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Opinion

The sit-ins that changed America

The civil rights movement was energized by these '60s-era protests.

January 31, 2010|By Andrew B. Lewis

Fifty years later, my students tend to see SNCC's members as mythic figures, a "greatest generation" of activists whose achievements they cannot equal. But I remind them of what they have in common with the SNCC generation. Both have been condemned by adults for their materialism, pop culture and assumed political apathy. Both grew up in a period of relative prosperity that left them comfortable but also unsatisfied. Both came of age when new forms of communication -- TV then, the Internet now -- unsettled politics.

There are many lessons from the sit-ins relevant to the lives of today's young people. Before it was a bumper sticker, SNCC lived out the true meaning of "think globally, act locally." But the most important lesson is to stop looking at the '60s as the manual for modern activism. What made the sit-ins so powerful is how they broke away from the prevailing wisdom to create a new model for change. Look forward, not back, I tell them. It's not your parents' movement anymore.

Andrew B. Lewis is the author of "The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation."

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