Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a crowd at Montreat’s Anderson Auditorium and spoke on racial tension. He was late to the conference because of rioting in Watts, Los Angeles. While a half century has passed, the message remained the same this past weekend as nearly a thousand people gathered at the Montreat Conference Center to commemorate the speech during a three-day conference.

Charles Blow, New York Times columnist, television commentator and best-selling author, spoke of how the recent shootings and subsequent protests have engaged the nation in a new discussion about race, justice and civil rights.

“Whatever you may think about the cases, the discussion that has followed has opened the doors for us to venture into spaces that many of us would often rather avoid,” he said. “In this moment, it’s crucially important for veterans of previous civil rights movements to bequeath to the new generation of activists the gifts of your wisdom and the lessons of your struggle.”

Speaking to the “above 45 crowd,” Blow said we must recognize that this is the new generation’s moment and their tactics and tenor will be different than the older generation’s.

“Many of these young people were not around during the civil rights movement so this is their movement,” said Blow, who was born in 1970. “What I learned of civil rights, I read in books or saw on TV. It was more academic for me that experiential.”

Blow said there is a nagging frustration that things have not progressed as fast as many had hoped. For young people in their teens or early twenties, he said their first real memory of movement was the election of the first African American president.

“This is a moment of civil awakening and moral maturity for a generation and they are stepping boldly into their moment,” he added. “They need our help, but we have to meet them on their needs and speak their language.”

Blow said that while King’s message was rooted in religious conviction, the new movement does not have religion as its primary anchor, but is garnered in moral equality.

“They’ve grown up in sex and political scandals, lived the moral disaster of Guantanamo Bay, watched as the government allowed hundreds to die in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” Blow said. “They have grown up in communities sucked dry of fathers, brothers and sons in mass incarceration.”

Blow urged seasoned activists to help the younger generation direct their energy and anger to achieve the most effective and peaceful outcome, adding that no one with sound judgment desires violence or would advocate for it. 

Unlike the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Blow said this generation’s concerns are more than those of the African-American community. He said they also include the rights of women, same-sex marriage and immigration.

He advised younger activists to understand their sphere of influence and operate within that sphere, adding that this is where they can be the most powerful and intimate. He said everyone needs to hold elected officials accountable, something he thinks has not happened.

“We can constrain campaign finance, but we don’t elect people who are willing to do that,” Blow said. “These elected individuals are representing us, but we don’t know who our representatives are. We have created this position where power is able to corrupt our system and we are not holding people accountable for it.”