Covenant House youth learn about civil rights, voting rights struggle

WASHINGTON — A U.S. senator told about 40 formerly homeless youth who traveled to Washington with Covenant House that their trip to register to vote for the first time was not just a chance for them “to learn and grow” but also “to let your presence be known.”

Formerly homeless youths who live in Covenant House facilities around the U.S. pose for a photo at the Library of Congress in Washington June 16. (CNS photo | courtesy Covenant House)

Formerly homeless youths who live in Covenant House facilities around the U.S. pose for a photo at the Library of Congress in Washington June 16. (CNS photo | courtesy Covenant House)

“Let people who represent you, and hopefully others, really feel your spirit,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.

He addressed the group June 16 at the end of a daylong event that included a showing of the movie “Selma” and addresses from other members of Congress recalling the nation’s civil rights struggle and encouraging the young people to get an education and be prepared for what God puts in their path.

The youth were from Covenant House programs in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Atlantic City and Newark, New Jersey.

Founded under Catholic auspices in 1972, the agency served over 56,000 youth last year alone.

“Covenant House works in six countries and 27 cities, to help young people who have been homeless or trafficked leave the streets and cross the bridge to opportunity. We provide financial care, health care, job training and schools for young people,” said Kevin Ryan, the current president and CEO of Covenant House.

The all-day event kicked off with a special morning screening of the movie “Selma” at the Georgetown University Law Center. “Selma” chronicles the three months in 1965 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a campaign to fight for equal voting rights. Marchers walked from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, which eventually resulted in President Lyndon Johnson signing into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A year earlier Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

A formerly homeless youth who referred to herself only as Dajanee said “Selma” was about “when the blacks and whites came together. That’s the major priority of the movie. They came together as one and they kept fighting and fighting for the vote to stop segregation. So that’s what I liked. The teamwork.”

That afternoon the youth met in the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, where they heard from Rep. Bonnie Coleman, D-New Jersey.

She told them that they “are all very special to God” and they have to be prepared for whatever God puts in their path.

“Being in Congress was never on my bucket list. You never know where God is going to put you,” she said.

Coleman also encouraged the 40 formerly homeless youth to “get that education and recognize it as a blessing.”

“Selma” touched her, she said, because she lived through that era. Next she introduced Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, saying, “He is my hero.”

The room erupted in applause and Lewis got a standing ovation as he approached the podium. Lewis, who marched with Rev. King in Selma, is considered an icon of the civil rights movement.

“You must never, ever give in. You must never, ever give up. You must keep the faith,” he urged the young people.

He spoke extensively about his experiences as a Freedom Rider. The Freedom Rides began on May 4, 1961, when 13 African-American and white activists launched a series of bus trips through the South to protest segregation at interstate bus terminals.

Regarding racial tension and the issue of segregation, he told the youth that “our forefathers all came to this land in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.”

Quincey Tyler, one of the formerly homeless youth, described Lewis as “very powerful and inspiring” to him. Dajanee added about the congressman: “He inspires me so much, and to see him still standing here today makes me know that I can do a lot. I can make big power moves, and I am going to do it.”

Booker as the day’s final speaker said Lewis was his childhood hero, then he went on to discuss civil rights and racial injustice.

“This is a really interesting moment in American history where there is so much glory, so much strength, so much accomplishment behind us, but yet we are still at this crossroad where there is so much work left do,” he said.

“We are not a nation with liberty and justice for all. Those are aspirational elements,” he said, because the nation first must address the amount of poverty and the incarceration rate.

“We have a country right now that is so biased against the poor and the vulnerable that it calls the conscience of our country to our current convictions to do something about it,” he said. “America is only 4 to 5 percent of the population of the people on earth, yet we represent 25 percent of all the imprisoned people on the planet. … We know the disproportionate number of people that have been grabbed into this system are often the most vulnerable.”

Originally, the youth were to walk to the Martin Luther King Memorial where they would register to vote, but Booker’s late arrival to speak prevented that, so they registered at the Library of Congress.

Before they voted they all stood in a circle and each used one word to describe what that day meant to them — among them “enlightening,” “community” and “advocacy.”

After registering to vote, all went upstairs to tour the library exhibit “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.”