The civil rights struggles of the 1940s, 50s and 60s were largely led by youth and college students, many who were members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee or the NAACP Student Council. Now in their 70s, 80’s and even 90s, some view their civil rights mission as a life’s work with no retirement in the plan.
“I still have an interest in my people and that keeps me anointed and ready to fight. And if you don’t fight for what you want, you won’t ever get it,” says the Rev. Willie Barrow, a fiery 89-year-old nicknamed the “little warrior”.
A field organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and co-founder of Operation Breadbasket, now the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Barrow received the 2014 Champion of Freedom Award from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Jan. 17 in recognition of her civil rights record that extends back to the 1940s when she led student demonstrations against segregated schools. Receiving the award, she concluded, “At the age of 89 years, I’m still working. The good Lord is not through with me yet.”
Ernest G. Green is only 72, but is expressing the same sentiment these days. Escorted by federal troops on Sept. 25, 1957, Green was the oldest of the famous “Little Rock Nine,” the first Black students to integrate the Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas after the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling in 1954.
He frequently speaks at colleges, universities and high schools, talking about his Little Rock experience with a goal of inspiring young people to take on issues that affect them.
“There’s a connection because, given that we were teenagers, that resonates with many young people because we were similar in age and it gives them an opportunity to understand that they have a chance and opportunity to make changes,” he says. “Maybe not do the same thing that we did in Little Rock, but my opinion is that we all have our Little Rock moments.”
The lifestyles of these seniors may become increasingly commonplace as studies show a growing population of people over 65. The National Institute of Health recently reported that “life expectancy nearly doubled during the 20th century with a ten-fold increase in the number of Americans age 65 or older.” The NIH further reports that the approximately 35 million Americans age 65 or older now living in America are projected to double over the next 25 years and living to be 100 is no longer that unusual.
“I plan to keep pressing as long as I’m here,” says Doris Crenshaw, a 70-year-old Montgomery, Ala. community leader. When Rosa Parks, the “mother of the civil rights movement”, was arrested, Crenshaw was the 12-year-old vice president of the NAACP Student Council, who was encouraged by Parks.
She now enjoys mentoring young leaders as founder and CEO of the Southern Youth Leadership Development Institute. Crenshaw resolves, “I’m in relatively good health now and my energy is still good and we have a lot of work to still do.”