Youth in the Civil Rights Movement

14 Feb Youth in the Civil Rights Movement

During this Black History Month, we are highlighting movements for the liberation of Black people in America. The Abolitionists Movement led to rescinding slavery, but it did not end discrimination or racial injustice. Most U.S. history textbooks teach a narrative that the Civil Rights Movement started with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and abruptly ended in 1965 with the passage of federal legislation. In truth, Black activists and leaders began to mobilize an unprecedented journey for equality as early as  1919 remembered as “Red Summer,” when race riots erupted across the country.

Key Events During the Civil Rights Movement 

Opposition to civil rights was led by elected officials, journalists, and community leaders who shared racist ideologies, shut down public schools and parks to prevent integration. and encouraged violence against civil rights activists. Through nonviolent protest, the Civil Rights Movement broke the pattern of segregation by “race” in the South. It achieved the most significant breakthrough in equal-rights legislation for African Americans since the Reconstruction period (1865–77). One of the most outstanding achievements, the Civil Rights Act, led to greater social and economic mobility for African-Americans across the nation and banned racial discrimination—providing greater access to resources for Blacks, women, religious minorities, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

Through this movement, the nation witnessed young people harness their collective power to organize for the first time. As they entered the ranks of the movement’s leadership, students and other youth became a vital force, energizing the civil rights movement. Areas of youth activism included school integration, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, voting rights marches. 

Youth In The Civil Rights Movement

The  Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School in 1957. The youth were physically threatened and attacked. President Eisenhower eventually sent the National Guard for their protection. In 1960, the Greensboro, NC sit-ins inspired hundreds of youth across the South to do the same. These sit-ins helped establish the  Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC dedicated itself to organizing and utilizing boycotts and other nonviolent direct action protests against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. 

Another form of political protest was the Freedom Rides. Blacks and Whites rode buses together through the American South in 1961 to combat segregation and test a 1960 Supreme Court decision that declared segregated facilities for interstate passengers illegal. When Mississippi officials jailed Freedom Riders at Parchman State Prison on breach-of-peace charges, they hoped that the harsh conditions would break the Riders’ spirits and squelch their movement. But the plan backfired. More than 400 volunteers in total traveled throughout the South on regularly scheduled buses for seven months during that year despite the threats of violence and assaults they endured.

Integrated groups of activists often supported each other while risking violent reactions from law enforcement. For example, state troopers brutally attacked two thousand peaceful protesters marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. Less than one week later,  during a Federal hearing, 25-year-old John Lewis recounted the attack on the marchers while on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. News of what became known as “Bloody Sunday” swept across America, galvanizing public opinion behind voting reform and prompting Congress to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Young People, especially young people of color, are the moral compass of the United States,” states Dr. David Turner, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “Movements that don’t happen in the same way without young people include the Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Liberation MovementMarsha P. Johnson was 23 during StonewallThe Black Power Movement, the Chicano Movement, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement were also youth-led.” 

9 Unsung Civil Rights Leaders That You Didn’t Learn About In School

While the 1950s and ’60s were the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for racial justice and civil rights continues today. The modern Civil Rights Movement addresses the inequities in our society, including poverty, the mass incarceration of African Americans, unemployment, racial disparities in education … and voting rights

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