THERE IS A TENDENCY by those in power to misremember the civil rights movement primarily as achievements of the past, won by a few talented orators and respectable individuals. This self-serving narrative relegates our collective struggle for racial and economic justice to the past and erases from our national memory the impact made by the throngs of young Americans that constituted the movement itself — the people power that showed up for protests, that carried out acts of civil disobedience, and that in turn gave our moral leaders their mandate to serve.
After my father, Bobby Kennedy, won the California primary in June 1968, his presidential campaign was on the verge of uniting a deeply fractured country. My father recognized that it was fueled in large part by the energy, vision, and support of these young people who were fed up with “old thinking” leading our country astray. “The youth of our nation are the clearest mirror of our performance,” read one of his campaign posters.
While the leaders of the day often maligned and dismissed the young — particularly those of color — as disaffected, ignorant, and troublemakers, my father met with students and young people bent on challenging the status quo. He spoke with student leaders across the United States and abroad.
As attorney general — a post he assumed when he was just 36 — he met with activists in the lead-up to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was then that he told a 28-year-old John Lewis, “John, I now understand. The young people, the students have educated me.”
In South Africa three years later, Daddy spoke at the University of Cape Town. From an expectedly hostile audience, he received an extended standing ovation, telling them that in the face of racial and economic injustice in the United States and South Africa, “our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth.” He would go on to explain:
“The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. . . . This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease. . . . It is a revolutionary world that we all live in; it is the young people who must take the lead. Thus you, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.”
That same year, Murray Kempton called my father “our only politician about whom the young care.” But if my father was an inspiration to America’s youth, it was first because his vision of a more just and peaceful world was inspired by them.
Today, despite many mainstream narratives, our youth remain the world’s hope to confront the racial and economic injustice still embedded in our policies and societal structures. For example, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who rose from unspeakable tragedy, due to preventable gun violence, to organize the March for Our Lives in Washington. These students have succeeded where our leaders have failed us for decades — they have confronted the political influence of the National Rifle Association head on, inspiring real change and, in the process, inspiring us all.
But this is only the most recent example. For the Parkland students themselves have acknowledged that their success is a result of the modern youth movements that have come before them.
For over a decade, young Dreamers across this country have courageously come out of the shadows to share their immigration status at significant personal risk and have led the fight for immigration reform. They have formed organizations like United We Dream, a youth-led network of immigrants with over 400,000 members, which are forcing our country to confront the realities of our unjust policies face to face.
After the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, a broad, leader-rich movement for black lives has emerged, taking to the streets and social media to confront police violence and mass incarceration. Groups like Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, with over 1 million members, continue to radically shift the consciousness of a country that had grown all-too complacent in relegating racial and economic injustice as things of the past.
Members of the International Indigenous Youth Council, who sparked the bold stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline, corporate greed, and decades of neglect at Standing Rock, are living the American Indian prophecy of Seventh Generation. They are confronting and overcoming generational trauma to carry forward the movement for indigenous and environmental rights.
Like the young people who powered the civil rights movement that inspired my father, these groups and others are organizing against the odds and stereotypes of their generation. They are protesting and engaging in acts of civil disobedience for which they face frequent vitriol, criminalization, and, for some, even deportation by those who oppose change. The “old thinkers” patronize and pander to them.
But our youth continue to persist. They continue to resist. And they continue to evolve to meet the unique challenges of our time.
The youth movements of today are innovating new strategies and deploying new technology. They are more and more often led by women and LGBTQ people. And, probably because of this, they are highly intersectional; recognizing their mutual struggle in confronting the structures of racism and inequality, and realizing that all our liberty is conjoined.
So as we remember my father this week, 50 years after my family and our country lost him to gun violence, let us also remember the young people who inspired him. And let us look for inspiration in the youth of today — from the streets of Ferguson to the fields of Standing Rock, from the southern border to the halls of high schools around this country. They are our hope. It is no longer a question of whether the youth will take the lead. They already have. The question is: Will we follow?
Kerry Kennedy is president and CEO of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.