Americans born between 1977 and 1994 represent the largest share of young adults and most racially diverse generation in U.S. history. As these young activists work to change their world, each looks to a civil rights hero for inspiration.
Donnel Baird, 33, New York, founder, BlocPower
His hero: Diane Nash
BlocPower and its partners promote and finance energy-efficiency projects at small businesses, churches and schools in urban areas. Our nonprofit startup employs local workers to retrofit buildings.
Diane Nash studied Gandhian nonviolence for 18 months with the Reverend James Lawson and other college students in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to learn how nonviolence could dismantle a violent segregationist regime in the American South. She defied local judges and voluntarily went to jail in Alabama while eight months pregnant. She placed her life at risk to act on her principles in a way that would destroy Jim Crow laws that kept races separate.
Our generation can learn from Diane Nash’s fearlessness and strategic genius to achieve outsized outcomes. I hope to learn from her life as I help people solve problems of high unemployment and climate change.
Dana Bolger, 23, Missouri, co-founder, Know Your IX
Her hero: Rosa Parks
I’m a co-organizer of Know Your IX, a campaign to educate students across the country about their right to go to school free from sexual violence and harassment under a law called Title IX.
Rosa Parks is most remembered for her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man, but by the time she did that, she had already been engaged for years in anti–sexual violence activism, documenting the testimonies of black women victimized by white men.
Parks was far more radical than the character I read about in secondary school. She dared to critique accepted practices and demand the seemingly impossible. She knew that power concedes nothing without a demand — and all of us trying to make change today have got to remember that.
Zim Ugochukwu, 26, California, founder, Travel Noire
Her hero: Charles Neblett
In 2009, as a student at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, I founded Ignite Greensboro to help open Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
I recently started another project called Travel Noire to get more young people of color to travel abroad.
I admire Charles Neblett, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who sat at “whites only” lunch counters in Greensboro, where I went to school. He did not wait for anyone’s permission to change the world. He stood in the face of injustice, unafraid and unwavering, and in doing that, inspires me to continue to challenge injustices.
Raheem Washington, 19, Ohio
His hero: Bob Moses
In secondary school, I was introduced to the Algebra Project, which teaches math in a new way. (Once, we went downtown, took photos of landmarks and used them to study math concepts.) The teachers helped me realize I could go to college, and I made a hard decision to take a break from playing football to focus on school. For five years I have tutored elementary-school children as part of the Young People’s Project.
I respect Bob Moses, who started the Algebra Project. During the 1960s, he was a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped black people register to vote in the South. Like him, I want to help my community and my nation. Moses brought educational rights into the civil rights movement. All Americans deserve an education, and he deserves a lot of credit.
Erika Duthely, 28, New York, public interest attorney
Her hero: Shirley Chisholm
Making sure that everyone has equal access to our justice system is absolutely necessary for the protection of our most vulnerable citizens. I help Americans to solve their grievances in a court of law.
I have been inspired by many civil rights figures and activists, but if I have to choose, I choose the late seven-term congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. She was smart and passionate, and she paved the way for black women to play a significant role in politics (in my home state of New York, no less). Chisholm’s life inspires me as I strive for personal goals and as I fight for civil rights.
Maya Thompson, 23, Maryland, intern, Library of Congress
Her hero: Simeon Booker
I was president of my secondary school’s NAACP chapter and focused on Africana studies in college. Now I work on the Voices of Civil Rights collection at the Library of Congress, organizing letters about racial segregation during the civil rights era. The stories of witnesses to history help future generations.
I am inspired by reporter Simeon Booker, whose stories in Jet magazine would be lost to history if he had not had the courage to bring them to our attention. He took risks because he knew the weight of the issues at hand. He reported on the murder of a black teenager named Emmett Till, and the story and photos of Till’s body made the world wake up to atrocities that were going unnoticed by many.
Recently, I had the honor of meeting Mr. Booker. He talked about dangers he faced decades ago, but I was struck by his saying that he did not always know if he would be able to eat while working because, as a black man, he could not walk into a store or restaurant in many places. We need to remember what we take for granted, and we still need to fight for justice for people who are marginalized.
[Editor’s Note: Adapted from EJ|USA, February 2014 issue.]