More than 1,500 young people, community leaders and civil rights veterans gathered in Mississippi to honor the legacy of those who sacrificed their lives for the cause of freedom in 1964, while setting the course for the future. This was an intergenerational assembly with youth traveling from across the nation and convening in the Youth Congress. Participants traveled from Minnesota, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and beyond. These young leaders were taught civil rights history lessons from living legends including Bob Moses, Marian Wright Edelman and Hollis Watkins. There was also a transference of the mantle of leadership from the veterans of the movement to the youth of today. This was a mandate for the youth to return home and lead social change in their respective communities.
Freedom Summer 1964 represents the power of young people to lead us in becoming a more just society. This is an America where the words engraved on the U.S. Supreme Court building come alive – "Equal justice under the law." As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, we are reminded of the young people who traveled from across the nation to Mississippi to fight for equal justice in 1964. They recognized that justice must begin with the end of segregation and access to the ballot box. Through their labor of love, some of the barriers to voting and political engagement have been eliminated. As a result, Mississippi today has close to 1,000 Black state and local elected officials, which is the highest number of Black elected officials in the union. However, the struggle for freedom still continues today.
The legacy of the Freedom Summer movement continues today as member of the Youth Congress build a strategic action plan for addressing the civil rights issues in their communities, ranging from eradicating mass incarceration to protecting worker's rights. The Youth Congress organized a criminal justice town hall forum to critically analyze the racial disparities in the justice system and create change. The United States represents 5 percent of the world population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in world with more than 2 million people who are incarcerated. According to the Sentencing Project, greater than 60 percent of the people in prison are from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. Mass incarceration has far-reaching impacts on the lives of many as they attempt to re-enter society. A criminal record can restrict access to voting, employment, college admissions and obtainment of professional licenses.
The Youth Congress also led a powerful march at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. They stood in solidarity with Nissan workers to fight for organizing a union in order to secure labor rights. There are 3,300 workers employed at the plant and they do not have the protection of a union. The young people lifted their voices in harmony to declare, "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now."
Students and actor/activist Danny Glover delivered a petition to Nissan officials which outlined the immediate need for workers' rights to be protected by having the ability to organize a union. This was a reminder that labor rights are civil rights.
We left Freedom Summer with key marching orders – take action. Danny Glover called upon the young leaders to be architects of the future. The Youth Congress members committed to developing a policy agenda and preparing to run for office in their communities. Through their collective action, they are breathing life into the mission of the original Freedom Summer. They too are fighting for the full participation and citizenship rights of all people. This is a call for America to be true to its creed of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is the very essence of a democratic society. I am reminded of the words of Judge William Hastie, the first African-American federal circuit judge who said, "Democracy is a process, not a static condition. It is becoming rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle."
The struggle continues in Mississippi, in Minnesota, and across the nation.