On Monday the nation will pause to observe the annual holiday honoring the life and legacy of iconic civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet too many Millennials and members of their younger cohort, Generation Z, consider civil rights history as ancient history at the dawn of a new millennium.
However, there are profound and poignant lessons which today’s young people need to learn. The most important lesson is how to make major changes in society through the type of peaceful means championed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights leaders of the time.
A term of significance for young people to comprehend is: “civil disobedience.”Civil Rights & Non-Violence
Dr. King staked his life and legacy on preaching non-violence, similar to that of Mahatma Gandhi during the independence movement of India, a country then controlled by British rule. In fact, Dr. King is said to have greatly admired and closely studied Gandhi’s successful strategy of non-violent opposition, which MLK emulated via the civil rights movement across the South.
MLK promoted civil disobedience in the face of vicious police brutality and mass jailings of peaceful demonstrators — including himself — which were commonplace back then.
Similarly and tragically, both Dr. King and Gandhi met their untimely deaths at the hand of an assassin’s bullet. This is the ultimate price to pay for fostering peace and freedom on a grand scale. Moreover, unlike some black leaders of the 1960s who heeded calls for violence from militant groups, like the Black Panthers, Dr. King persevered with a solid strategy of civil disobedience.
Landmark Civil Rights Laws
Dr. King’s steadfastness and perseverance paid off through the enactment of groundbreaking civil rights laws that altered the course of American history.
Therefore, more young people should be taught to leverage peaceful means of protest via the constitutional guarantees of free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly. These lawful tactics of non-violent resistance are what ultimately resulted in historic gains via the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
These landmark civil rights laws changed America for the better and ushered in a new era of increased equality and opportunity for minority groups.
While the sweeping civil rights laws of the 1960s obviously did not cure all societal ills, they have certainly had a long-term positive impact on the fabric of America. Thus, today’s teens and 20-somethings who might be prone to violence and knee-jerk reactions during police confrontations need to recall, abide by and honor the legacy of non-violence taught by Dr. King.
Dr. King referred to non-violence as “a sword that heals.” He said, for example: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”
Testing USA’s Conscience
Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis, and other civil rights leaders of the 1960s persistently tested the nation’s conscience about racism, bias and bigotry. Their unwavering discipline and fortitude through strict adherence to non-violence is why minds were changed and historic progress was made.
Graphic TV video and news photos of peaceful protesters being beaten bloody by police, hosed down by water cannons, and attacked by police dogs caused most whites to take a hard look in the mirror when pondering such outrageous over reactions by law enforcement – actions which ultimately backfired.
Congressman Lewis, then a young civil rights leader, was nearly beaten to death by police during a pivotal civil rights march in Alabama that became known as “Bloody Sunday” — a common story exemplifying the unjust times.
That’s why more Millennials and Gen Z need to realize that non-violence was the core foundation of Dr. King’s effective leadership and ability to alter the course of American history for the better.
Despite recent racial progress made — such as the election and reelection of America’s first black president — the civil rights struggle is far from over. There’s still too much discrimination based on race, color and a host of other factors, from the workplace to every place in America.
In hindsight, many citizens of every race, color and creed had sincerely hoped and believed that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama would result in a post-racial society. But this promise has failed to materialize, despite a new generation of young people who tend to look beyond the lens of race.
The ugly truth is that the scourge of racial bias is still a persistent problem in too many aspects of modern day society.
Perhaps what has changed most is that racism, bias and bigotry are more subtle and less overt today compared to prior times. Many point to so-called “unconscious” or “unintentional” discrimination at the heart of some in white America.
But there’s nothing unconscious or unintentional about burning down black churches or police killing unarmed black youth, among other things grotesquely witnessed nationwide in recent years.
Let’s also recall that there’s nothing lawful or morally right about minorities discriminating against whites based on race, especially considering that race is supposed to be “color blind” under the law.
Moreover, racial discrimination is equally abhorrent whether it’s directed at light skinned blacks by darker skinned blacks, whites against blacks, Hispanics against blacks, and/or blacks and other traditionally known minority groups against whites.
