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Civil rights icon stresses kids' social engagement

Talia Whyte | 7/2/2008, 5:42 a.m.

Drawing on his own inspiring life as an example of how one young person can make a difference, legendary civil rights leader Hollis Watkins, 66, spoke to a group of Boston teachers at Old South Meeting House last Saturday about how to engage today’s youth in pressing social issues.

When he was 19 years old, Watkins became the first student in Mississippi to become a voting rights activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He spent most of the 1960s being arrested and jailed for organizing African Americans in the South to vote.

“We must emphasize to our youth today that the civil rights movement was run by the youth,” Watkins said. “When I joined SNCC, I was among the older members at the age of 19. It is up to the young people today to keep the momentum going.”

Watkins is also the co-founder of Southern Echo, an organization dedicated to improving the political, economic and environmental standing of African Americans throughout the South. He said that even with all the progress African Americans have made, there is still work to be done on issues like ensuring voting rights.

Watkins emphasized that voting problems today are just as much about class as they are about race. In his hometown of Jackson, Miss., he said, people employed in the catfish industry have to work 10 hours a day and are not allowed to take time off to vote. If they do take the time, they risk being fired.

He also said he is concerned about the U.S. government spending more money to build prisons than dealing with teacher shortages in inner-city public schools across the country. Since its founding in 1989, Southern Echo has advocated for better schools for black and low-income communities throughout Mississippi, Watkins said.

The organization also works to empower people to address environmental hazards in their communities. It has blocked the placement of toxic waste facilities and prohibited agricultural practices with negative public health consequences in black communities.

But even in the face of all the struggles that many young Americans must deal with, Watkins said he is impressed by the unprecedented amount of young people energized by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which he said signals a shift in racial politics.

“You can still see racism in this country, but Obama being the nominee is progress,” Watkins said. “Younger people have a different way of thinking about race today.”

Nonetheless, the nation’s leading civil rights organizations — most notably the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — have had a hard time recruiting younger members in recent years. Some young African Americans complain that organizations like the NAACP do not address issues relevant to their lives and question the groups’ seeming resistance to using technology as a tool for social activism today. The mass demonstration in Louisiana last fall in support of the Jena Six, for example, was organized largely by the black blogosphere.

Watkins sees this as an evolution in how the civil rights movement and young people connect with one another.

“I don’t know what is the correct method to address social injustice today, whether it’s the Internet or something else,” Watkins said. “It is just important to have the proper and correct vision to address our mission.”