Right now, amid demonstrations by high school students who are speaking out about gun violence, it’s worth remembering that students, teens and younger have been part of the anatomy of social justice movements since the end of World War II, most notably the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The efforts of the kids who are organizing against gun violence in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have their roots in this long history of youth activism. These high school students are the latest Americans, not yet old enough to vote, to hold aloft this proud banner of tradition. A planned march on Washington against gun violence, school walkouts and social media campaign by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students personally affected by the tragedy exemplify the highest standard of civic participation, political action and citizenship.
Oprah Winfrey is perhaps the most well-known figure to recognize the connections between civil rights-era activism and the youthful anti-gun violence protesters, pledging $500,000 in support of the planned march on Washington. In matching a donation in that same amount made by George and Amal Clooney, Winfrey tweeted her observation that the students’ efforts echo the heroic protests of Freedom Riders and the generation who called America to a higher national purpose.
Adults who are applauding the courage and poise these students are showing on the national stage are recognizing at last and in a new way what this kind of activism has always been about: patriotism. The March for Our Lives, a mélange of proposed school walkouts, statehouse demonstrations and more, has spread across social media like wildfire, coalescing into an incipient national movement to end not only gun violence but also its cascading effect on poor communities, schools and civil society across the nation.
While the role of college-age students during Freedom Summer and voter registration efforts in the 1960s has been rightfully acknowledged as crucial, less well-known is the impact of students in high school and even younger who organized boycotts, lobbied elected officials, conducted sit-ins and risked arrest, police brutality and jail in service of social change.
The February 1, 1960, lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, famously inspired waves of similar demonstrations around the country that were notable for the age of many of the participants. Teenagers, all of whom lived under a society whose minimum voting age in most states was 21 (before ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which requires a voting age no higher than 18), put their bodies on the line to help end Jim Crow segregation in America. Teenagers and elementary school-age students filled the ranks of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s racial justice crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, during the spring of 1963. More than 1,000 young people were jailed that year in demonstrations that came to be known as the “Children’s Crusade,” a moniker that reflected both the age and political resolve of the movement’s young participants.
As they filled Birmingham’s city jail, King wrote an impassioned letter that proved to be a call for political action and a prophesy. He identified the young people risking violence to promote citizenship and American democracy as the most dedicated of patriots, courageous enough to speak truth to power in the face of powerful odds. “One day the South will recognize its real heroes,” he wrote, including in his list of those heroes the “young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel” whose protests were “in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream.”
The next year, on February 3, 1964, under the leadership of the distinguished civil rights activist Milton Galamison, almost half a million New York public school students organized and boycotted against segregated schools, a show of force powerful enough to impress Malcolm X, who visited the protest headquarters and expressed admiration for the courage of the youthful dissidents.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, high school students across America staged “blowouts” (their term for walkouts) to protest unequal conditions in their high schools. Teens not yet in college organized demonstrations opposing racial discrimination, calling for black and Chicano history to be taught in their schools, resisting the draft and demanding an end to the Vietnam War (a conflict they had seen take the lives of their older brothers).
Two days after King’s assassination in Memphis, a 17-year-old Black Panther named Bobby Hutton became the first casualty in an oftentimes violent war of attrition against the criminal justice system. Hutton was killed by Oakland police after he had already surrendered to them. (They claimed he was running away.) Hundreds of teenagers joined the group, and thousands more identified with their efforts to transform the world by cleaning up communities scarred by violence, racism and poverty. These neighborhood rebels became urban legends in their own time, spawning insurgent social, political and cultural revolutions that continue to this day.
The long reach of youth movements continued into the 1980s and 1990s as American teenagers formed a core part of international struggles against racial apartheid in South Africa, promoted a resurgence of pride and interest in Africa through hip-hop culture, and became key participants in the Million Man March and its subsequent spinoff demonstrations in the United States.
Most recently, teenagers have taken the lead on two of the most pressing issues of the 21st century: mass Incarceration and immigration. Black Lives Matter demonstrators have galvanized some of the nation’s youngest activists to embrace the spirit of social justice rooted in the civil rights era. Youthful DREAMers have placed immigration at the forefront of a new civil rights movement, at times risking their own personal residency status to speak larger political and moral truths about what it means to be an American citizen in a nation whose diversity remains a source of both enormous strength and roiling contention.
These students reaffirm our faith in democracy, redefine the measure of patriotism as service to the nation and have inspired citizens around the world to find new hope for a better future.