Then and Now: Comparing Today's Student Activism With the 1960s

For some time it has been fashionable to trash Millennials for a lack of engagement with the world. Compared to the spirit and intention of activists of the 1960s, are today's students and youth truly disengaged?

They were on the front lines of the Occupy movement and at the heart of the first Obama campaign -- which had the feeling of a movement for many. Many are involved in direct services, such as the ones at Wesleyan University, where we teach, and where 80 percent of our students pursue volunteer work during their college careers. Yet what should we make of the Research Center survey of several years ago that found that "getting rich" was the chief priority for 86 percent of those born between 1976 and 2000, compared to 81 percent of first year students in 1967 who instead prioritized their grasp on having "a meaningful philosophy of life"? These are important questions as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, the massive and courageous Southern voter registration drive of 1964. Over 1,300 student organizers arrived from outside the state to work alongside thousands of black Mississippians who, despite the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870 and their own civil rights work since then, remained disenfranchised. Mississippi had the nation's worst voting rights record: less than seven percent of African Americans there were registered to vote and they, like so many others in the South, were subjected to intimidation and violence when they asserted their rightful claims for equal opportunity, fairness, dignity and justice. We will begin our school year at Wesleyan by marking this historic organizing effort that epitomized an enduring model of risk, immediacy and commitment. Those who participated knew their bodies and lives were at risk. By the end of the ten-week campaign in 1964, over a thousand had been arrested, many injured, and young people like James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered. Wesleyan students were among those hundreds who were jailed and harassed. Bombings of churches, businesses, and the homes of those Mississippians who had been doing civil rights work long before Freedom Summer continued to be commonplace. Our students will hear from those who were their age when they took part in this historic turning point in race relations in the United States. They will journey back to the front lines of this battle for civil rights and its cherished fruits of freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. But they'll also see other fruits of that battle: our civil rights movement veterans have gone on to lives devoted to the common good: ministers of diverse faiths, college professors, writers, midwives, public radio workers, publishers, prison educators, founders of interreligious committees working for peace in the Middle East, and corporate lawyers who do courageous pro bono legal and advocacy work. They are living examples of the great gift of activism: that it is transformative in both directions. Activists help to transform the world, but in the process they are transformed as well through the work they do.

Our students may well ask our veterans about their initial motivations and hopes, or how they summoned the courage to do what they thought needed to be done in the face of overwhelming resistance and danger. Yet, repeatedly, our activist alumni are asking us: how will we be linking their past to the future and emphasizing the unrelenting continuum of activism? They want us to ask each other and ourselves often and emphatically what the civil rights activism of the 1964 means for activists of 2014 and for the generations in waiting. The 60s and their aftermath, we know, took place in a perfect storm for radicalism of a overwhelmingly compelling moral issue of rights for African-Americans, an unpopular war, a military draft, a turn toward liberalism in politics at most levels, denial of the vote to young people 18 to 21, and, perhaps most importantly, a booming economy which made job-seeking less urgent and activism less dangerous financially. Numerous events suggest that students today are not abandoning activism but using new forms of activism: replacing confrontation with dialogue, lobbying, and direct service provision and "organizing" locally and globally without ever joining hands. This virtual quality of modern activism may require less commitment and seem less real, less immediate, and more situational. Some even suggest that this contemporary activism diminishes significant personal risk and thus becomes less heroic. One does not have to leave "home" and put it all on the line like the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer activists did in volatile and unpredictable places. We suspect that the critical lessons our students will gain from listening to, and speaking with, these movement veterans will be less about specific strategies or tactics and more about the effect that real commitment in any form has on the problems at hand and on those who make that commitment. They will be learning this from stalwart citizens like Muriel Tillinghast, who engaged in seven years of civil rights work during the 1960s that became a lifetime of advocacy work in many social justice campaigns. Tillinghast declares that "[t]he Movement continues in every aspect of life. I have carried my understanding of its principles into the classroom, to work, into prisons and jails and in my daily walk through life. It is as vital to me as the air I breathe."

Her sentiments underscore the fact that the task of our activists is not to tell their young successors how to carry on their struggle, but to convey the joy that deliberate engagement, unapologetic persistence, and luminous integrity brings.