The Freedom Side: Young Activists Organize for Change

Millennials are taking charge of their future in a 21st century Freedom Summer kind of way.

Posted: 07/02/2014 12:00 AM EDT

African-American millennials, and before them, members of Generation X, have often been accused by people of a certain age of having no sense of history. They take things like integrated schools and neighborhoods, a college education and voting rights for granted, their critics say, and have no appreciation for the struggles and sacrifices that enabled them to feel so entitled.

But in communities across the nation, there are millions of Blacks, young and old, who have not overcome as the civil rights anthem promised and are not much better off than Negros, as they were called then, were in the '60s. Sadly, given the overall progress the nation has made on certain issues, some may be viewed as worse off.

Fifty years ago, nearly a thousand young adults traveled to Mississippi, where they spent a Freedom Summer helping Blacks register to vote. The volunteers also conducted Freedom Schools, attended by people of all ages, including small children and the elderly, who learned how to become more politically and civically engaged.

James Hayes was not yet born and is too humble to compare himself to the young leaders of the time, such as Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who as a result of his youthful advocacy is universally viewed as an iconic member and, indeed, symbol of the movement. But he is eager and honored to at least try to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and others.

Hayes is one of a group of young leaders from across the nation who this year are fashioning a 21st century version of the 1964 Freedom Summer. Some of the tools are more advanced, like the Internet, mobile phones and social media, which didn't exist in the '60s. But, sadly, many of the struggles are the same.

They are calling their movement The Freedom Side.

As their spokesperson, Nelini Stamp, explains, the network began forming after three young activists were not allowed to speak as planned during last year's commemoration of the March on Washington. They decided they would not be silenced again.

"We said we could not stand by and be told what not to do anymore and that we had to make and manifest our own destiny," she explained.

They recognize that demographics are shifting in a direction that will give people of color an historic majority in the United States and a future full of potential. But that future is not inevitable, Stamp said, if they don't organize to change some of the glaring educational, economic and social justice inequities that still exist today.

"This is an opportunity I've been waiting for to continue the legacy of organizing that I've been deeply impacted by," Hayes, who as a very young child accompanied his parents to community organizing meetings, told BET.com. "It's also an opportunity to commemorate the past by building a future and pushing it forward. And we're piecing together a national network of young people of color that is so dynamic and, I think, so full of potential to spearhead real change in this country."

In Mississippi, the grassroots group Better Schools, Better Jobs is mobilizing to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to fully fund the state's public schools. Volunteers also hope to register 20,000 unregistered voters.

"The goal for this summer is to cultivate a whole lot of new leadership. We've already seen lots of students and parents who otherwise wouldn't be very engaged take serious ownership of the [school funding] campaign," said field director Amber Thomas. "I'm part of Freedom Side because it's important to connect with like-minded individuals and the work that we do is strengthened by similar work that happens in other places. Freedom Side is also a way to support each other [through trials and setbacks] and know that there's this massive step in the right direction."

Led by the Dream Defenders, organizers in Florida will focus on the state's "Stand Your Ground" law and seek ways to stymie the school-to-prison pipeline. In addition to hosting Freedom Schools around the state, the group has created the "Our Bloc is Ours" program that aims to engage and empower voting blocs around various issues and train and develop leaders.

"This summer, we'll see the one-year anniversary of the Zimmerman verdict. We'll see Marissa Alexander on trial for defending herself once again and Michael Dunn up for retrial," said Philip Agnew, head of the Dream Defenders. "We feel like in this moment of crisis, it genuinely is the ballot or the bullet."

But more important, he adds, they also believe that "if we can stop the flow of young people into jails, thus preserving their right to vote, work and live, and we can identify leaders, train and develop communities and young people of color, then we can shift the tide, transform the culture and build a political agenda that the progressive majority in this state can collectively build and advance."

In Ohio, the Ohio Student Association, a group Hayes co-founded in 2012, his senior year in college, and helps lead today, has already enjoyed some success. Working with other groups in the state, they were able to kill a "Stand Your Ground" bill before it could complete the legislative process.

In addition to a focus on leadership development training, Hayes's organization plans to register 10,000 young voters this summer.

"And as Freedom Fall begins, we're going to be talking about getting out the vote. How do we move these voters that we've been registering to the polls to have an impact on the 2014 election?" he said. "And after the election there will be the really important work of bringing that bloc of voters back together so we can talk about what agenda we're going to push forward in 2015 and 2016" and a develop strategy to help them reach their goals.  

Hayes, who grew up in a home with a library, likes to quote Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and writer who believed that each generation must discover its mission and then fulfill or betray it.

"I believe that our generation is beginning to discover its purpose," he told BET.com. "And I'm confident that we're going to fulfill it."

Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

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(Photo: Jonathan Stith/Active Voices)

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