TAMPA — Tampa native and African Methodist Episcopal bishop A.J. Richardson Jr. devoted his speech Monday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Breakfast to "Generation Next," imploring it to understand the sacrifices of the civil rights movement and overcome the hopelessness of its current challenges.
I just wish more of the young men and women of that generation had found their way to the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs event. Yes, the Men of Vision and the Kappa League of Tampa Bay brought members who escorted guests. Yes, other teens and children held seats among the crowd of nearly 1,000.
Even a few college students arrived on time for the breakfast, annually hosted at 6:45 a.m. as a reminder that when it started 37 years ago, leaders were still fighting to make the third Monday in January a holiday, and attendees needed an early start because they had to go to work.
But so many more young people needed to hear Richardson's message. The Tampa native artfully crafted his address, connecting stories from his childhood with biblical references, lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth and lyrics from the Broadway musical Annie.
Richardson, 68, also displayed an understanding of what Generation Next endures, noting, he said, that many have already become "cynical and disillusioned about their place in the world."
He correctly identified a loss of hope, spurred by "the number of funerals and vigils they have attended," Richardson said. Joined by a host of whites, they choose to affirm and reaffirm their own humanity by saying, "Black Lives Matter."
"That's not to suggest other lives don't matter, but for them and their friends, getting to be 31 comes as a surprise," Richardson said.
At the same time, Richardson spoke of the sacrifices made by the "Moses Generation," civil rights leaders who fought and in some cases died to ensure voting rights and other pillars of equality. He lamented that too many members of Generation Next don't know of those sacrifices, and that the apathy of today's young people is as great a threat to voting rights as attempts at suppression.
Richardson's message, a call to action to our youth, is not an unfamiliar refrain at this or other events designed to remember King. But too often, the audience receiving the address comes from older generations who still herald the achievements of the civil rights movement.
Two USF seniors, Rhondel Whyte and Daniel-John Sewell, proved the exception. Whyte aspires to be an electrical engineer, and Sewell, a lawyer. After the breakfast, they networked with professionals who may be able to help them climb the ladder of success.
People readily gave them advice, excited to see these future leaders. Whyte said his goal is to some day buy his own table at the breakfast.
This event needs more such up-and-comers. Every business and organization should aim to fill at least two seats at their respective tables next year with a high school or college student we can advise, cajole and love on.
While it's always important to hear from community leaders and our elected officials, perhaps TOBA could tailor its presentation for a younger audience and add a voice from Generation Next to the 2017 program.
We know what we want to tell them, but do we know what they want to tell us?
As Richardson said, more than once, "Tomorrow is more important than yesterday."
That's all I'm saying.