In the year since a Missouri police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, a new generation has taken up the fight of the civil rights movement that changed the face of America decades before they were even born.
Millennials across Georgia and the nation emulated what they learned by watching documentaries, listening to interviews and reading textbooks about civil rights leaders, such as John Lewis and Diane Nash, who led the movement as young adults in the 1950s and ’60s.
Students at Emory University, Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University held “die-ins,” to protest police killings of unarmed black men. Students at the University of Georgia hosted candlelight vigils. Those at Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University led solidarity marches.
But there has been trial and error along the way as millennials — a generation that has enjoyed privileges created by those who came before them — have learned what it means to fight racial discrimination in the U.S.
“It’s easy to say ‘Prayers for Charleston’ or ‘I am Trayvon,’” said 21-year-old Ko Bragg, a Spelman graduate. “Now we march, but we don’t really know why we’re marching. We march because our ancestors march, and that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Unsure how to respond to police killings of black men and women, Bragg drove last November to Ferguson, Mo., to protest the death of Michael Brown.
She marched and rallied. But a year later, Bragg said, there’s still more work to be done.
‘We weren’t born into a fight’
Emory law professor Dorothy Brown is co-teaching a course in the fall on the effects of Ferguson.
“I want them to walk away with more critical thinking skills,” she said of her students. “Don’t just believe it because a talking head said it. Don’t believe me just because I said it. Really think about what I’m saying. What evidence do I bring?”
Other colleges, such as Dartmouth and Penn State, are also offering courses on Ferguson; some Georgia colleges have held townhall meetings to discuss police brutality cases.
Millennials are vital to the power behind social movements, Brown said. More than 90 students showed interest in enrolling in the Ferguson course.
“We weren’t born into a fight,” said Avery Jackson, a junior at Morehouse College, who leads the Atlanta University Center Shut It Down social justice movement. “We were born learning about one, not recognizing that we could’ve been fighting one all along.”
‘A sensational generation’
Over the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken the tactics from the civil rights era and added its own strategies — especially social media — into the mix.
“This wasn’t just Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon,” said Lolade Oshin, 19, a student at Emory. “This was us — young people — on social media on Twitter and Facebook.”
The hashtags, like #ICantBreathe and #NoJusticeNoPeace, gave the Black Lives Matter movement visibility. People knew what to search to find out who was leading the rallies both in the streets and online. For members of the movement, their tactics on social media have been effective.
The downside to the hype that comes with the digital activism is that it can rapidly lose momentum as millennials move on to the next trending topic.
“We’re a sensational generation,” said Victoria Sparks, an Emory law student. “We get very worked up about it on social media, and that’s awesome. But we have to make tangible change.”
‘She knew her rights’
But a year after Ferguson, the movement isn’t stopping.
After a young white man shot and killed nine black people in Charleston last month, “Black Lives Matter” graffiti appeared on Confederate monuments.
Many young people, including teenagers, took part in the Baltimore riots this year, looting and setting fires in the streets, after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody.
“I don’t think it should be shocking,” said Jelani Cobb, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, on young people as activists. “It’s perfectly in accord with how things have happened in previous social movements in American history.”
But youth engagement in social change didn’t start with the Black Lives Matter movement. Younger generations had critical involvement in the civil rights movement, the green movement and the gender equality movement.
Cobb said older generations may be skeptical of millennials’ actions because their demands don’t appear to be clear. The areas identified as issues of racial discrimination are more subtle and not as easily understood as a demand to abolish a law.
It’s the social policies that keep predominantly black public schools from better resources or the social policies that allow a legal system to incarcerate young black men at a high rate, he said.
‘People are really worried’
To Jackson, it’s very clear.
The movement wants awareness to terrible tragedies that continue to happen to members of the black community.
Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested for a traffic violation in Texas and later found dead in her jail cell, acts as a reminder to some people that it’s not just black men who are dying but women too, Jackson said.
“People are really worried that the Sandra Bland case could be their moms,” said the 20-year-old. “Sandra Bland had an education and she knew her rights. They know that their moms’ know their rights. Their moms can get mouthy with officers because they have that right. They see their families. They see themselves in these cases.”