To understand American history, Jon Lauck says you have to understand the Midwest's role in some critical events.
In the 1950s and ’60s, young people were on the front lines of the civil rights movement, fighting for desegregation and voting rights throughout the South.
Today, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of equality resonates for many young people of color.
Kim Moore is the 28-year-old founder of Soul Revision Consulting, which provides leadership and organizing training for individuals and nonprofits. She became an activist because she lost many of her friends to gang violence.
“I got to a point where I had cried all that I could cry,” Moore told Here & Now, “I needed to play a different role this time.”
Moor said that gang violence and the destruction it wreaks on communities of color is symptomatic of structural issues, including mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline and black unemployment.
Moore says that the original civil rights leaders created a movement with very few resources, which inspires her to do even more.
“What [King] did wasn’t a solitary event,” Moore said. “Anybody should be able to do what he did, and do it better and go further with it.”
Austin Thompson, is a 26-year-old “millennial coordinator” for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
He is attending the 50th anniversary commemoration today both to honor his grandparents who lived in the Jim Crow-era South and to look toward the future.
“It was about the next 50 years for me,” Thompson said. “I’ll be looking backward at my grandchildren, and I want to make sure the story I tell them can end on a lighter note than the story my grandparents are telling me now.”
Thompson says that young people were behind the civil rights struggle then, and continue the march toward progress.
“People who lived through the times of segregation never ever imagined that we could have an African-American president,” he said. “Our job as young people is to make the impossible possible through collective struggle.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, in the 1950s and '60s, young people were at the center of the civil rights movement. They sat at segregated lunch counters and led the Freedom Rides to push for voting rights throughout the South. Martin Luther King Jr. was just 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott, and today young African-Americans are picking up the mantle and organizing to fight the injustice they see in America.
Today we're going to speak with them, first Kim Moore, who grew up in San Diego. She became an activist as a teenager after many of her friends were killed by gun violence. Now at 28 years old, she's the founder of Soul Revision Consulting. She organized a group of young people to travel to Washington for the events this week. Kim, welcome.
KIM MOORE: Thank you, thank you for having me.
HOBSON: Well, tell us first of all about how you got involved in activism. You lost some friends to gang violence.
MOORE: Yes, I did. After graduating high school, I started to notice that a lot of my friends were being killed in acts of gang violence. And I think in 2005, a childhood friend, someone that I had grew up with since elementary and middle school, was killed. And, you know, every time that happened, I would go through a routine that was - it was not unlike anyone else's routine, with crying. It was being upset, enraged and angry and complaining and then going back into the cycle of life.
And then after 2005, when I lost my childhood friend, I got to a point where I felt like I had cried all that I could cry. And I got to a position, in a situation in my life where I was just so infuriated, more so that I wasn't doing anything but running around in this cycle of tears and angry and complaints.
And I just wanted to do something. I needed to do something about it because I just couldn't sleep at night anymore, and I knew it was going to happen again. I hated that reality, but I just knew, and I knew that I needed to play a different role this time. I needed to be on the side that was going to fight against this.
HOBSON: And is gang violence, is that the primary goal, reducing that, that you have? Or are there other things that you feel are equally important in the modern struggle for civil rights?
MOORE: There's other things that I feel are equally important in the modern struggle of civil rights, as you said, because I think gang violence is a symptom of something deeper. And some of those things are, you know, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, of the unemployment rate, which is extremely high, even though we're hearing that, you know, the numbers are coming down and just different things like that, looking at some of those struggles that, you know, that they faced back in the 1960s that we're still being challenged with those today. We're still facing those struggles in this day.
HOBSON: And as you look back now, 50 years, as we all are, on this famous "I Have a Dream Speech" and today's celebrations in Washington, how did that day, that famous day, impact what you are doing?
MOORE: That famous day in 1963, even though I wasn't alive them, but hearing about it as I grew up and realizing what they did, it impacts what I do today because they worked with minimal resources back then. We have an influx of resources. So I know that if they can pull off what they did in 1963 on this day, I know that I have a charge to do much more.
