know about all that, none of it tells us how to engage young people either politically or civically. And none of that will help them make strong decisions about taking their political and civic places in the world.

As the authors in the Bulletin remind us, young black people played vibrant and important roles in the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Think about the Little Rock Nine, integrating Central High School. Think about Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond, standing up by sitting down at the segregated lunch counter of FW Woolworth's in Greensboro, NC. Think about how they were refused service and sat peacefully until the store closed and think about how they returned the next day, with about 25 more students, and had their requests to be served denied again. Think about how they inspired similar sit-ins across the state. They were the reason that finally, Woolworth's integrated all of its stores. The four have become icons of the civil rights movement. Think about it. They were, as some would say, just kids. But they were civil rights giants.

There are giants walking the halls of high schools now, strolling across college campuses. How can we help them see themselves as just that? How can we see it ourselves? Rather than merely drawing conclusions from traditional ideas about civic behavior (such as volunteering to be a hall monitor or knowing all the branches of government or where the State Capitol is located), maybe students need a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be politically and civically connected, engaged in your community, poised to make a gigantic difference in the world.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Let's take a step back, though. For all the trouble they saw, for all the nooses, dogs, water hoses and police batons, I think the activists who founded our historic civil rights and social justice organizations had a lot going for them. For the most part, they lived in homogeneous black life, in black civic love.

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Creating a New Leadership for a New Era: Thoughts on Teaching the Responsibility for Social Activism in Our Schools
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