Vital Civil Rights Lessons from MLK for Millennials & Gen Z

50-years after his death, King’s legacy lives on…

As America observers the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s tragic assassination, it’s an opportune time to recount some of his important life lessons for Millennials and their younger cohort, Gen Z — some of whom consider civil rights history as ancient history at the dawn of a new millennium.

Yet there are profound and poignant examples from Dr. King’s (MLK) life for which a new generation of leaders can benefit.

The most important lesson is how to effectuate sweeping changes in society through peaceful means rather than violence.

A term of significance for today’s young leaders to comprehend is “civil disobedience” — an effective approach championed by MLK which made America a better place.

* Dr. King delivers his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 *

Civil Rights & Non-Violence

In fact, Dr. King is said to have admired and studied Gandhi’s successful strategy of non-violent opposition, which MLK emulated via the civil rights movement across the South during the 1960s.

MLK promoted civil disobedience in the face of vicious police brutality and mass jailings of peaceful demonstrators, including himself.

Similarly, both Dr. King and Gandhi were murdered because of the successful movements they led to achieve positive change throughout society. This is the ultimate price to pay for fostering peace and freedom on a grand scale.

Moreover, unlike some black leaders of the time who resorted to violence as a first resort, MLK persevered with a solid strategy of civil disobedience. King’s strategy paid dividends by advancing equal opportunities for minorities and women who faced systemic discrimination in nearly all aspects of society.

* Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in West Potomac Park near the National Mall in Washington, DC *

Landmark Civil Rights Laws

These lawful acts of non-violent resistance resulted in historic gains via the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

These two landmark civil rights laws changed America for the better and ushered in a new era of equality and opportunity for those citizens for whom fundamental freedoms had previously been denied.

Although the sweeping civil rights laws of the 1960s obviously did not cure all societal ills, they have certainly had a long-term positive impact on the fabric of our nation. Thus, today’s teens and 20-somethings who might be prone to violence and knee-jerk reactions during police confrontations need to recall, abide by and honor the legacy of non-violence championed by Dr. King.

MLK referred to non-violence as “a sword that heals.” He said: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”

* President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with Dr. King behind him in the White House *

Testing USA’s Conscience

Graphic TV video and news photos of peaceful protesters being beaten bloody by police, hosed down by water cannons and attacked by police dogs caused most whites to take a hard look in the mirror when pondering such outrageous over reactions by law enforcement — actions which ultimately backfired.

Congressman Lewis, then a young civil rights leader, was nearly beaten to death by police during a pivotal civil rights march in Alabama that became known as “Bloody Sunday” — a common story exemplifying the unjust times.

Millennials and Gen Z need to recognize that non-violence was the core foundation of Dr. King’s effective leadership.

Racial Progress?

In hindsight, many citizens of every race and color had sincerely hoped that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama would result in a post-racial society. But this promise has failed to materialize, despite a new generation of young people who try to look beyond the lens of race.

The ugly truth is that the scourge of racial bias is still a persistent problem.

Perhaps what has changed most is that racism, bias and bigotry are more subtle and less overt today compared to prior times. Many point to so-called “unconscious” or “unintentional” discrimination at the heart of some people in white America.

But there’s nothing unconscious or unintentional about burning down black churches or police killing unarmed black youth, among other things grotesquely witnessed nationwide in recent years.

‘Reverse Discrimination’

Racial discrimination is equally abhorrent whether it’s directed at light skinned blacks by darker skinned blacks, whites against blacks, blacks against Hispanics, or blacks and other minority groups against whites.

Further, as racial and ethnic diversity skyrocket among the U.S. population, the demographic of white Americans remains mostly stagnant. And the population of white men is projected to shrink, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

While this might cause some to cheer, let’s recall that there’s never a justifiable reason to unlawfully discriminate against anyone.

In fact, most major U.S. cities already have a so-called “minority-majority” population. This means the combined number of traditional minority groups now outnumbers that of whites. Yet this should never be a purported justification for so-called “reverse discrimination.”

True equality means not discriminating against any individual for any reason — period. America’s diversity has always been our greatest strength, not a weakness.

The Takeaway

What more must be done to make the bold “dream” articulated so eloquently by Dr. King a shining reality in 21st century America?

What strategies should a new generation of leaders leverage to create the kind of society in which all people are judged on “the content of their character” and not by “the color of their skin,” as Dr. King spoke of half a century ago?

In essence, we must all ask ourselves: where do we go from here, and how?

Are the answers simply too elusive in today’s increasingly diverse multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation?

What do YOU think?



ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant, freelance writer and former federal government spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He’s also an advisory board member and contributor to American Diversity Report. A native New Yorker, David worked as a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.

Strategic communications consultant advancing social justice and corporate social responsibility | former career spokesman at U.S. EEOC | DC-based, NY-bred

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