The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


BackStory Op-Ed – Youth Activism

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BackStory, its hosts or its staff.

An image of Anjali Biswas, BackStory student intern.

Anjali Biswas, BackStory student intern.

On February 14th, 2018, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida witnessed the horrific murder of their classmates by a shooter in their school. Since then, many of them have become leaders of a youth movement urging for more gun control, something we desperately need.

Though many of the student activists’ policy proposals aren’t far-reaching enough for my tastes, and overlook certain issues surrounding race and ability, they are working together to demand better from their government. In doing so, these young people are joining a groundswell of youth involvement in political activism.

Youth-led movements calling for change have a long history in the United States. As an aspiring historian, I am excited to witness a movement that continues this history of youth activism in this country – an important story to tell.

The history of activism is often watered down and the narrative is constructed to be the most respectable and least threatening to current powers at work. This means the people whose voices are often left out of the narrative can be a crucial form of resistance and thus always important historical work.

One of the best examples of children organizing for their rights is the Birmingham Children’s Crusade – a well-known example of youth as the center of protest. The African American Children involved in this movement grew up within segregated schools in horrible condition. They watched their parents and elders struggle with the ingrained racism in American society, and learned from their community leaders how crucial it was to organize.

By 1963, the children of Birmingham were ready to take action to combat segregation in their schools, and discrimination in employment and public life. They used the tactics of non-violent protest, marching throughout the city on May 2nd and the days that followed. Footage and photographs of the children being sprayed with fire hoses, beaten with batons, and threatened with police dogs, was circulated in the media. Unable to ignore mounting international pressure, Birmingham officials agreed to desegregate businesses and free all those who had been jailed during the protests.

The youth-led movement in Birmingham and others like it were crucial to the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Black Lives Matter is a movement full of youth activists. Tired of state sanctioned violence, many youth are taking to the streets to raise their concerns, like those recently protesting the March 18 killing of 22-year-old father, Stephon Clark. One of the most visible leaders is Clark’s own brother, 25-year-old Stevante, whose disruption of a Sacramento City Council meeting after his brother’s death exposed the world to his personal pain, a pain he uses to drive his protests. Young people use many activist tools, as well as their personal stories, to call for change.

Recently, my younger sister was nervous about participating in the national walk-out at her California school. Like many events since the shooting, this one was designed to align with and add to calls for tighter gun control from across the nation. Thinking about how school administrators would react made my sister tense. Her high school offered alternative options to the students, such as allowing them to walk out at lunch. My sister and many of her peers found these suggestions dismissive and believed they were being discouraged from protesting by adults.

My message to my sister and all students is this: protest is in fact incredibly American. The American Revolution was a protest. Many of the people involved in the Revolution were quite young as well. Alexander Hamilton was just 18 when he joined the war and James Monroe signed the Declaration of Independence at the very same age. The very existence of the U.S. as we know it was founded on activism. That activism has continued and has never been without young people.

>>Read more about teenagers in the American Revolution

I just turned 19 and have found fantastic opportunities to be involved in organizing lately. I am also quite aware that some adult Americans are not so appreciative of youth protest. They think “kids” should stay out of politics. They really mean they want us to keep quiet.

What some adults don’t understand is that being a member of society means all aspects of our lives are political, even for youth. Many young Americans intensely feel the threat of gun violence due to our current politics. People of color, people who are undocumented and many school-age children have already been touched by gun violence and many more live with a near constant fear of it.

I see people my age and younger working everyday for human rights, not only in our country but transnationally as well. Whether it is the need for immigrants to access fair living and working conditions, for an anti-racist state or to simply feel safe in our learning spaces, I feel we are ready for change and are demanding it.The personal has always been political and my generation is harshly realizing that fact now. And we have decided enough is enough.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series of opinion pieces written by BackStory’s student interns. 

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