At the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I joined my fellow youth activists, the BYP100 and the Dream Defenders, along with a slew of other activists from around the country in order to activate our collective spirit and vitality against the injustices that continue to be waged against marginalized communities. Coming on the heels of Trayvon’s death, history and the present have come together, seemingly ignited with a new spirit for change, growth, and justice. However, though I felt invigorated by the valiant hope of everyone around me, I could not help but be haunted by a detectable hollowness of the entire affair. As speaker after speaker invoked Dr. King and his legacy, it became ever more clear that the history and the present have not only come together, but collided, and quite frankly, I couldn’t tell which was which.
Or to be clearer, I offer an anecdote. As I walked towards the National Mall, I heard a woman soliciting, as she called them, her “50 years and we are still marching!” buttons.
“50 years and we are still marching.” Her words echoed throughout my head the entire time. Clearly, the most instinctive way of making sense of this woman’s statement is to pronounce the ever-present injustices enacted upon marginalized communities. 50 years and we have only seen poverty and mass incarceration increase, richly black ghetto spaces decline into greater vulnerability, and the obstinate and immovable silencing of marginalized voices that continues to operate within our mainstream media. 50 years and these issues have not only worsened but grown more complex. No longer exposed under legally sanctioned racism à la Jim Crow, many can walk completely unaware of the political, social, and economic injustices still lingering through our realities.
Yes, we might still be marching because of persistent injustices, but could the fact that we are “still marching” reflect an inability to switch up our tactics to meet the onslaught of the newer, cuter, post-racial racism? And so I couldn’t help but ask myself, 50 years after Dr. King’s historic speech. What does it mean that we are still marching? If the injustices faced upon us have become so complex, have our tactics themselves evolved to meet the complexity? Certainly, the America of today, black and brown and queer, cannot expect to meet the challenges of today with the tactics of yesteryear. Yes, I felt a sense of solidarity as I marched with others who were united in the fight for justice, but marching felt like it was more for a space of healing rather than an active moment of resistance. (If the two can be so separated.) What greatly concerns me is that a nostalgia for the activism of the past seems to have curtailed the methods of the present. And so, what gives me pause is that I cannot draw the lines between where history ends and the present begins.
And to be quite frank, not only do we persist in the tactics of yesteryear, but we remain strummed along by the leaders of yesteryear. This is not completely bad. But it becomes problematic when our leaders of yesterday seem preoccupied with the generational gap between their lives and ours. Many of today’s problems, mass incarceration, racial profiling, racist media, etc. are essentially problems that disproportionately impact youth. And yet somehow these issues get talked about within the elder generations odd soul-searching. In an attempt to see where they have won and where they have lost, they pigeon hole and cast the youth as hoodlums or miscreants who do not know their history.
So ultimately, my concerns came down to one question: what am I to do with the 50th year anniversary of the March on Washington? Me, a youth of the millennial generation, who was taught the prophecy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, but who has since grown up in the reality where many of the efforts of his dream have been diminished in the short amount of time since he uttered his grand speech. Where do I, at 21, stand? Caught between a history that has not quite transitioned into a present, and between elders who themselves are struggling to reconcile their past hopes, past strides, with the unavoidable injustices of today. 50 years ago, the March on Washington seemed to be a movement of people who knew where they stood and were united in the cause. It was a movement that knew itself. Perhaps I am wrong. But what I do know is that today, this is definitely not the case. By no means are we lost, but we have yet to find ourselves.
So I do not know what to make of the fact that we are still marching. I know that our tactics must change. We must make room for new voices. We must find ourselves and discover really where we are in the present. A movement must be grounded in its roots, not entangled within it.