- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

The old folks are fond of saying that you’ve got to know where you’ve been to get to where you’re going.

The old folks now include Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, who was the youngest of the “Big Six” to call for racial equality and jobs at the Lincoln Memorial 40 years ago during the 1963 March on Washington, which was relived on the National Mall Saturday.

Mr. Lewis was the 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on that momentous day when the Rev. Martin Luther King changed the course of American history with his canonized “I Have a Dream” speech.

Today, Mr. Lewis is the sole survivor of that illustrious leadership. Visibly mellowed, he said that much has changed in this country since 1963, when “white” and “colored” signs dominated the Southern Jim Crow landscape, and to openly join the struggle for civil rights was suicidal.

“We live in a different world today,” Mr. Lewis said. Still, much remains to be done to make the dream of “a beloved community” a reality.

The elder statesman told the relatively small crowd of thousands who gathered on Saturday that the August 1963 March on Washington didn’t happen by magic. Back then, there were no fax machines, cell phones or personal computers. Organizers had their feet and their faith to bring masses to the nation’s capital to call for social and economic justice.

While it is all well and good to commemorate the past, Mr. Lewis said young people today “have all the technology, talent and resources to do more” to build a community “truly integrated, at peace with itself and pulling together for the common good.”

In other words, as one rapper poses, “Show me what you working with.”

Or as Janet Jackson sings: “What have you done for me lately?” Forty years from now, there should be a celebration not a commemoration. But that means focus on today, not yesterday, for tomorrow.

As he passed the dimly lit torch to the so-called “hip-hop” generation, Mr. Lewis sorrowfully said, “Americans are too quiet … a little too complacent … we need to make some noise.”

So where were P. Diddy, Ja Rule, Mary J., and Queen Latifah to rally a crowd of hip-hop homies to tackle today’s issues of equality, affirmative action, homelessness, inadequate education, health care and joblessness?

Somewhere telling young folks to shake their booties and to “take off all your clothes, it’s gettin’ hot in here”?

In the hip-hop celebrities’ stead stood the likes of Mark Thompson, Radio One talk-show host and D.C. community activist, the Rev. Markel Hutchins of the National Youth Connection in Atlanta and Malika Sanders of the 21st Century Leadership Movement in Alabama. All were dubbed “heirs of the visionary vanguard” by Martin Luther King III.

The King progeny pointed out that labor organizers played a pivotal role in the success of the 1963 march and working class folks and “some of the same people are in trouble” today. He used his turn at the podium where his father stood 40 years earlier to launch a “rolling mobilization” initiative that will visit numerous cities seeking to register thousands for the upcoming 2004 elections.

Organizers of the 40th anniversary march, many of them relatively youthful, rightfully allowed younger voices to be heard during Saturday’s lengthy ceremony.

Sure, there was the Rev. Jesse Jackson calling on voters and passing the collection plate. Predictably, Democratic presidential contender the Rev. Al Sharpton rose the decibel level at the Bush-bash bully pulpit. An elegant Coretta Scott King called for an end to war and a nonviolent foreign policy.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, called for voting rights for the disenfranchised residents of the nation’s capital.

But it was the comments of Mr. Thompson and Mr. Hutchins and Ms. Sanders that offer a glimmer of hope that the dream may not be deferred forever.

For her part, Ms. Sanders, who noted that women were not allowed to speak during the first march, said “our generation must stand up” because “it’s time to stop dreaming and wake up.”

She said “this is not a one-day event and we have to go home and work with our children and our elders” and “we have to ensure that we are going somewhere different than where we have been.”

Sounding a serious note of personal responsibility, Ms. Sanders led a chant from her organization stating “I must prepare my mind, body and spirit, we are 21st century leaders so let’s act like it.”

Earlier, Mr. Hutchins sounded a similar note saying that the hip-hop generation was not about rappers and gangstas but a movement lead by young people who “were never scared” to go after purveyors — such as record promoters and corrupt corporations — of vulgarity and immorality in black and poor communities.

“This is not a commemoration, this is a demonstration,” Mr. Hutchins said warning of a “reactivated nonviolent movement.” If there is one valid criticism of the civil rights movement, it’s that it did not groom the next generation or pass the torch sooner. That’s one reason it’s hard to rally new recruits to work on unfinished business.

Witness the huge crowds who rallied at the Supreme Court on what they called “Black Tuesday” in April to show their support for affirmative action, which is relevant to their current concerns. “Young people are doing things and more young people would do more things if we support them,” said Ms. Sanders.

Anniversaries and memories are a wondrous gift, but we must take care not to live in the past. For the past should be remembered primarily to push us forward to a more productive future.

History has proven that often it’s fired-up young folks who can lead the way.

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