From Emmett to Trayvon: A Burgeoning Youth Movement
Exactly eight years before the original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (August 28, 1963), Emmett Louis Till was murdered on August 28, 1955, after allegedly flirting with a white woman. He was fourteen. In the civil rights movement, Emmett’s death woke up all those who forgot or chose to ignore the realities of racial, social, and economic injustice that hid under the tides of the depression, war, and the rigors of daily tasks in Jim Crow America. Emmett’s death symbolized the dehumanization of black boys across this country. Moreover, Emmett’s death represented the dismantling of a threshold within a burgeoning 1960’s youth movement. This movement was led by a generation of baby boomers who could no longer accept the perpetual marginalization and devaluing of black bodies. They would fight to conjure the lost voice of justice until everyone heard and felt the vibration of a shifted status quo. By 1963, pain turned to action and anger became a tool for civil disobedience. Finally, the hearts of minds of our country were augmented into a consciousness never before seen so broadly.
Fifty-seven years, four months, and twenty-eight days later (February 26, 2012) Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy only armed with his hoodie, skittles and as ice tea, was shot and murdered. Trayvon’s murder caused the skipping heartbeat of America to question (once again) the worth of black life. It forced our country to look race in the eye and experience the tension of confronting a harsh truth of systemic and institutional racism. Ultimately, Trayvon’s death and the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict created an anger that only comes around once every few generations.
This was an anger that created a contingency of youth that took their frustrations to the streets and began to take action as chants like “Justice for Trayvon” reverberated off capitol building walls in Florida. This anger brought many young people to the March on Washington for the first time not just for Jobs and Freedom, but to express their resentment to a system that criminalizes the lives of poor people of color. A system that stops us, frisks us, murders us, and then declares our victimized remnants as “guilty” of the very same crimes committed against us. We thought coming to the March on Washington would be the start of a movement, only to find a parade of celebratory nostalgia justified with the echoes of a dream that never came into fruition.
However, as the legacy organizations and political speeches spewed the methodical language of post-racial fallacies, there was a youth “March” happening simultaneously, that you could not watch on CNN or read about in New York Times. This youth “March” was cloaked in good-ole-fashion movement and coalition building. The same coalition building that manufactured the infrastructure for the direct action organizing led by young people throughout the 1960’s. This youth “March” was not just the physical act of literal progression down the pavement of a Washington DC boulevard, but it was the relationships built, the strategies exchanged and the networks solidified. The youth “March” was the millennial generation from all around the country coming together to no longer be unheard, unorganized and unspoken for.
At this youth “March”, the energy was present; the organic revelation of a movement was felt and the staleness of activism from youth in the 21st century was made into a fresh vigor of engagement. It was Dream Defenders and BYP100s chanting in harmony, “I Believe That We Can Win.” This energy spread like euphoric freedom seeing hope and love for the first time. Finally, there is a tangible and radical space where youth can operationalize their anger and turn their pain into organized power that will not stop until young people across this country are no longer criminalized and are allowed to live out their full potential.