Rebecca de Schweinitz: Youth Activism, Yesterday and Today

Today we welcome a guest post from Rebecca de Schweinitz, author of If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality. Hers is the first book to connect young people and shifting ideas about children and youth with the black freedom struggle, and in it she explains how popular ideas about youth and young people themselves–both black and white–influenced the long history of the movement.

As we witness the mobilization today of young people protesting gun laws in the wake of the Florida school shooting, she looks back at the long history of youth activism in America.


Youth Activism, Yesterday and Today

While young people had long been involved in the struggle for black freedom, in the 1950s and 1960s, children and youth—who were too young to vote—played decisive roles in the civil rights movement. Young people in those decades were especially inspired by the democratic ideology of America and by conceptions of young people as agents of change. An article in the National Parent-Teacher captured both the scientific and popular thinking about young people when it suggested that adults “stand aside and let young persons develop a social conscience not blacked by all our prejudices. . . . Give the kids a chance and they will come up with something better than we can think of ourselves.” Sixteen-year-old SNCC activist Lynn Wells captured this thinking when she explained: “The youth of this country is a vital part of any social movement because . . . they have not yet committed themselves to the rigid rules of conformity and complacency of the ‘establishment’ or society.” We see this today as well. While adults and politicians are bogged down in the tired old debates and rhetoric, young people want to cut through that. They aren’t embedded in the same political divides. They can look at the issue without the same baggage. They can take a new approach to thinking about gun regulation and the place of guns in modern American society.

We definitely see examples in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s of young people taking to heart the idea that they might be better situated to imagine and to bring about new ways of ordering the world. They looked at societal constraints and saw that adults weren’t finding success as they tried to address problems through the usual paths, or by being patient. One of my favorite examples is of 16-year-old high school student Barbara Johns. She and her friends watched as adults in their community repeatedly tried to work with the local school board and city officials to improve the abysmal conditions of black schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Grown-ups weren’t getting anywhere, so the young people decided to act. They organized a school strike and contacted the NAACP. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court, as one of five cases involved in the Brown ruling. Parents were reluctant to support them but Barbara Johns insisted: “Our parents ask us to follow them, but in some instances . . . a little child shall lead them.” 

Today, there are so many ways to communicate and to coordinate. Young people can see what others are doing in real-time. They don’t have to wait for news broadcasts or depend on what local and national news media determines is worth covering. In the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement, young activists “gleaned ideas” and courage from their peers around the nation.​ That can happen a lot more easily now.

In civil rights history, I think it’s significant that the 1954 Brown ruling put America’s school children at the center of the nation’s struggle for racial equality. In effect, it made young people responsible for changing the country’s racist practices. And in the aftermath of Brown, young blacks throughout the South, often despite the considerable misgivings of their parents and the intransigence of whites, readily accepted that responsibility. I think we see something similar happening today. America’s school children are too often the unwitting victims of mass shootings in this country. The inaction of Congress and American adults has forced them to the front lines, in this all-too-real battle. This is their fight. And in this case, they are fighting for their lives. 

In the Birmingham Crusade, during the spring of 1963, civil rights organizers got a lot of flack for “using” children in demonstrations. But from the perspective of young people themselves, nobody was using them. This was their fight, too, and they flocked to the movement. Jim Crow, discrimination, and racial violence affected them, and they were determined to do something about it. Freeman Hrabowski explained that he and other high schoolers in Birmingham understood that “not only did we have the right to sit at lunch counters or enter buildings through the front door, but that we had the responsibility to claim those rights.” Others similarly insisted that “people always give us this line about being the leaders of tomorrow; that’s bunk, we’re the leaders of today.” Barbara Johns explained about the student strike: “We knew we had to do it for ourselves.” In the wake of yet another deadly school shooting, young people are coming to the same conclusions. 

As I looked at youth activism in the civil rights movement I realized it was significant that young people were generally not isolated in the ways they experienced segregation and racism. Young blacks, especially as they entered the labor force, certainly had isolated experiences with Jim Crow, and sometimes defied the rules of racism as individuals. African American youth, however, more commonly experienced the strictures of Jim Crow collectively—at schools or at recreational facilities. As youth, their everyday shared experiences with segregation helped them see the collective nature of those constraints and encouraged them to confront their problems collectively as well. I think we see this in the case of gun regulation. Young people participate in school shooting drills together. They face attackers armed with weapons of mass destruction, together. This is a shared nightmare. It makes sense that their shared oppression would produce collective action against that oppression.​

Youth activism today is a lot easier to do and to coordinate. In the 1950s and 1960s young people took advantage of the technologies available to them. In Birmingham, for instance, they worked with local radio DJs to the spread word about protests–using code words so those in the know could find out when things were happening. Television was also a fairly new technology that helped spread student activism. Young people were inspired watching their peers across the country engage in demonstrations. The Little Rock Nine became their heroes, their role models. Students in Orangeburg, for instance, were inspired by news accounts of their counterparts in nearly Rock Hill. And activists like Cleveland Sellers recalled watching sit-in demonstrations on the TV in the student union and feeling proud of the participant’s determination. “That’s where the activism got drilled inside, and it kinda welled up and began to burn,” he said.

Youth also took advantage of their networks through student clubs and sports teams. But mobilizing that way usually meant actually meeting in person first. Today, there are so many ways to communicate and to coordinate. Young people can see what others are doing in real-time. They don’t have to wait for news broadcasts or depend on what local and national news media determines is worth covering. In the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement, young activists “gleaned ideas” and courage from their peers around the nation.​ That can happen a lot more easily now.


Rebecca de Schweinitz is assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University.  She is quoted in a recent Time magazine article on today’s youth activism.