If you ever wondered… “If I were alive during the time of slavery, or the Holocaust, or the civil rights movement, what would I be doing?”
If you ever wondered how you would react, respond and confront the historic oppression of those times… what you would have done… Well, you’re doing it right now.
If you are asking, “How will I handle it, when that moment of truth comes?” I’m here to tell you that the moment of truth is here, right now. And only you can answer the question, “How am I handling it? What have I stood up for? What have I spoken out against? Have I ever put anything at risk to defend my beliefs? Have I ever put anything at risk to defend the rights of someone other than myself?”
Only you can answer that question for yourself.
Now, let me be clear. I’m not here to lecture or scold you, or to suggest in any way at all that I am in any way better than you. Because I am not. I am not better than anyone. And I love you and accept you just the way you are. No change required.
You know the old expression, “You can lead a horse to water…?”
I can’t make you drink. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. But I can lead you to water. And that’s just what I am going to keep doing. And maybe some of you will take a drink.
Last month was the ten year anniversary of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Ten years. Most of those children would be applying to college now. But Sandy Hook was not the first and most certainly not the last time that innocent school children would be sacrificed on the altar of American gun worship. This year, like every other year, children die for our sins, and all we give them are thoughts and prayers.
And so, school children are very much on my mind today.
There are a handful of names that all schoolchildren…that most schoolchildren know when they think about the icons of the civil rights movement in America. Names like Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These are extraordinary individuals whose contributions to the cause of civil rights are unmistakable and indelible.
But there are others whose contributions are no less important — others who struggled so that we wouldn’t have to. Others who risked the loss of freedom so that you and I could be free. Others who gave their lives because sometimes there are worse things than dying. Because some things are worth dying for.
The names that I want our schoolchildren to learn are the names of other schoolchildren. I want to take this occasion to give proper recognition to the fact that much of the freedom that we take for granted today was fought for and won by young people, by children.
Look at any newsreel footage of civil rights marches and demonstrations from the 1950s and 1960s and you will see boys and girls marching, boys and girls being clubbed by police batons, boys and girls running to escape the police hoses.
Who was it that organized and staged the sit-ins at lunch counters so that you and I could eat wherever we chose? It was college kids. It was four freshmen from North Carolina A&T who occupied the stools at the Woolworth counter and refused to move until they were served. When Dr. King was arrested in Atlanta for sitting at the counter at Rich’s Department store a few months later, he went to jail along with 280 college students.
It was college kids who crowded onto Greyhound buses to almost certain danger as Freedom Riders in the summer of 1961.
I want you to learn the names of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, three college kids, one Black and two Jews who went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to help register Black people to vote. Three young men who vanished one night in June in 1964. And by the way, it took 40 years after their deaths to bring their killers to justice. Forty years.
Everyone knows about the NAACP. But I want you to learn about the SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC created a network of student activists across the major Black universities of the south and gave rise to young leaders like Julian Bond, John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael.
And in case you think I’m only talking about college kids, one of the earliest names in the civil rights movement was Linda Brown from “Brown vs. the Board of Education.” All Linda Brown wanted to do was go to third grade, but not a third grade that was separate and unequal.
Many of you will recognize the famous painting by Norman Rockwell entitled, “The problem we all live with.” It’s a painting of little Ruby Bridges just trying to walk to kindergarten in New Orleans in 1960, as she is escorted by four United States marshals for her own protection.
And four more names: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. These four little girls were in church waiting for Sunday school to begin when someone detonated 19 sticks of dynamite under a stairwell of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
This year, the most powerful and most effective protests against oppression in Iran are being led by schoolgirls from middle-school age to college age. They are the future of that nation.
We view people like Dr. King as icons, as extraordinary. We say that people like Dr. King are role models, and that we seek to pattern our lives after them. But we don’t really believe that. We don’t really believe that we can be like Dr. King. We’re just regular folk. Dr. King was extraordinary.
That is why I would like us to learn these other names, to learn these stories. Because these are young people, not icons. We don’t need a super-hero to inspire us. We don’t need to wait for another Dr. King to lead us.
If you are asking, “How will I handle it, when that moment of truth comes?” Look to our young people to see the answer.
If we learn these names, perhaps we will realize it is their footsteps we must follow. It is against their achievements that we must measure our own. And it is their stories that tell us where we are and how we got here. We ought to take better care of our young people. They are not just our future. They are our past and our present.
Mark S. Robinson of Ridgefield is a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.