We Are Today’s Good Trouble

By Alejandro Moncayo

“It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march,” declared Major John Cloud as hundreds of people attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge on March 7, 1965.

The brutality that happened in Selma, Alabama, that day would later be remembered as Bloody Sunday. Seventeen people marching for voting rights were hospitalized and dozens more were treated for injuries after state troopers and sheriff’s deputies attacked them with tear gas, bullwhips, and billy clubs.

The late Congressman John Lewis was one of the 17 people who were hospitalized. Twenty-five years old at the time, he stood at the front of the march alongside Hosea Williams as the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. By this point, Lewis was well-practiced in the art of nonviolent protest. Just two years earlier, he gave a powerful speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he was the youngest speaker — embodying, as always, the strength and spirit brought by young people in the movement. And before that, in 1961, Lewis and 12 others started a protest that transformed into one with more than 400 participants by the time it ended in December 1961. The Freedom Rides, which were intended to test the enforcement of federal desegregation laws, had an immeasurable impact on revealing the truth about the state of our nation.

As Lewis and other activists in the movement taught us, one of the most powerful ways to fight for civil rights is first through education. Understanding the ways in which racism and inequality continue to permeate all parts of our society is imperative, especially when it comes to fighting back effectively. And while some opportunities exist today, they are not widely accessible to all. Because of antiquated curriculum structures in public education, some students only learn about new and differing perspectives in college.

There are now nearly 200 colleges and universities with a Black studies major, but that was not always the case. Black studies programs were demanded by students in the 1960s. The first campus to adopt a program that would tell an honest history was San Francisco State University. In November 1968, protesting students led by the Black Student Union and a group called the Third World Liberation Front went into each classroom on campus and announced that a strike had begun. The strike lasted five months, making it still today the longest student-led strike in the history of American higher education. The administration was forced to meet their demands, and the following year, a College of Ethnic Studies was established on campus. The importance of knowing a true history cannot be overstated: How can someone fight against something that they don’t know exists?

Today, a war is being waged to make sure that people don’t develop this understanding. The teaching of so-called critical race theory has been criminalized by some lawmakers. Such efforts reveal their worst nightmare: young people learning the truth. Unfortunately for them, my generation has grown up in an era when social issues have been made hyper-visible through social media. At a time when reproductive rights have been eroded, mass shootings, often with minority communities the target, have become commonplace, and the health of our democracy has been called into question like never before, young people like me have refused to ignore reality. Ignorance is not an option, and my generation is taking these tragedies into our own hands.

In 2018, 17 teenagers were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Their peers knew there was no time to waste — they had to act, and a group of survivors formed March for Our Lives. Since its formation, the group has organized enormous rallies and marches, raised millions in funds for gun violence prevention, and has been meeting with federal lawmakers to make sure their voices are heard. The United States this year has had 422 mass shootings as of August 19, an intolerable and inexcusable number. These young people know that nothing will change without action, and they are not standing back — they are standing up.

My generation’s time is a turbulent one, but being able to meet this moment with others who feel and believe in the power of activism helps assuage the hopelessness. I have been part of organizing on my college campus as well as in my community of Nashville, Tennessee, and I am lucky to have had an opportunity this summer to get better at doing this work.

I asked some of my fellow interns at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights about their experiences organizing. They all shared that they’ve been involved with organizing on campus and in their community — supporting reproductive rights, March for Our Lives, and Black Lives Matter events. My colleague Isaac told me about his work advocating for LGBTQ-inclusive policies at his state’s legislature, and my colleague Paola described activism like this: “Activism to me means showing up… I believe that there is strength in numbers, and if I can show my support and my willingness to help simply by showing up… I will gladly do so.” The more young people who believe in the power of that statement, the further we’ll get in creating lasting change.

However, not all members of my generation feel this empowered. Many believe an opposing and unsettlingly prevalent sentiment that no single person can create change. I have known this feeling. I spent my Fourth of July in 2020 outside a pop-up booking station after the Tennessee Highway Patrol made the largest single-day mass arrest in my state’s history. As I watched fireworks explode overhead, I did not feel like we had won. In fact, I felt defeated.

In those moments, the words of people like Congressman Lewis are stronger than ever. In a 2018 tweet, he wrote: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

The day before he was hospitalized in 2020, Lewis visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., because he “just had to see…that the truth is still marching on.” It is our drive, and our youthful passion — that same drive and passion that fueled Lewis all those years ago — that keeps the movement’s fire ablaze.

As we look back on his passing and look toward a crucially important midterm season, his words resonate louder than ever. We must deepen our engagement, working to empower our peers who remain in the dark by showing them the power of change. We carry the torch lit by past generations’ words, actions, and energy — and my generation will fight to keep that flame going. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. I, and my fellow generation of young people, are leading today’s good trouble.

Alejandro Moncayo is a summer 2022 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.