My first march, at age 12, was unforgettable. Sixty years ago, several thousand of us in Wichita marched in favor of fair housing: giving Black and white people the same access to buy a house that they could afford. So I was delighted by recent demonstrations by Minnesota high school students.
Some people in Wichita threw stones at us as we demonstrated. An elderly Black woman noticed that I was shaking. Putting her arms around me, she asked, “Young man, are you afraid?” “Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
She responded with Langston Hughes’ remarkable poem “Mother to Son.” This brief, powerful poem, which takes about minute to read, begins with the narrator explaining that her life has been very difficult. She describes challenges she’s faced. The mother urges that her son not turn back, not sit down.
That’s because, as she explains: “I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’, And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
Hearing this as we marched past jeers, dodging stones was unforgettable.
Actress Viola Davis has a wonderful reading of this poem, here: https://youtu.be/5L-kKxePGqA.
Our family, sometimes two generations, sometimes three, has marched together. Demonstrating with others made us feel alive and empowered.
It’s something like what Ezra Hudson experienced. He’s an 11th grader at St. Louis Park High School who helped organize an April 19 march. Hudson told me: “I thought it was really important to create a space for students to advocate for Black lives and be able to speak on how they feel, with everything going on, in a safe environment.”
He continued: “I learned by doing the walkout that youth have so much power and it is much more than we know. I learned that not only can we do events like this but that we NEED to do events like this and keep doing them to show the world how we feel and that we are ready to fight for change.”
Semhar Solomon, a 17-year-old at St. Anthony Village High School, wrote, “Organizing and leading the walkout at my school showed that where there’s power, there’s people and by creating a space where our (Black voices) could be heard and voices were amplified, we were able to take the power into our own hands.”
Ramah Farah, 17, a Minneapolis South High School student, told me, “Throughout this past year, I came to the realization that change doesn’t come from our justice system, but actually from the hardworking boots on the ground.”
Over 60 years, I learned that change comes in many ways: through marches, demonstrations, legislatures, courts, and the news media. But our individual power to work for progress is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s our freedom of speech and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” (Read more at t.ly/eZBG.)
Those rights can be abused. But what I saw and heard over the last few weeks were Minnesota high school students not just reading about their rights but also using them wisely and constructively.
I hope families will ask young people to identify things that matter to them. I hope we’ll encourage and model “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” as we work for a “more perfect union” – a better state and country for all of us. — Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org or JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.