Less than a week after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 dead, survivors announced that they’re planning a “March for Our Lives” for March 24 in Washington, D.C., to pressure members of Congress to pass stronger gun-control legislation. Meanwhile, dozens of D.C.-area students have already staged a “die-in” outside of the White House — and more are in the works — and national school walkout days are planned for March and April.
With the U.S. national voting age at 18, such actions are one of the few ways available for most high-school students to make their voices heard at the national political level. As Amy Campbell-Oates, a 16-year-old who organized a protest at South Broward High School near Parkland, told the New York Times, “Some of us can’t vote yet but we want to get to the people that can.”
And, while the platforms that young people are using to speak out may be new, there’s a long history of Americans who were too young to vote shifting the national conversation on social and political issues.
A Children’s Crusade
In fact, because the national voting age wasn’t lowered to 18 until 1971, it’s worth remembering that a fair amount of the most memorable civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s were staged by people who couldn’t vote yet. But children — children much younger than 18 — were also part of the history of activism before that point.
“The labor and socialist movements had youth affiliates going back to the beginning of the century,” says Maurice Isserman, professor of History at Hamilton College and co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s.
In one of the more dramatic examples, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones put children in animal cages to raise awareness of child-labor issues, and led the March of the Mill Children campaign that took place in July of 1903. During that episode, dozens of children were among the marchers who followed Jones from Philadelphia to New York to protest labor conditions, earning the event the moniker of the “children’s crusade.” (The name comes from a 13th century youth movement.)
Though that particular campaign didn’t lead to immediate change, the idea — that showing the world the children who were directly affected by policies about which they could not vote — was a powerful one.
‘A Little Child’ for Civil Rights
Three demonstrators join hands to build strength against the force of water sprayed by riot police in Birmingham, Alabama, during a protest of segregation practices in May of 1963.
Bettmann / Getty Images
The Civil Rights Movement was a natural place for that idea to be reborn. Young people were both involuntary martyrs of the movement — most famously after the August 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till — and leaders seeking change in their own lives. One early example of a young person organizing an act of resistance on her own took place on April 23, 1951, when 16-year-old Barbara Johns led a walkout at the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Virginia to protest abysmal conditions. Johns contacted the NAACP, which took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was one of the five cases involved in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling. The Brown ruling, argues Rebecca de Schweinitz, a professor of History at Brigham Young University and author of If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality, put “school children at the center of the nation’s struggle for racial equality.”
In explaining why she had to act when she did, Johns quoted the Bible: “Our parents ask us to follow them,” a classmate later recalled her saying at the time, “but in some instances…a little child shall lead them.”
People too young to vote played a key role in the movement in the years to follow — for example, four college freshmen led 1960’s famous Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in — and soon Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow activists realized another unique role that children could play in their movement. That realization gave rise to an even more famous…