Last Friday, the movie “Selma” was released in theaters. The dramatization of the famous march for civil rights in 1965 is already garnering heavy praise and criticism from historians and activists alike. Brushing aside the debate over historical accuracy for a moment, there are invaluable lessons to be learned from the film. It’s imperative that the youth, especially college students, see the power of political activism for themselves. In an age of “hashtag activism” and general malaise towards politics as an institution, “Selma” is timely a film as any.
The story on Page A2 of this week’s Missourian examines the feelings of our fellow college students toward political engagement in the midst of current events in the Missouri legislature. Ryan Reed, political science professor at Northwest astutely described how the influence of money in Missouri politics affects our view of government in a personal opinion piece.
Both give some sort of reason for the general feeling of indifference toward politics on the part of our fellow Bearcats. They feel powerless compared to the financial interest that continues to inundate itself in politics at all levels. To be fair, this frustration with government is warranted and shared by youth across America.
A 2014 Harvard poll found “historically low” levels of trust in government on the part of people age, 18-29, across the country. The poll’s “composite trust index,” which compiled the youth’s trust in six government institutions, has dropped at least 8 percentage points over 4 years. The latest midterm elections garnered only 14 percent of youth voters. British newspaper The Guardian poignantly wrote that the midterm election “raised profound questions for how political parties interact with the country’s next generation.”
This sentiment is prevalent among college students of all walks of life: “How can my one vote make a difference,” “protests are pointless,” and “politics are completely corrupt so I choose to ignore them,” are gripes commonly heard throughout campus and at parties on the weekend.
Unfortunately, these attitudes preserve the status quo. Theodore Roosevelt once commented that “a vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” If college students want things to change they must engage themselves in the political conversation. The more informed you are, the better able you are to affect change. Democracy fails if its citizens succumb to passive indifference.
The detached attitude also ignores countless cases of successful youth activism in recent years. The Arab spring protests that began in 2009, organized largely through social media, is still having effects on political and societal changes in the Middle East and North Africa. The 2012 Occupy protests, while unsuccessful in shaking up Wall Street, sprung up numerous successful protests at universities across the country.
Even the much maligned “hashtag activism” has, at times, achieved goals of creating change. The Trayvon Martin case didn’t get widespread media attention until #trayvonmartin was trending on Twitter and a Change.org petition garnered 2.2 million signatures. While the media firestorm often got out of hand, the Florida legislature likely would not be debating its “Stand Your Ground” law without it.
We all may be tired of that annoying Facebook friend constantly posting his or her political screeds. We may scoff or laugh at that online petition your friend signed to end homelessness. However, it’s important that we don’t dismiss activism as a whole. Engaged, informed and passionate political advocacy has, and will, continue to make changes in our government and other institutions.
Admittedly, today’s youth activism looks quite different from the one portrayed in “Selma.” There is no tenacious, resilient leader like King. The organization structure may have changed, but the goals remain the same. We must continue to be politically engaged if we want our voice to be heard in a crowd dominated by corporations.