I'm not saying that they didn't do a lot, but they were limited in what they could do, and we have an unlimited amount of resources at our disposal, and I know that I can't stop at what they did. I have to, I feel like I've been charged with that, I feel as though, you know, that's what MLK is trying to tell us. What he did wasn't a solitary event, it wasn't an isolated event. Anybody should be able to do what he did and do it better and do - and go further with it.
HOBSON: Do you feel like you have support from people of all races today in 2013, in your struggle, or do you feel as though it's just African-Americans that are pushing for this change?
MOORE: I feel as though I have support from individuals of all races who want to see everyone do better and be better and who want everyone to have quality access to things like health care, to have quality access to things like education. Everyone who wants a better America supports the work that I'm doing. Those who want us to be where we were in 1963, naturally they don't support this kind of work.
And then, you know, there's individuals, even some African-Americans, who don't believe in what we're doing, who believe that we can't change and we can't create the change that we're talking about, and who can't do it. So I don't think it's solely a matter of race all the time when it comes to who's supporting this kind of work, but I think it's a matter of who's tired of being oppressed, who's tired of being marginalized, who's tired of being underserved, who's tired of not being heard.
Those are the individuals, whether they are black, white, Latino, it doesn't matter. Those are the individuals who are supporting this type of work.
HOBSON: Kim Moore is an activist. She's the founder of Soul Revision Consulting in San Diego. She's 28 years old, and she traveled to Washington, D.C., this past week as part of the We Got Next Coalition. Kim, thanks so much for joining us.
MOORE: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: And coming up, among the many voices we will hear today, a young African-American union organizer who was inspired by his grandparents to work for change.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well meanwhile, we have more from the country's front lawn, the Mall in Washington, where thousands are gathering to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington. Many speakers already today. Here's Charlie Steele of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group Martin Luther King once led. He's talking about MLK's real message.
CHARLES STEELE: People are suffering, and they are hurting. He was saying that we must still hit the streets. We must still demonstrate. It was the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that God gave us as a vehicle to free us. Now we must go back to ground zero. We must continue to march. We must continue to pray, because through that experience, African-Americans (unintelligible) folks of all ethnicity and background, the whole world is saying...
YOUNG: Sounds from the 50th celebration of the March on Washington. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's continue our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. we just heard from one of the tens of thousands of people that converged on Washington, D.C., this week, 28-year-old Kim Moore, who sees a lot more work to do on civil rights. Austin Thompson is 26. He is also organizing to defend Martin Luther King's dream. He's the millennial coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, and part of the We Got Next Coalition.
Austin, what led you to attend the events in Washington?
AUSTIN THOMPSON: My grandparents, they left the South back in the '50s because of Jim Crow, and I grew up kind of hearing those stories and thinking a lot about Dr. King's dream. And this being the 50th anniversary of that, there's obviously a lot of interest in attending and kind of commemorating that moment that they had.
But ultimately it was about the next 50 years for me because 50 years from now, I won't be 26, I'll be 76 years old. It'll be the 100th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. And I'll be looking backward at my grandchildren. And I want to make sure that the story I tell them can end on a lighter note than the story that my grandparents are telling me now.
HOBSON: Well, how do you feel that your work in a union, one of the biggest, Service Employees International Union, SEIU, is working toward that goal?
THOMPSON: I actually spoke with young SEIU member in Los Angeles who is a home care worker. Shanisha Robinson(ph) is her name. She's a home care worker who has a person she cares for named Dorothy(ph). And Dorothy was born in the 1940s and attended the original March on Washington. And Shanisha's conversations with Dorothy, day to day, while she's taking care of her, often look back at a past where young people were at the forefront of the movement for social change.
And that inspired Shanisha now to really try and inspire her young co-workers to be at the forefront of building a new great American social movement. And that's happening all around the country. The Millennial Program has been lifted up by our leadership because we believe now is the time for an inner-generational movement that fights for justice, for democracy, for living wages and all of the things that folks dreamed about and once attained years ago.
