I recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. At the edge of the property, there was a young woman behind the table and a large sign that read, “Quit Worshiping the Past! There are Human Rights Violations Happening NOW!” I wasn’t particularly surprised to see such a sign. Activism is every where. However, I was surprised by the message. She seemed rather naive, particularly for a committed activist (even the casual observer could see that the table was a fixture and manned daily).
The feeling that I needed to talk with this young woman increased with my visit to the museum, which is much more than a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. The tour begins with a short film titled “The Witness” in which Reverend Kyles remembers the last hours of King’s life and, more importantly, the Memphis movement and the increased focus on class as a divider in the U.S. It is moving to watch such a film with a room packed with people listening to this message. I could not help but think about the ongoing Occupy Movements around the world.
At that moment, I also understood the young activist protesting outside of the museum. In a society that emphasizes digestible facts over history, instant gratification over hard work, and worships youth and energy over experience and knowledge, intergenerational divisions run deep. Within this context, one might expect a young activist to reject “old” movements and dead leaders.
The problem, of course, is that activists (young, ,old, and in-between) miss opportunities to work together and, potentially, affect change. This is not to suggest that intergenerational alliances never occur. The point is that the possibilities for social change are limited by the cultural strings that bind us. We would do well to see to whom we are tethered.