Young Kentuckians have essential role in realizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream

In this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Martin Luther King Jr’s call to judge each other not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” runs on repeat in classrooms across Kentucky every January. However, there's another, equally important lesson to glean from Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Today we celebrate the dream Martin Luther King Jr shared on the steps of the Lincoln memorial 60 years ago. The unprecedented 250,000-person crowd that assembled to hear from the young preacher was as intergenerational as it was interracial—a reflection of the civil rights movement itself.  

Martin Luther King spoke last at that rally, but one of the first speakers—a rousing orator who rivaled MLK’s own skill—was a 23-year-old named John Lewis. “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now,” he thundered to the roar of the crowd. The moral clarity John Lewis and his classmates brought to the civil rights movement serves as a continued call for Kentucky’s youth to solve problems and pursue justice in our communities. 

Across Kentucky, young people are taking to heart MLK’s admonition from a Birmingham jail cell that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When young African Americans in Louisville and rural baseball athletes in Meade County were excluded from school activities because their natural hair violated school rules, a group of student organizers called the “Real Young Prodigys'’ pressured lawmakers to pass the C.R.O.W.N. Act. Like the limits on discrimination established by the1964 Civil Rights Act, the C.R.O.W.N. Act bans hair discrimination in Kentucky. And like those young people who led the effort to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Real Young Prodigys have been at it for several years. 

Then there’s representation. Urging the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, MLK explained “we’ve got to gain the ballot, and through that gain political power.” Voting is an expression of power, one from which student members of Kentucky’s boards of education are barred. But that’s changing too. Last week, inspired by Solyana Mesfin, Kentucky’s first student member of the Kentucky Board of Education, State Senator Reggie Thomas introduced Senate Bill 22, an act that would grant future student board members the same voting rights as their adult colleagues. 

We expect the measure will face opposition from the “Young People Should Be Seen And Not Heard” Caucus in the Senate. But we also expect young people across Kentucky to rally in support of this bill as they did in 2021 when that same Senate Caucus tried (and failed) to eliminate Solyana's seat on the board.  

And finally, there’s the question of how we learn together across lines of race. The Little Rock Nine endured animated vitriol as they attempted to integrate an Arkansas Elementary School in 1957. Distraught white parents and politicians were concerned their children would feel unsafe or that the quality of their education would suffer. These concerns resurfaced last Kentucky legislative session in the form of bills that tried to limit discussions of race and racism in the classroom. This didn’t sit well with members of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, who mobilized a student-led research team to glean Kentucky students’ experiences and ensure the proposed legislation took student perspectives into full account. The team surveyed 10,725 students across 114 of Kentucky’s 120 counties on issues including race, ethnicity, and school climate. 

In March of 2022, the Kentucky Student Voice Team released their Race to Learn Report, which highlighted six key findings from the survey results, along with recommendations for policymakers on how to reflect actual student perspectives in their legislative decisions related to race in the classroom. But, the amplification of these crucial student opinions didn’t stop there. The students released The Report publicly on the steps of the Kentucky state capitol during an active legislative session and went on to present for the Kentucky Board of Education in June. Just because most Kentucky students are too young to vote does not mean that they are too young to have a voice in the democratic process.

It was true in 1963 and it’s true today in 2023—young people have an essential role to play in realizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and we can’t afford to wait for an invitation to take our seat at the table. From civil rights to voting rights to education rights, we shouldn't settle for being the leaders of tomorrow. Kentucky’s youth are leading right now.  Today, while you have off from school, find a service project to contribute to. But come tomorrow, find a movement to join.

Young people interested in getting involved with the Kentucky Student Voice Team should reach out to us via email at Young people interested in supporting the C.R.O.W.N Act should reach out to the Real Young Prodigys on Twitter at @youngprodigys_

This commentary was first published in the Lexington Herald-Leader on January 12, 2023.


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