In 1957, standing in front of a crowd of 20,000 at the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an electrifying speech lambasting political leaders of both parties for dragging their feet on Civil Rights legislation. Referring to the discriminatory Jim Crow laws rampant in the pre-Civil Rights era South, Dr. King demanded that those in power, “Give us the ballot”. His speech was administered with an unrivaled passion and urgency, and his lifelong pursuit for equality and justice ultimately culminated in he and his followers transforming this country for the better.
Today, in different circumstances but with similar urgency, we at Millennial Politics implore our fellow 18-34 year old millennials to take our duties as citizens seriously and begin to live up to and honor Dr. King’s legacy by actually filling out the ballots he and others fought so hard to win for all people. If there was ever a time for millennials, as a generation, to vote and participate at record rates, it would be now:
We’re in the midst of crisis at home and abroad, dictators are waging war at the expense of their people, political rhetoric is laced with threats of nuclear war, “leaders” are at the whim of multinational corporations and special interests, and we continue to witness our planet trending towards record temperatures year over year. Yet despite the challenges in front of us, only half of millennials participated in the 2016 presidential election.
Don’t get us wrong, millennials are paying attention to how our government is run today, but we’re rightfully skeptical of institutions: We came of age during the longest running war in American history, a stock market crash, record income inequality, heightened racial tensions, and unprecedented levels of partisanship and obstruction amongst our elected officials (who are re-elected year after year despite record disapproval ratings). Is it any wonder only half of millennials voted in the 2016 election?
But, despite our skepticism, history has proven that the past doesn’t have to dictate the future. In fact, history has shown time and again that through the democratic process we have the ability to change the direction of this country. And 18-34 year olds have been at the forefront of civil movements since our founding. Many of America’s greatest leaders took active roles in shaping our political climate at the very age we are right now. They took action, and so too can we:
At 19, John Lewis rose to prominence as a student activist and member of the Freedom Riders in 1963. He continues to fight for civil rights to this day representing Georgia’s 5th district in the United States Congress.
At 27, Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and revived the struggle for civil rights in the public eye. At just 34 years of age, he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
At 27, John Kerry became a vocal critic of President Richard Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War. As an activist, he organized rallies and protests through Vietnam Veterans Against The War, and went on to serve as a United States senator, presidential nominee, and Secretary of State.
At 29, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and risked her life hundreds of times in her pursuits of freeing others through the Underground Railroad. She went on to serve as an armed spy for the North in the Civil War, and lived for another 62 years as a vocal humanitarian.
Millennials – we are them. We are the future leaders we’ve been waiting for. With 83 million eligible voters, we have become the largest voting bloc in American history, yet we’re still having a fraction of the electoral impact we’re capable of.
Isn’t it obvious? The millennial hour has struck. Our time is now. But we can’t sit back and wait for the inevitable; there’s far too much at stake, and the clock is ticking.
We need to roll up our sleeves and work for the future we want. We need draw inspiration from those who came before us, and strive to continue to activate our disillusioned friends and family. It’s our turn to pick up the baton and work towards a more perfect union. And we need to do this while confronting the rapidly changing and interconnected global landscape before us while working on the local, state, and federal levels to craft and implement the policies we want.
Where do we start? How can we succeed? We must learn to engage with one another and go through the process of building relationships. Both within our own echo-chambers, and also out. Politically active millennials, ask your disillusioned friend from high school out for a coffee or a drink. Introduce yourself to someone new. Connect with your fellow peers and try to understand them. Find your commonalities and shared interests, and then build upon them. Focus solely on building the relationship and finding their humanity. By strengthening these relationships, you’re forging a common bond, and you’ll suddenly find that you’re not so far apart anymore.
If we’re to grow to become the leaders this world needs, we’re going to need to rely upon messy coalitions. Yes, this means building relationships with those “Centrists”, “Moderates”, “Neoliberals,” and “Progressives” alike, but especially those who are inactive. When we activate the inactive, we win. Period.
We won’t agree all the time, but it’s time we all do our part as citizens of this already great (yet still flawed) nation and step up to meet the challenges we face. Just as Dr. King demanded they give he and his followers the ballot, it is now with the utmost import that we actually fill out our ballots in 2018.
Baby Boomers and GenXers – we can’t do it alone. We invite you to join us on our mission to inspire millennials to participate in our democracy and have a real impact on the 2018 elections. You can help by encouraging the millennials you know to get active and mentoring us as we navigate this troubled political climate and grow to become emerging leaders.
If you’re unsure of when an election is or where your polling place is, be sure to check out organizations like Vote.org that provide upcoming election dates, candidate information, polling locations, and much more. If you’re already hyper-active, the best thing you can do is find one person who isn’t. Help activate them. We have the numbers. We have the energy. But all will be for naught if we don’t show up en masse in November 2018.
We hope that you’ll consider sharing this article and continuing this conversation with us on social media. Let’s continue to work together towards realizing Dr. King’s vision of bringing equality, justice, and voting access for all citizens of the United States.