Fifty years after King's speech, new generation stepping up

Today the nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with a "Let Freedom Ring" Ceremony and Call to Action at the Lincoln Memorial, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stirred the nation with his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

President Barack Obama will deliver a speech in memory of the watershed moment, along with former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Local elected officials in attendance will include Congressman Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, his wife, Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Bishop, and State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus.

Smyre said Tuesday he was emotional about attending the anniversary of the march, which he missed because he was a high school student in Germany. "After 40 years in elected office, it was important for me to be here," he said Tuesday. "Elected officials like me owe a great deal of gratitude to those who made it possible for us to serve."

But while the nation reflects on the civil rights victories of a previous generation, Marquese Averett, who is president of a group called Young Minority Leaders, and other African-American young adults said they're ready to take the mantle.

Some are still fired up after helping to elect Obama twice for president. They are also motivated by recent issues like the Trayvon Martin shooting and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Averett, who attends Columbus State University, said he started his community activism working on Obama's first presidential campaign. He also worked as a field coordinator for Mayor Teresa Tomlinson's 2010 mayoral campaign and Obama's 2012 election. He said he is inspired by the young men and women who led the freedom rides, sit-ins and marches that resulted in many of the rights African-Americans enjoy today. And he finds it incredible that they organized without Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools. "They had none of that," Averett said. "Our generation has so much more and we're doing so much less."

Kel Jackson, a 25-year-old Birmingham, Ala., native, is an engineer at Pratt & Whitney. He said the country has made a lot of progress the past 50 years. But issues like the Trayvon shooting, and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, show there's a long way to go. To draw attention to relevant issues, Jackson posts blogs, speeches and poetry at a website called KelJackson.com. He recently wrote a blog titled "Why Trayvon Martin (Still) Matters to the Black Community."

"This incident resonates with me in my bones -- the same way it resonates with so many in the black community, because I know what it is to be feared," he wrote. "I've walked down the sidewalk in a pin-striped suit at noon on a sunny day, only to see a woman clutch her purse and step four feet sideways at the sight of me."

But Jackson said in a recent interview that it's important to address the racially sensitive issue in a constructive way. He thinks the answer is in changing legislation so another controversial shooting won't happen in the future.

"We have to show our elected representatives at all levels, but especially locally, that these are the issues we care about. And we have to frame it in a way that it's not just seen as a black issue.

"It's important to set a clear legal precedence as to what is, and what is not, acceptable," he added. "We have to build a coalition across racial lines, socio-economic lines and gender lines. And I'm always looking for opportunities for that."

Jackson and Averett are both members of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce's Young Professionals group. Jackson is vice chairman of the organization's governmental affairs committee. Amy Bryan, the chamber's senior vice president of talent retention and community development, said the organization has a diverse membership of more than 500 people, and the Civil Rights Movement is an inspiration to young people of all races.

"I think anybody can connect to the 50th anniversary and celebrate how far we've come," she said. "Columbus has a lot to be proud of and with this organization being diverse, people from so many backgrounds, I think, yes, we've all been impacted by it."

Smyre said it's important for young people to get involved in civic and political issues, and he is working with Averett to combine the activities of Young Minority Leaders with an organization that he started when he was only 23 years old. The group, called Leaders of Today and Tomorrow, connects young people with established leaders in the community.

Smyre said he received support from such local civil rights pioneers as A.J. McClung, George Ford and Albert Thompson, who encouraged him to run for office when he was only 26. He ran and was elected to the Medical Center Board of Trustees. Two years later, he was elected as a state legislator.

"That's how you build a community," he said. "You have to continue to grow and harvest new talent. I want to encourage young people that want to serve and make Columbus a better community."

Thomas Dolan, a political science professor at Columbus State University, said he's glad to see young people like Averett and Jackson getting involved, but there are still too many young people apathetic about civil rights issues. He said many have reaped the benefits of the Civil Rights Movement, but have no real sense of the sacrifices made on their behalf. He said young people endured attack dogs, hoses and police brutality for the cause.

"Those people now in their 60s were the real veterans of the civil rights movement," he said. "Today the younger generation needs to recognize and appreciate those young people -- who are now probably their grandparents -- for what they put on the line."

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