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The Lessons Of The Montgomery Bus Boycott, Set To A Modern-Day Beat

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

There were dozens of other events in Montgomery this past week commemorating the bus boycotts, several of them focused on how the city's young people viewed the history and future of civil rights. NPR's Dustin DeSoto spoke with many of those youth leaders and has this report.

DUSTIN DESOTO, BYLINE: The Beyond the Bus Boycott features lessons in civil rights history but with a contemporary beat.

As the convention center hall filled with hundreds of high school and college students, the DJ spun music in the background. The youth summit was hosted by the Montgomery Improvement Association - that's the same group that organized the boycott in 1955. A local activist, Natilee McGruder, who led the event, encouraged all young people to see themselves as potential leaders.

NATILEE MCGRUDER: It wasn't a bunch of gray-hairs who made the boycott happen. It was a lot of young people who took leadership and believed in themselves, who respected themselves and were not waiting on adults to tell them what to do.

DESOTO: That message resonated with high school senior, Van Jones.

VAN JONES: It's interest how people read about this stuff in textbooks and go to museums. It's another thing to just be out here and get to really experience this. It's life-changing.

DESOTO: Another young person who appreciates that is high school student Deja Chappell. She recently used a grant to revitalize the Rosa L. Parks Park. Earlier that day, she gave me a driving tour around the city's historical sites.

DEJA CHAPPELL: So this is the fountain/former slave trade.

DESOTO: She's referring to the Court Square Fountain, a tall cast-iron sculpture surrounded by gushing blue water in the middle of the cobblestone roundabout. Back in the 1800s, this was also a slave auction site. Decades later, Rosa Parks would be arrested just blocks from this spot. For Deja Chappell, growing up at the crossroads of history can become complicated.

CHAPPELL: For me, it's uncomfortable to think about what my people were subjected to. And I think maybe for another person it might be uncomfortable to think maybe someone in my family was a part of the problem. Again, it's, like - it's a really personal battle, like, how do I confront the past and what do I do about it?

DESOTO: To Karen Jones, the founder of the local Black Lives Matter movement, the problem is Montgomery won't confront its past - at least not honestly.

KAREN JONES: It's whitewashed, sanitized because people want to appease the whites here in Montgomery because it was an ugly time, a hateful time. And it looks like history is repeating itself.

DESOTO: Jones says progress depends on Montgomery's citizens having the difficult conversations, starting now.

K. JONES: Until people suck up their feelings, talk about it, whether it makes you sad, furious - whatever emotions it makes you, you need to express yourself so you can get it off your chest, black or white.

DESOTO: Back at the youth summit, Natilee McGruder said that even if students don't know all the details of Montgomery's civil rights history, they're ready to carry on its spirit.

MCGRUDER: They may not understand these finer points, you know, kind of beyond the trite things - who Martin Luther King was - but by no means does that mean that there are things worth fighting for and that there are things happening in their schools, in their communities, that are not OK.

DESOTO: Looking forward, McGruder believes that the passion young people display online about civil rights will transform the future.

MCGRUDER: There's a common quote on Facebook that I see all the time that says if you wondered what you would have done during the civil rights movement, you're in it now. It's happening.

DESOTO: Dustin DeSoto, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.