Young black men energized by 50th anniversary march

Chicago teenager Terrence Riley didn’t plan to attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington Saturday, but his grandmother insisted he come.

“She’s pretty old and it meant a lot to her because she marched [back in 1963],” said Riley, 17. “She really wanted me to be a part of it and my [younger] brother, but we weren’t really exactly excited.”

Riley’s indifference to the event changed quickly, however. He admitted he was inspired by the “passion” of several speakers and the overall atmosphere.

Riley was among tens of thousands of people who gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

GRIO VIDEO | ‘Stop and frisk’ reminds teen of ’63 March on Washington asked several young African-American men to reflect on the day’s events and share how the anniversary is relevant to their lives in 2013. Responses ranged from stories of pride and appreciation to calls for more action and participation from young people in civil rights issues.

Engaging older generations for advice

Matt Williams is part of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Wake Forest University. Williams said participating in the 50th anniversary events in D.C. was a way for him to show older generations his appreciation for their sacrifices.

“So much has happened since the [March on Washington] in 1963,”  said Williams, who graduated from Wake Forest in 2009. “But there is so much more to do in terms of justice in America…creating a fair and equal playing field for everyone to sort of be their whole self and sort of get to the larger issues that are affecting us all.”

TheGrio | Chicago ‘remixes’ historic March on Washington

Williams said more open dialogue on issues of race and class will help bring people into the ‘civil rights’ fold.

“It’s about having the conversation and that cultural transmission from one generation to the next,” Williams said. “Because if we don’t understand the history, we fully can’t contextualize our experience and then advance it so that everyone benefits and is working to live up to their full potential.”

For Eliott Clark, attending the March anniversary reminded him of the unequal playing field he said still exists in higher education. Clark just finished graduate school at George Washington University.

“Out of my program, I was one of very few black men,” said Clark, who is from Hampton, Virginia. “And that’s very visible. So that question of, ‘Why am I the only black male…in certain environments? Whether it be the workplace or school…I think that’s directly related to some of the things they were marching for in [1963].”

The impact of Trayvon Martin

The death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman was fresh in the minds of several of the young men talked to. In July, A jury of six women found Zimmerman not guilty on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

The not guilty verdict energized 28-year-old Bennie Johnson to attend the March from Columbia, South Carolina.

“[Trayvon] is just another example of why we need to come out and support events like this to make sure we finally get equal rights,” Johnson said. “My main thing [as an African-American] is to really just be on the same platform, have the same rights [as everybody else].”

“A lot of what goes on is racial profiling,” said 19-year-old Malcolm Powell. “These events make us more aware of our surroundings and what could happen to us. I think the young people are here for that very reason.”

Looking to the future

A pair of 15-year-olds interviewed took the event as a wake-up call on many levels.

Brooklyn teen Nathan Emanuel said seeing the massive crowds gathered near the Lincoln Memorial was “awesome.” He also described the March anniversary as a “breath of fresh air” from his own personal struggles with racism.

Kyle Swan was already looking forward to what he could accomplish when he returned home from the rally.

“I can change the world as a young person, I just haven’t done it yet,” Swan said. “When I get back to Massachusetts, I’m going to tell my friends about my opportunity…when I grow up, I’m going to tell my kids [about the March] and they’re going to tell their kids. I’m just going to continue [this] process.”

Follow’s Correspondent Todd Johnson on Twitter @rantoddj