The U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the role of Youths
Dr. Zizwe Poe’s conversation with Nigerian youths
Throughout the month of February 2018, the U.S. Mission in Nigeria will engage Nigerian audiences in conversations about black history. The activities included a public lecture on the “Role of Youths in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement “by Dr. Zizwe Poe, a distinguished African-American history professor at Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania.
The lecture held at the Thought Pyramid Arts Gallery, Abuja, attracted a large number of civil society groups working on democratic governance, young professionals, human rights activists, media practitioners, charity workers, students, and representatives from government, political, and socio-cultural organizations.
No doubt, Dr. Poe’s lecture lived up to its billing — refreshing and thought provoking. He said, “In the United States, youths have tended to be fearless igniters of social change. Properly organized, youths have shaken the very foundations of the status quo. When youths are united in purpose, they lead the elders and resurrect the spirit of the ancestors.”
To underscore the background to his thoughts on the topic, Dr. Poe said he spent more than a decade in New York City, a city in a state that brags on its license plate to be the “Empire State.” He spent more than a decade and a half in California and another decade and a half in Pennsylvania. He has been a Pan-Africanist for three quarters of his life, and those were the experiences that informed the views that he shared with his audience.
He explained that the United States did not have just one civil rights movement, but two civil rights movements for people of African descent. The first one was from 1861 to 1877. 1861 marked the beginning of the Civil War in America, in which it was being decided whether the states would stay together or go in different directions. The Civil War was bitterly fought, resulting in massive destruction in parts of the country. Following the end of the war, there were instances of racist terror and reactionary revenge by those who were determined to maintain the traditional order in the southern states. In many respects, this reaction was a direct result of the fact that during the Reconstruction following the war, African-Americans, for the first time in the South, enjoyed the full benefits of being an American citizen, including the right to vote.
The second civil rights era began in 1945, and according to the erudite African-American history scholar, lasted until 2008, when Barrack Obama was elected as the first African-American President of the United States of America.
He said youths in the United States played a dynamic role in both of these civil rights movements, as protest organizers, soldiers and propagandists.
Dr. Poe also remarked that Haiti and Ethiopia became a source of motivation for youths in America because of their success in freedom struggles against France and Italy. The Zikist Movement in Nigeria led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who later became the first President of Nigeria, and Kwame Nkrumah’s “Freedom Now” Movement in Ghana influenced the youth wing of the Civil Rights Movement in America to change their slogans and chants to “Freedom Now,” and that became one of the chants and slogans for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization led by university students.
Nevertheless, the struggle for civil rights continues in the United States and in most other countries of the world, said Dr. Poe.
Dr. Poe’s lecture ignited a passionate discussion moderated by a young, dynamic Nigerian thought leader, Mr. Dapo Oyewole, Senior Public Sector Advisor, at McKinsey and Company. He was joined in the discussion by equally gifted youth leaders Mrs. Blessing Omakwu Soremekun, a Policy and Advocacy Manager for One Campaign, and Mr. Samson Itodo, head of one of Nigeria’s foremost youth think tanks on democratic governance and citizens’ participation, the Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement (YIAGA) Africa. While Mrs. Soremekun argued that women played a key role in the civil rights movements, but they are rarely mentioned, Mr. Itodo posited that contrary to the view that Nigerian youths are rudderless, they actually have an agenda and ideology. They want to participate and make a positive change in the polity.
Questions to the panel focused mainly on: What lessons can Nigerian youths draw from the U.S. civil rights movements? And specifically, what role can Nigerian youths play in the 2019 elections?
Responding to these questions Dr. Poe said it is in the interest of the United States that there be peace in Nigeria before, during, and after the 2019 elections. He also said youths should be involved in strengthening civic responsibility in the country.
“I am hoping that the elections will be peaceful, but ideological struggle itself is violent. Better to have ideological struggle with debates than to shoot each other. It is better to have youths involved as we saw in these movements (in the U.S.) rather than not to have them involved in civic responsibility. One thing about youths is that they are energetic … either for healing, or for hurting. I think it is very important that we begin now to talk to them on how to be energetic for healing,” he concluded.