By Willa J. Taylor
Students and young people have always been an active part of social justice movements both in the United States and around the world. Youth have worked to effect political, economic and social change. Their influence can be seen in environmental justice and immigration reform movements, and with causes that are both local and global.
From its very start, young people were integral to the civil rights movement. The horrific kidnapping and murder of 14-year old Chicagoan Emmett Till in 1955 in Money, Mississippi, is often recognized as one of the main catalysts that motivated thousands of people across the country to fight to end the segregationist policies of that era.
Black teenagers helped end segregated schooling in Arkansas in 1957. The Little Rock Nine – Daisy Bates, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls – began the school year by showing up for classes at all-white Central High School. Every day they endured beatings, racial taunts and death threats. Melba Patillo was stabbed and had acid thrown in her face. Their parents were pressured to withdraw them from the school; four lost their jobs. But their courage and tenacity led help break the separate-but-equal education system that had been outlawed in 1954.
Students introduced the non-violent tactic of sit-ins at lunch counters in 1960. Four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College –one of the historically black colleges and universities in the country began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter n Greensboro, North Carolina. Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair, Jr. were refused service but stayed at the counter, disrupting business and garnering media attention. Within weeks, students staged sit-ins at Woolworth’s and S. H. Kress’ stores in 11 other cities across the South. As word of the sit-ins spread, students in northern cities began picketing Kress and Woolworth stores in their communities. Six months later, McNeil, McCain, Richmond, and Blair, the original four protesters, were served lunch at the Greensboro Woolworth’s counter. Using the non-violent direct action sit-in as a tactic, students effectively integrated parks, swimming pools, theaters, libraries, and other public facilities throughout the Deep South.
One of the most active organizations of the civil rights movement was founded by students at Shaw University in 1960. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, grew out of a series of youth-led meetings with activist and Shaw University alumni Ella Baker, who was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SNCC played major roles in the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides across the South. Its first chairman, John Lewis, is now a US Congressman.
During the spring and summer of 1961, student volunteers began taking bus trips through the South to test out new laws that prohibit segregation in interstate travel facilities, including bus and railway stations. The program, sponsored by The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC, involved more than 1,000 volunteers, Black and white. Freedom riders, as they were called, were attacked by angry mobs along the way.
On Oct. 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Violence and riots surrounding the incident caused President John F. Kennedy to send 5,000 federal troops.
In the fall of 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Killed were four students – Addie Mae Collins, 15, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, both 14, and Denise NcNair, 11. Their deaths – and the vicious attack on the church – marked a turning point in the movement and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There have been many achievements since the height of the civil rights struggles of the 60’s. But many of the challenges faced by young people then still persist. Student activism against a crumbling educational system, the influence of the military and business in education are fueling an activist resurgence. Young people are organizing in their schools and communities to fight against injustices. Global civil rights issues, driven by religious intolerance, homophobia, terrorism and immigration are adding disparate voices to the calls for justice. Major contemporary campaigns include raising national and local awareness of the humanitarian consequences in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is also increasing activism around the issue of global warming and against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Youth are raising their voices and merging the tactics of former generations with new social media, reaching around the globe and having local impact.
There are new tools and new issues but the struggle for justice continues and students are still leading the charge.