As people across the country prepare to converge on the nation’s capital for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this Saturday, the Boston chapter of the NAACP is gearing up to send more than 200 people to commemorate the historic rally. And many of them are teens who know the 1963 march only through a few paragraphs in a book, or a video recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“When we go to history class, they do teach about black history, but it’ll be a section, a page in the history books. It’s not like where we go and learn about Europe for a good whole semester,” said Marcus Curry, 18. “I feel like as the youth, we need to engage ourselves in these types of events just to better ourselves. Before we can help the community, we need to know where we come from.”
TheGrio spoke with several teens involved in the Boston NAACP’s Summer Job Pipeline to Leadership program who will attend the anniversary march recreation on Saturday, and many echoed the same ideas: black history is relegated to a small slice of a book, or a week in class. Slavery is covered in a couple of pages. Major events like the March on Washington are skimmed over in a few paragraphs and discussions of the Civil Rights Movement include only the most prominent leaders and activists, such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Black history comes alive for youths
Traveling to D.C. this weekend for the exhibits, tributes and speeches, on the other hand, gives young people a chance to experience history firsthand.
“You don’t really learn about all of these things in school unless it’s Black History Month, and they don’t really teach you a lot about it, so it’s a good thing to go [to the anniversary march] rather than just doing something else,” said Denton Garrett, 14. “It gives you an opportunity to see what things were like back then, and also you can compare them to how they are now and how different the times were.”
In 1963, the Boston NAACP sent 32 buses to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This year, the two buses planned for the event quickly increased to five to accommodate members from Boston and nearby cities, along with individuals from other social justice and civil rights organizations. Area NAACP President Michael Curry said the excitement surrounding the anniversary has been “huge.”
“We’ve had the dream, but we’ve yet to realize it, so 50 years later, it’s critical to go back and have that conversation with the nation about the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “The reality is we’re so disconnected from history. It’s the painful past that we ignore. So really, the goal is to re-introduce a generation to the work of these organizations that really made democracy what it is today.”
Gaining perspectives on current politics
Beyond the logistics of arranging for transportation and refreshments, planning for the trip has included conference calls with organizers to discuss current issues ranging from black unemployment and inequities in the criminal justice system, to the dismantling of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which many say weakens the protective ability of the law.
For the youth, some have reached out to elders to talk about the 1963 march in anticipation of attendance.
“I asked my grandmother about it,” said Jaron Phillips, 16. “She didn’t go, but she said her friends went, and she said that it was really important to people, because she lived in Alabama and that was one of the worst places … So she said it felt really helpful for people to go.”
In another sense, the youth group’s work all summer has prepared them for what they are about to experience. In the Pipeline to Leadership program, students receive a stipend for working for the Boston NAACP over seven weeks, focusing on issues such as civic engagement, youth violence and economic development.
Economic advancement was one of the key themes of the historic March on Washington.
NAACP taps active youth base
This summer alone, youth in the program have registered people to vote, participated in an anti-violence camp, and created petitions calling to raise the minimum wage and divert money from jails into jobs creation. They have also conducted trainings on financial literacy, HIV education and the crisis of the mass incarceration of African-Americans.
“They’re learning a lot about how [to] wake up people’s minds, and this is just another wake-up call. This is just to let everybody know that the job’s not done,” said Supreme Dana Richardson, third vice president of the Boston NAACP, who oversees the Pipeline to Leadership program. “To see the camaraderie of people of color all coming together, no violence, no arguments — just a moment of serenity, we’re there together for the same cause — is powerful. I mean, I don’t [usually] see that until I see a Jay Z concert.”
While some youth may not fully grasp the social unrest present at the time of the original march, they’re well aware of the problems today: Failing inner-city public schools, gun violence and gangs all top the list.
“There’s too many of our people in jail instead of college, so to me that’s modern-day slavery,” said Azya High, 21, a senior at Temple University and the Boston NAACP’s operations manager.
Understanding the past to change the future
“I feel like people really don’t understand the problems that we face, just because it’s changed from not being able to sit at a counter,” said Charles Paige, III, 17, the branch’s youth outreach coordinator. “It’s kind of more hidden now. So the jail systems, public schooling, you can see the gap between us and white people, pretty much.”
In thinking about these issues, he recalled a poster at his grandmother’s house that asked, “What is a tree without its roots?”
“I feel like we should kind of dig into our roots and see our history,” he said, “because if we understand our history, we can see how great of a people we were and how we can still reach those expectations.”
Youths prepare to make history today
Buses bound for D.C. will leave from Boston on Friday evening and return early Sunday morning. About 50 youth are expected to attend — so many that they may get their own bus. For many, it will be their first exposure to an event of this magnitude.
“Maybe 50 years from now they’ll look back at this and this’ll be in the history books,” said 18-year-old Curry. “You look back on this, and this is something that [can make] you say, ‘I was there that day.’”
Lauren Carter is a writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @bylaurencarter.