As Americans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination by race, religion, or gender in areas like schools, public facilities, and employment in the United States, it’s important to remember that young people played a critical role in this country’s often violent—and ultimately victorious—struggle for civil rights.

This past weekend, I drove through America’s deep south to Jackson, Mississippi, to attend a reunion of activists from across the United States who 50 years ago, as 19, 20, and 21-year olds, came to this state to accomplish what seemed utterly impossible. Their mission as volunteers for Freedom Summer was two-fold: to help ensure that African Americans seeking to register to vote could do so and to establish “freedom schools” that taught local youth about democracy, voting rights, and organizational skills. Nearly 1,000 young people—primarily college students—signed up.

The enormous obstacles in their way were abundantly clear. In 1964, Mississippi was a place of terror, where local white citizens carried out brutal retaliation against blacks who believed they had the right to be first class citizens. More than 1,000 people were arrested that summer for carrying out voting rights activities. Nearly 40 black churches were bombed or burned to the ground, and 30 black businesses or homes destroyed. People were beaten on the court house steps as they lined up to register. Blacks lost their jobs when their names were printed in the local newspaper as having tried to vote. And over the years, as many as 100 lost their lives. Just days before this group of young activists drove down in buses to Mississippi, three of their fellow “freedom fighters” —two whites and one black—were chased and then dragged out of their car at night by white supremacists on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Missippi, an hours’ drive from Jackson. I visited the place where these young civil rights workers were taken down a deserted road surrounded by woods and then murdered. Their bodies were buried at a local earthen dam with the help of a tractor. Its driver was already standing by to do the job.

Not one of the Freedom Summer volunteers—upon hearing reports of the disappearance of their three companions and rightly understanding its sinister implications—cancelled their plans to come to Mississippi. Reflecting the experience of so many, one 70-year-old volunteer told the audience: “It was terrifying at times, but that summer was the most significant period of my life. It changed everything.” The growing spotlight on this youth-led movement also helped change the country. The following year, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, and today, Mississippi has the largest number of black elected officials of any state in the nation.

Looking back, it is amazing that young people generated so much progress for the whole nation in the face of such grim and seemingly hopeless conditions. Yet today, even in this era of growing apathy, cynicism, and corruption, young people are taking a stand and challenging the status quo in communities worldwide. Whether it’s working to combat climate change, promoting the rights of the disabled, seeking to end sex trafficking, or leading protests to overthrow a dictatorial regime—they dare to believe they can reshape the future and offer solutions to our toughest challenges, even when success looks impossible.

This audacity of hope and real passion for change have always led young leaders to put themselves on the line. But to really move mountains, as America’s young civil rights leaders did in the early 1960s, the entire society—from teachers and legislators and community organizers to national leaders and ordinary citizens—must rally behind them. In Mississippi, I watched veteran civil rights activists engage with a large contingent of youth leaders as they swapped stories, talked about history, and discussed strategies for the common struggles ahead. I left feeling this deep level of engagement around how best to respond to the critical challenges of our time—among people of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds—is far too rare today. So get involved. Support young change-makers in your communities, even when progress appears utterly impossible.  

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