Lessons From MLK For Millennials & Gen Z

It’s important for today’s young people to recall the history of the civil rights movement in America. Yet too many Millennials and members of their younger cohort, Generation Z, consider civil rights history as ancient history at the dawn of a new millennium. However, as Americans pause on Monday to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the MLK Day holiday (and thereafter), let’s be mindful of the profound and poignant lessons which more of today’s young people need to learn. The most important of which is how to make major changes in society through the type of peaceful means championed by Dr. King and his fellow civil rights leaders of the time.

A term of significance for young people to  comprehend is: “civil disobedience.”

Preaching Non-Violence

Dr. King staked his life and legacy on preaching non-violence, similar to that of Mahatma Gandhi during the independence movement of India, a country then controlled by British rule. In fact, Dr. King is said to have greatly admired and closely studied Gandhi’s successful strategy of non-violent opposition, which MLK emulated via the civil rights movement across the South.

MLK promoted civil disobedience in the face of vicious police brutality and mass jailings of peaceful demonstrators — including himself — which were commonplace back then.

Similarly and tragically, both Dr. King and Gandhi met their untimely deaths at the hand of an assassin’s bullet. This is the ultimate price to pay for fostering peace and freedom on a grand scale. Moreover, unlike some black leaders of the 1960s who heeded calls for violence from militant groups, like the Black Panthers,  Dr. King persevered with a solid strategy of civil disobedience.

Landmark Civil Rights Laws

Dr. King’s steadfastness and perseverance paid off through the enactment of groundbreaking civil rights laws that altered the course of American history. Therefore, more young people should be taught to leverage peaceful means of protest championed by Dr. King, via the constitutional guarantees of free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly. These lawful tactics of non-violent resistance are what ultimately resulted in historic gains via the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

These landmark civil rights laws changed America for the better and ushered in a new era of increased equality and opportunity for minority groups.

While the sweeping civil rights laws of the 1960s obviously did not cure all societal ills, they have certainly had a long-term positive impact on the fabric of America. Thus, today’s teens and 20-somethings who might be prone to violence and knee-jerk reactions during police confrontations need to recall, abide by and honor the legacy of non-violence taught by Dr. King. Dr. King referred to non-violence as “a sword that heals.” He said, for example: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”

Testing the USA’s Conscience

Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis, and other civil rights leaders of the 1960s persistently tested the nation’s conscience about racism, bias, and bigotry. Their unwavering discipline and fortitude through strict adherence to non-violence is why minds were changed and historic progress was made. Graphic TV video and news photos of peaceful protesters being beaten bloody by police hosed down by water cannons, and attacked by police dogs caused most whites to take a hard look in the mirror when pondering such outrageous overreactions by law enforcement – actions which ultimately backfired. Congressman Lewis, then a young civil rights leader, was nearly beaten to death by police during a pivotal civil rights march in Alabama that became known as “Bloody Sunday” — a common story exemplifying the unjust times.

That’s why more Millennials and Gen Z need to realize that non-violence was the core foundation of Dr. King’s effective leadership and ability to alter the course of American history for the better.

Racial Progress?

Despite recent racial progress made — such as the election and reelection of America’s first black president –, the civil rights struggle is far from over. There’s still too much discrimination based on race, color, and a host of other factors, from the workplace to every place in America.

In hindsight, many citizens of every race, color, and creed had sincerely hoped and believed that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama would result in a post-racial society. But this promise has failed to materialize, despite a new generation of young people who tend to look beyond the lens of race. Perhaps what has changed most is that racism, bias, and bigotry are more subtle and less overt today compared to prior times. Many point to so-called “unconscious” or “unintentional” discrimination at the heart of some in white America.

But there’s nothing unconscious or unintentional about burning down black churches or police killing unarmed black youth, among other things grotesquely witnessed nationwide in recent years.

‘Reverse Discrimination’

Let’s also recall that there’s nothing lawful or morally right about minorities discriminating against whites based on race, especially considering that race is supposed to be “color-blind” under the law. Moreover, racial discrimination is equally abhorrent whether it’s directed at light-skinned blacks by darker-skinned blacks, whites against blacks, Hispanics against blacks, and/or blacks and other traditionally known minority groups against whites.

I would note that as racial and ethnic diversity greatly increases among the U.S. population, the demographic of white Americans remain mostly stagnant. And the population of white men is actually shrinking. While this might be reason enough for some to cheer, there’s never a justifiable reason for discrimination against anyone.

In fact, most major U.S. cities currently have a so-called “minority-majority” population. This means the combined number of traditional minority groups now outnumbers that of whites.  Yet this should never be a purported justification for so-called “reverse discrimination.”

True equality means not discriminating against any individual based on race — period!

The Big Question

Thus, the big question arises:

What more must be done to make the bold “dream” Dr. King spoke of, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a shining reality in 21st century America?

This is a critically important question to consider as we observe the federal holiday honoring the life and legacy of MLK.

In essence, we must all ask ourselves: where do we go from here, and how?

What strategies should a new generation of young leaders leverage to create the kind of society in which all people are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as Dr. King spoke of half a century ago? Are the answers simply too elusive in today’s increasingly diverse multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural world?


David B. Grinberg
David B. Grinberg
David is a strategic communications consultant, ghostwriter, and literary PR agent on issues of workforce diversity, equal employment opportunity, race and gender equity, and other social justice causes. He is a former career spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he managed media relations for agency headquarters and 50 field offices nationwide for over a decade. Prior to his public service at the EEOC, David was a young political appointee for President Bill Clinton in the White House: Office of Presidential Personnel, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB). A native New Yorker and University of Maryland graduate, David began his career in journalism. You can find David online via LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium, Good Men Project, Thrive Global, BIZCATALYST 360°, and American Diversity Report.

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  1. Answers to these question you pose include . . .

    * Honoring how Dr. King’s legacy changed the world includes getting reflections such as this out on a regular basis.

    (thanks for doing so here!)

    * Being an example in the world of the kind of steadfastness and perseverance that Dr. King modeled.

    (each of us, moment by moment)

    Our day by day witness is powerful.

    Slow. But real.

    And true change does arrive in bits and pieces as one person grows, models, and inspires one more person.