HOBSON: Yeah, I heard a story on MORNING EDITION this week on NPR by Michele Norris. She was interviewing a couple of police officers who were there on that day of the big speech 50 years ago. And one of them said that the young people will make the changes, that the future of civil rights in this country is going to come from young people.
THOMPSON: You know, it makes perfect sense when you think about 1963 versus 2013 how much change has happened and how people who lived through the times of segregation never, ever imagined that we could have an African-American president, that so many people of color would be in positions of authority.
And so looking 50 years into the future, what other things are possible that we currently don't even imagine possible? And that's our job as young people, to make the impossible possible through collective struggle and coming together the way that we do in our union.
HOBSON: Well, you grew up in Milton, Georgia. You now live in Washington, D.C. How different are things in those two places when it comes to civil rights right now and attitudes?
THOMPSON: I think what's happening right now in Georgia in particular is there's a very serious demographic shift taking place. In places that used to be majority white are now becoming more and more places with heavy immigrant populations, African-American populations. And Georgia and other Southern states are trying to make sense of that moment, and they're having to decide whether or not they're going to be a true, multiracial democracy or continue down the path, unfortunately, we've seen with voter suppression, with anti-immigrant draconian laws that strip away rights for immigrant families.
And who could of course forget the poverty wages that many workers in the South earn? I think on all of those fronts, we're sliding backwards. But there is hope in the future to turn the corner.
HOBSON: Part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream was, of course, as we've heard, that his children would one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Do you feel throughout your life that you have judged by the content of your character?
THOMPSON: You know, it's interesting. I can say that without a doubt, the sacrifices of folks like Dr. King and my grandparents have made a huge difference. And I have never, ever been told because of the color of my skin I can't attend a certain school, or I can't go to a certain restaurant.
However, my grandfather told me a story recently about when he was 25 years old. He was pulled over by a sheriff in Alabama who accused him of stealing a credit card from a white person. And he literally had to flee Alabama to the North.
And all these years later, I was 25 not too long ago riding down a road in Wisconsin and was pulled over with a friend of mine, put in handcuffs without any reasoning whatsoever, put in the back of a cop car and spent more than an hour in the back of a cop car. And it makes me wonder despite all of that progress why is this happening?
So I think Dr. King's dream has not been fully realized, and that's why we're saying we got next, and we have to make it real.
HOBSON: And would you say that ground zero for that battle is the criminal justice system? I mean, we heard from Kim a few moments ago that the big issues are mass incarceration, laws like the Stand Your Ground law. It seems like a lot is focused on the justice system and law enforcement.
THOMPSON: You know, it's funny, Dr. King's last days on this Earth were spent in solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. And today, we're watching across the country fast food and retail workers who are doing very much the same thing, who are making poverty wages, and they're working hard every single day but not able to bring home a check that makes the ends meet.
And so next week there's going to be a strike in places like Memphis, Tennessee, and some of the original sanitation workers who struck with Dr. King are going to be in solidarity with them. So I would say right up there with issues of criminal - in our criminal justice system is the struggle around living wages and the right to form a union.
HOBSON: Austin Thompson, what would you like to hear today from President Obama?
THOMPSON: President Obama has an incredible amount of opportunity with his pen to raise the wages of thousands upon thousands of low-wage workers who work at federally subcontracted jobs. At Smithsonian, for example, there are McDonald's where workers are making poverty wages in the same city where condos are being built for $200,000, $300,000 for rent.
And so I think in his speech, I would love to hear him respond to Dr. King's call for living wages for all. And he has the power to do that.
HOBSON: Austin Thompson is the millennial coordinator for the Service Employees International Union. Austin, thanks so much for joining us.
THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE THE LORD")
NATALIE GRANT: (Singing) I have loved the lord.
HOBSON: This is Natalie Grant, a contemporary gospel singer, singing "I Love The Lord" on the National Mall today. We'll continue with our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington as this hour continues, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.