Monday, September 1, 2003

Amos: Is civil rights movement running out of youth appeal?

More than 500 people came to the 40th Anniversary March on Washington rally last week in Cincinnati's Eden Park.

Too bad the hip-hop generation stayed home.

The crowd filled the seats and stood on grass surrounding the park's amphitheatre, as national and local civil rights luminaries recalled the landmark demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King III told inspiring stories, linking yesterday's victories with today's struggles. Belafonte called the crowd "warriors of the past, protectors of the present, the vision of the future."

I felt proud, energized to be there.

Then I looked out into the crowd. Gray heads and middle-aged faces far outnumbered the younger and presumably more energetic.

Can it be that the civil rights movement is too old? Out-dated?

Thursday's rally was more than a commemoration of the March on Washington.

It harkened to an October 1963 March in Cincinnati for Jobs and Freedom in which 30,000 people walked from Washington Park to Fountain Square.

At that protest 40 years ago, the picket lines were filled with people in their teens, 20s, and early 30s, according to some who were there.

Where were the younger folks this time?

It's too simple to say that young people's issues are different.

Sure, separate water fountains, attacking police dogs and threats of violence if blacks tried to vote are struggles from the past.

Segregated lunch counters are history. More African-Americans than ever are in America's middle- and upper-classes - as well as its colleges and corporate executive suites.

But many of the bedrock issues that galvanized youthful protestors 40 years ago are still here.

Segregated and inferior schools. Slum-like neighborhoods, devoid of decent employment. Blatant and not-so-blatant discrimination in housing, lending and jobs. Conflicts with police.

"College and high school students are the missing ingredient in the struggle," said Eric Abercrumbie, who teaches black studies at the University of Cincinnati.

"A lot of people are afraid to even be associated with - or have the image of being - troublemakers. Parents tell them to stay out of it. Get your education."

Kenneth Murphy, a 22-year-old food service worker from Avondale, said he didn't attend because he didn't hear about the rally. Besides, many young people have tuned out the civil rights struggle.

"They are falling into the hype of something else, like rap music or concert shows," he said.

The movement, Murphy said, needs young leaders to reach young people.

At last week's rally, only one of the 14 speakers was in his 20s. Even he sounded older than his years.

Markel Hutchins, president of National Youth Connections in Atlanta, castigated popular hip-hop music and videos that undermine a sense of self-respect.

He's right. But instead of alienating hip-hop fans, civil rights leaders ought to use the music as at least one of the many tools needed to win the next generation over to the struggle.


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