Raymond C. Pierce is the president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, which since 1867 has been advancing education opportunities for African American and low-income students in the Southern states.
In this piece, Pierce talks about the hope he feels -- and all of America should feel -- when the nation’s young people protest in the streets.
By Raymond C. Pierce
Protest and anger practically always derive from hope, and the shouting out against injustice is always in the hope of those injustices being somewhat corrected and a little more justice established.
Those are the words of British essayist John Berger. Berger died in 2017, but his sentiment is both timeless and timely as we today witness nationwide protests against racism, injustice, and the targeting, arrest, and killing of black men at the hands of the police. John Berger’s quote captures the essence of what is happening right here and right now with young people in Atlanta and nationwide.
Counting them would be impossible, but it’s safe to say that a large proportion, if not the majority, of people at the recent protests here in Atlanta are young adults in their late teens to late 20s.
I’ve recently been asked whether these protests are an indication that young people are feeling hopeless. My answer is a vehement “no.” In fact, quite the opposite. The protests are a sign of hope.
The protests we are seeing in Atlanta, across the nation, indeed, across the globe, are the continuation of what young people have been doing for generations – responding to the need to do something to improve society. They are calling attention to injustice and trying to make change.
Historically, protests have been the province and the predilection of young adults. Many of the leaders of our civil rights movement were quite young. The Rev, Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott. Stokely Carmichael and other leaders of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee were in their late teens and early twenties. The Freedom Riders, who traveled to Mississippi to advance voter registration, were college students. Protesting is an act borne of hope. And it is a sign of hope for all of us that there are people ready to call out injustice and make change.
Society has always been imperfect, and young people have always been the conscience of humanity who see that imperfection and take the responsibility to change it. While older adults often join them, we are usually not the ones who lead.
Many of us have gotten used to the imperfections in our society, some have even benefited from it, while others have conformed to it. Our lives, jobs, family responsibilities and other realities and responsibilities that accompany growing older of have taken precedence.
But young people – often finishing school and just transitioning to work and family life – as newer members of society, are not prepared to accept what may have become normalized for some of us. They are preparing to take their place in society, possibly to lead it, and they want it to be a society that reflects their understanding of what justice looks like or should look like. And they have the time and the energy of youth to devote to that struggle.
On their faces, we may see frustration, even anger. But we shouldn’t confuse demonstrations, frustration, or anger with hopelessness. People feeling hopeless lie down and give up. Those with hope stand up, speak up, and protest. They feel a sense of urgency and they see that things can change, and they show their frustration and anger and call for that change.
The overwhelming majority of humanity has a conscience. Through demonstrating, people of conscience show they have hope. And sometimes that hope has raised fists, protest signs, and loud voices.
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