From Mississippi to Parkland: A legacy of youth activism

This op-ed was originally published by The Clarion-Ledger on June 21, 2018.

My older brother, Andrew Goodman, was murdered 54 years ago today. Members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi took his life, along with the lives of James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. The KKK’s intention was to maintain and uphold their racist power structure. They carefully preserved their old way of life through violence and intimidation designed to keep African-American voters out of the electoral system.

Freedom Summer volunteers at a training in 1964

The black organizers and 1,000 young volunteers who joined Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, including my brother, worked to protect the self-evident truth that all people are created equal. By leaving their homes, traveling across the country, and risking their lives to help African Americans register to vote, these young people showed their devotion to preserving the ideals of our democracy. They believed in the right of every American to vote. The involvement of the Freedom Summer participants, those who marched from Selma to Montgomery, and the deaths of so many, including Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Despite the leadership of student activists and protesters during the 1960s, many young people since then have begun to feel their voices do not matter. Even as the youth share of the electorate approaches the total of eligible Baby Boomer voters, youth remain the least likely demographic to vote. Without the reliable participation of young voters, discriminatory and dangerous practices have reemerged.

That is all about to change.

Today’s youth will not fall into the trap of thinking things must remain how they always have been. Just like the violent and egregious civil rights violations in Mississippi that spurred Andrew and so many others to take action, the school shooting in Parkland, Florida acts as today’s impetus to shake youth out of complacency.

The organizers of the #NeverAgain movement have realized that too many elected officials create policies based on their own selfish interests. Like my brother’s peers who led sit-ins, boycotts, and protest marches, today’s students see some legislators financially benefitting from policies that cost youth their lives.

On June 15, 2018, just 6 days before the anniversary of my brother’s death, the students from Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School began a two-month summer tour to register voters in 20 states. On this “Road to Change” tour, they plan to help young people transform their passion into action through the ballot box.

Some opponents of student voting claim they do not deserve to vote until they have a permanent stake in society. They claim that their age and lack of experience prevent them from making sound decisions. These people are wrong. It is precisely these characteristics that make young people most fit to intervene and protect democracy. Without past allegiance to the established order, they see clearly enough to protect the principles our constitution holds dear.

The politicians looking to protect their own power remain devoted to preventing young voters from participating in elections. Just last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision upholding Ohio’s practice of purging individuals who miss federal elections from the voter rolls. Ohio’s purging practice has intentional design to discriminate against minorities, individuals with disabilities, the elderly, and young people. This modern-day tactic is a throwback to the 1960s when the white power structure denied certain groups the right to vote.

Ohio is far from the only state with demonstrated efforts to prevent youth voices from influencing elections. Florida Secretary of State, Kenneth Detzner has interpreted the state’s early-voting law to prohibit early-polling sites on state university property. The Andrew Goodman Foundation has joined other plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Secretary Detzner. We aim to protect the rights of students and all American citizens to enjoy equal access to the electoral process.

Today’s youth will rise to modern-day challenges by standing up against constitutional threats, just as my brother Andrew and his fellow civil rights workers did. They will defend the values of our democracy to protect themselves and others from oppression. The Andrew Goodman Foundation is prepared to help clear the way for young people to make change.

About the Author

David Goodman is the brother of Andrew Goodman, the President of The Andrew Goodman Foundation, and a member of its Board of Trustees.