As a result of their determination, not only did Birmingham rescind its ordinances two months later but also nearly fifteen thousand demonstrators, most of them teenagers, participated in more than 750 protests in 186 cities. Adults helped with logistics but children were at the front.
Though not leaders, young people also participated in marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, as described by Lynda Blackmon Lowery in her memoir, Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March
(co-written by Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley, Dial Books) as well as in Marching For Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary
by Elizabeth Partridge (Penguin Random House). Though the particular protest is not named, little children are also seen marching in the book A Sweet Smell of Roses
by Angela Johnson (Simon & Schuster).
The Vietnam War, too, galvanized young people. In 1965, the four Tinker children, ages eight to fifteen, decided to wear black armbands to school to show their opposition. Ordered by their principals to remove them, the kids refused, and the older children were suspended. They carried their case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1968 that this form of protest is symbolic speech allowed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Over the next several years, young people in both high schools and colleges continued vociferously to oppose the war by marching, refusing to be drafted into the military, fleeing the country, and demanding that President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had escalated the fighting, leave the White House. He did so at the end of his elected term in office. Elizabeth Partridge has written about these events in Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam
(Penguin Random House).
More recently, teens have organized and carried out a variety of strategies on multiple fronts.
- In 2012, undocumented people who came to America as children either illegally or with papers that later expired, held sit-ins in legislators’ offices to urge President Obama to stop deportation of these DREAMers. Doing so, they risked arrest and the very consequence that they feared—removal to a “home” country they barely knew. Their efforts helped pressure the administration to grant them a reprieve.
- Following the murder of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed, by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, anguished students led protests that helped jump-start the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
- Two years later, several Lakota Sioux teens founded the One Mind Youth Movement to counter the Dakota XL Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota.
This brief history of youth activism in America from the mid-twentieth to the early twenty-first centuries by no means diminishes the accomplishments of those who are confronting gun laws today. On March 14, they rallied thousands of their peers across the country to carry banners, walk out of elementary, middle, and high schools, and kneel and pray, and visit their legislators, even though many faced suspension and detention. Several activists started a movement called Parents Promise to Kids
(#PPTK), in which grown-ups pledge to “vote for legislative leaders who support your
children’s safety over guns!” One student put the issue succinctly: “Your right to carry a gun is not greater than my right to live.” Worried parents and teachers debated the minimum age at which
children should get involved. Perhaps Audrey could show them that even third-graders can do their part.
The March for Our Lives
on March 24 might spur even more to participate, as might the National School Walkout
planned for April 20. Furthermore, it won’t be long before these teens are old enough to vote.
As in the past, their actions are peaceful yet confrontational. Many of us wish that people who are not yet old enough to vote didn’t have to devote themselves to changing society in these ways. But, when the grown-ups won’t do it, youths will. We applaud and support and are grateful to them. (If you have questions or concerns about school-aged children participating in upcoming demonstrations, information is available at Youth In Front.
Cynthia Levinson holds degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and also attended the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed author. She has also published articles in
Calliope, Cobblestone, Dig, Faces, and
Odyssey. Visit her website at cynthialevinson.com