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Children and Activism

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This is a good reminder that the Stoneman Douglas survivors are acting in a well-established historical context of children leading activist movements or children playing critical roles under adult leadership in activist movements.

Two months ago, for example, federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima struck down a 2010 Arizona law that had effectively banned the teaching of Mexican-American studies in a Tucson school district. That historic legal decision was the result of an arduous and long-term campaign of walkouts, protests and teach-ins led by Mexican-American high school students and supporters who continued to confront a law that served “an invidious discriminatory racial purpose and a politically partisan purpose,” according to the federal ruling. The youth never gave up.

This multiyear resistance campaign by the Tucson students came 50 years after the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963, when young people faced down the police forces of Eugene “Bull” Connor in order to challenge segregation policies in parks, businesses and neighborhoods. The controversial role of kids in the protests served as a turning point in the civil rights movement.

Defying high-powered water hoses, police dogs and blows from police batons, hundreds of Birmingham kids were arrested, thrusting the brutality of the city’s segregationists into the national spotlight. Then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy warned Connor, among others, that “an injured, maimed, or dead child is a price that none of us can afford to pay.”

Within a week of the children’s arrests, local leaders had negotiated agreements for desegregation at lunch counters and other businesses. Later that year, they had negotiated for desegregation in schools. Similar walkouts led by students in East Los Angeles, California, in 1968 reframed a national discussion on the inequalities of education from those most affected by failed policies: the students.

Decades earlier, in 1903, children joined famed labor leader Mary “Mother” Jones as she marched from Philadelphia to New York to expose child labor conditions. Although it took years for states, and eventually the federal government, to pass child labor laws, the historic 125-mile march set off the ripple effect that first brought the issue to national attention.

We’ve arrived a similar hinge moment in history.

The Stoneman Douglas survivors aren’t immature overly emotional kids, as right-wing jerks would like to define them. They are putting themselves on the front lines, leading a moral movement for justice, much like children in the past. There are more examples as well. One that comes to mind is the Uprising of the 20,000, when garment workers, most of whom were under 20 and many of whom were around 14, led one of the nation’s most important strikes to demand justice for themselves. Moreover, they did so over the disapproval of senior union leaders, including Samuel Gompers. And if we extend the time frame of age just slightly later, to, say, 21, we pick up huge numbers of civil rights workers with SNCC and most of the anti-Vietnam War movement. The reality of American social movements is that old people are historically unlikely to play the leading role or supply the critical mass of participants. We should follow the kids.

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