Passing the Baton

As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Day tomorrow, it strikes me that this is the first time in my adult life that we do so while another civil rights movement is underway. As Carla Murphy writes at ColorLines, that is causing some expected tensions.

It’s nearly six months since white police officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old, unarmed civilian Michael Brown in Ferguson, a St. Louis, Mo. suburb. There and around the country, the fatal shooting released a pressure valve of outrage about brutal and racist policing in black communities. Nationwide, people have marched, camped out in parking lots, blocked highway traffic, died in, sung in and even interrupted bourgie brunch. But to what end? What’s next?

Many are calling the Brown protests (and those about the fatal police chokehold of 40-year-old Staten Island father Eric Garner) “a new civil rights movement.” But as new, creative actions crop up to expand the common cry, #BlackLivesMatter, from the street to other areas of civic life, they’re butting up against the legacy and perceived perfection of the old movement. That 60-year halo burns bright not just for Boomers but ordinary Millennials, too.

The reason I suggest that this kind of tension is “expected” is because any movement for social change requires that previous generations pass the baton on to a new generation. The situation we face today bears the seeds of the issues tackled in Martin Luther King’s era, but it’s not the same.

Passing the baton to a new generation requires a very difficult letting go process. Rev. Gordon Stewart (who marched with MLK) expressed that beautifully when he wrote this about his reaction to the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they’re about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy… and hope… that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation’s shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they’re also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison — the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger — the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma’s face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that’s able to take us where my generation cannot — free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.

Social change happens most effectively when cross-generational coalitions tap into both the wisdom of the elders and the passion of the young. That requires being willing to listen on the part of the young and a willingness to pass the baton on to the next generation by the elders.

Each generation must take on the battles of their time. And it doing so – are likely to bear the scars that can become a prison if not released to the passion of the next generation. When we won’t let go, they become the seeds of anger and cynicism. Rev. Stewart was able to release himself from that prison by recognizing the grief – and almost simultaneously opening himself up to the joy and hope of the next generation. That’s what it means to pass the baton.

And as Murphy notes, the young people who are picking it up have learned from their elders.

“We tend to get nostalgic about the way things used to be,” Davis says, pointing out that the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts did not begin as national demands. Rather, “they were concessions to things happening at local levels.”

Davis looks around and sees young leaders who’re purposeful about avoiding what they see as the classical movement’s mistakes: too much dependence on a single leader and marginalizing women and members of the LGBTQ community.

“If you speak to the leaders of this movement they acknowledge their limitations and blind spots,” he says. “Everything isn’t always gonna work. But they’re committed to figuring things out.”

“I’m not worried,” he says.

I’m not worried either. As they say, “the kids are all right.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.