The Importance of Youth Activism
An incredible part of the African American Civil Rights journey is the important role that young activists have to play - activists that are younger than the age of 18.
young people were drawn into the Movement, participating in meetings and marches while risking imprisonment, and in some cases, death. Some were active participants who made the choice to stand up for freedom, while others were unsuspecting victims
bias and racism, like Emmett Till (lynched at the age
14) or the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing
16th Street Baptist Church (Denise McNair, 11; Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14). In the past and present, the involvement
youth, willing and unwilling, has made tremendous strides in stirring this nation to
. They are powerful drivers
change within their communities.
Some notable examples of young activists that answered the call are Claudette Colvin, who was arrested at the age of
15 for not giving up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, nine months before Rosa Parks. Countless children were at the forefront
the battle for school desegregation, beginning with students as young as Ruby Bridges who, at age six, integrated William Frantz Elementary School in 1960, or Melba Pattillo and the Little Rock Nine. Pattillo was 14 years old when she chose to integrate Central High School. She had acid thrown in her face when one segregationist attempted to blind her. The Greensboro Four, David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil, were all young Black students who launched the Woolworth Sit-Ins in 1960, a catalyst to the sit-in movement and the formation
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
One of the most important moments of youth activism in the Civil Rights Movement is the Children's Crusade of Birmingham. Thousands of children participated in the marches and arrests for the cause of integration and equality, facing high-pressure water hoses, attack dogs, and police with clubs. Freeman Hrabowski was only 12 years old when he marched for
better education. While he was in jail, Dr. King came to visit him and the other children marchers. Hrabowski recalls him saying, "What you do this day will impact children who have not been born."
C. Virginia Fields was marching at 17 in 1953. She later reflected on her experience, "We were teenagers, and we had already seen so much. We knew this had to change. My church was bombed. My pastor's home was bombed. We wanted a better life. This started me on a path and believing that using my voice, I can make a difference."
Image Credit: Bill Hudson/AP
The actions of the Children's Crusade was a significant victory for the Civil Rights Movement, turning the tide of public opinion and leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was also a crucial campaign for Dr. King - he had never led a massive campaign of
civil disobedience like this before, and there were not enough adults prepared to be arrested.
On March 24, 2018, March for Our Lives brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to Washington, DC. This march, and hundreds of simultaneous protests around the world were organized by student activists to signal the call for Gun Reform. Emma González, 18, is a student of Stoneman Douglas High School in Miami, Florida, where one of the deadliest school massacres took place. At the rally, she stood on the main stage in silence for nearly four minutes, which was the time it took for Nikloas Cruz to carry out his attack, killing 17 people. "Never Again!", she led the crowd in chanting, before adding, "Fight for your lives before it's someone else's job!"
Acts of terrorism, oppression, and injustice do not discriminate based on age, so why should the education and participation in civil rights history be withheld based on age? Other international youth leaders for change are activists like Rowena He, who was a teenage activist in China in 1989. Millions of Chinese youth gathered to support democratic reforms and economic liberalization, taking to the streets on bikes with songs and speeches. The massacre of Tiananmen Square, where soldiers opened fire on student activists, has made this movement famous. He still fights to bring justice to these victims, since it has never been officially recognized by the government.
Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist who advocates for female education, began her activism at 12 years old when the Taliban banned girls from attending school in her village. When she was 15, she survived an assassination attempt and, when she was 17, she became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. Yousafzai founded the Malala Fund which advocates for every girl to learn and lead without fear.
Arab Spring of 2010 could not have happened without the youth's use of social media to organize an unprecedented revolution across the Middle East, protesting police corruption, oppression, poverty, and human rights violations. Another group focused on organizing youth, the International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC), grew from young activists that participated in the Standing Rock protests. The IIYC works to empower young leaders on behalf of the environment.
Darius Weems, a teenager with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, took a cross-country trip to Los Angeles from Athens, GA, to raise awareness of disability rights and the need for wheelchair accessibility across America.
Young Activists are an important part of bringing positive change to our nation, and the world. Let's listen, encourage, and fight alongside these bold and courageous individuals.
- Denise Stewart, "Children's March 1963: A Defiant Moment," The Root, 01 May 2013, https://www.theroot.com/childrens-march-1963-a-defiant-moment-1790896253.
- Stewart, "Children's March 1963: A Defiant Moment."
- Lottie L. Joiner, "How Children of Birmingham Changed the Civil Rights Movement," Daily Beast, 02 May 2013, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-children-of-birmingham-changed-the-civil-rights-movement.
- Erin Blakemore, "Youth in Revolt: Five Powerful Movements Fueled by Young Activists," National Geographic, 23 March 2018,https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/youth-activism-young-protesters-historic-movements/.
- Kay Steiger, "10 of America's Most Daring Young Black Activists", The Nation, 03 March 2011, https://www.thenation.com/article/10-americas-most-daring-young-black-activists/.
Get the Info and the Access
Children Creating Change:
Small but Mighty Upstanders
(For Elementary Students)
There are many children who have taken a stand for what is right and fair. Children have fought injustice throughout history and many children stand up for justice (or what is right and fair) even today. One group of children who saw inequality and took action to change it were the Birmingham Children's Marchers.
Go to your local
library and check out The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson or
for an interactive read aloud from MaiStoryBook. This book is about a courageous girl who marched in the Children's Crusades in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
In 2018, young people are still standing up for justice. One young girl, Malala Yousafzai, speaks out for all children's right to education. At the age of 16, Malala spoke to a gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. She asked "every nation to make it possible for every child to go to school for free. Every child. Every country. Free School." Malala stood up in front of hundreds of people and said "Our words can change the world." And she is right! Even after she was shot by someone who didn't believe in freedom for all people, she still
stands up and inspires others stand up, too.
Read more about this brave young activist in her autobiographical children's book, Malala's Magic Pencil.
is a video of Malala talking about why she wrote this book and
is a read aloud of the book.
Middle and High School Students)
of Malala Yousafzai speaking to the United NationsYouth Assembly on July 12, 2013. She spoke about equal opportunities for all children to receive a free education. Read I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition).
At your local or school library check out Cynthia Levinson's We've Got aJob: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March or watch
The Children's March
For more information on the Children's March, or a timeline of the events surrounding the Children's March, visit
As we think about children as activists, we should also think about young people who recently led the
March for Our Lives
against guns and gun violence in
schools and communities.
Key Questions to consider and discuss:
- What were some of the key events that led up to the Birmingham Children's Marches?
- Why did the children of Birmingham stand up for change in 1963?Why couldn't their parents stand up for change?
- What were the results of the Children's March? Were the Children's Marchers victorious? If so, how?
- How are the actions of the Children's Marchers and Malala Yousafzai connected?
- What are the similarities between the 1963 Birmingham Children's March and the 2018 March for Our Lives?
- What are some ways that YOU can take action and make the world a better place?
Are currently working towards education equality through an organization with youth? What ways are you individually campaigning for education equity? Tell us how you are making a difference. Share your story.