I would note that as racial and ethnic diversity greatly increases among the U.S. population, the demographic of white Americans remains mostly stagnant. And the population of white men is actually shrinking. While this might be reason enough for some to cheer, there’s never a justifiable reason for discrimination against anyone.
In fact, most major U.S. cities currently have a so-called “minority-majority” population. This means the combined number of traditional minority groups now outnumbers that of whites. Yet this should never be a purported justification for so-called “reverse discrimination.”
True equality means not discriminating against any individual based on race — period!
The Big Question
Thus, the big question arises:
• What more must be done to make the bold “dream” of Civil Rights that Dr. King expressed a shining reality in 21st century America?
In essence, we must all ask ourselves: where do we go from here, and how?
What strategies should a new generation of young leaders leverage to create the kind of society in which all people are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as Dr. King spoke of half a century ago?
Are the answers simply too elusive in today’s increasingly diverse multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural world?
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9 thoughts on “MLK Day: Civil Rights Lessons for Millennials and Gen Z – by David Grinberg”
Excellent piece David. Thoughtful and timely.
Thank you, Martin, for sharing your valuable feedback. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. Moreover, you make an excellent point about extremist elements of modern society. Perhaps the ugly message of racists is more widespread and louder due to the proliferation of digital and social media in today’s fast evolving Information Age. I would say that, yes, significant progress has been made since the 1960s in the fight to eradicate racism and other blatant forms of bias and bigotry from mainstream society. But, no, the battle is far from over. There is much more work ahead to effectuate true equal opportunity for all at the dawn of a new millennium.
All generations should heed the timeless wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Again, many thanks for sharing your important insights, kind sir. Your comments are most appreciated.
Hi Martin, I do appreciate your view of what is subtle and what is not. I would agree with you about Breitbart and company not being subtle. However, As office manager for American Jewish Committee in Chicago, I had to oversee a high-rise evacuation because of a bomb threat. Later, I worked as community liaison for the Jewish Federation in Tulsa shortly after the OK City bombing and racism and bigotry were hugely overt in that context. I was trained by the FBI in those days in protection of myself and our campus. Today, the threats are still there, but there is an eerie mainstreaming that tends to veil the extent of the bigotry even though it is as strong underneath the surface as it was then. Perhaps subtle isn’t the right word – what would you call it?
Wonderful post David! “Where do we go from here?” That is the million dollar question. Keep these blogs coming, so well delivered and hopefully the more attention this subject gets, answers will begin to come.
Thanks so much for the positive feedback, Lisa, which is always very much appreciated!
Civil Rights is a fight which never stops, though with all the progress gained, one would hope the fight would be easier. I think it is good to know and understand what happened in earlier days to avoid making the same mistakes. Unfortunately, as you stated, discrimination has even become ‘reversed’, and includes a wide cross section of minorities. The very fact that a travel ban was attempted, and discriminated against mainly one religious group, is an indicator that some prejudices are still relevant to many in the society.
Many thanks for taking the time read and share your important insights, Donna-Luisa, which are always most appreciated. Yes, there’s still too much discrimination these days. However, a lot of appears to be subtle, hidden and less overt. This makes sense because most employers and people generally are more aware of federal/state/local laws prohibiting discrimination the public and private sectors from the workplace to transportation accessibility. Nevertheless, cases of blatant and egregious discrimination based on a range of issue have not disappeared, unfortunately. Moreover, regardless of what it’s attributed to — such as the “growing pains” in increased diversity in society — discrimination against anyone or any group is nonetheless immoral, reprehensible and unlawful. Again, many thanks for your exemplary comments!
Excellent post David. One of the best I have read on the subject. Love the balanced approach. “A term of significance for young people to comprehend is: “civil disobedience.” Indeed we must honour the legacy of non-violence taught by Dr. King. Well done!
I’m humbled by your gracious words and support, Brigette, which mean so much coming from such a well-recognized expert and author on topics of leadership and diversity. I’m most grateful for your kind support and look forward to reading more of your exemplary writing, be it blogs or books.