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Parkland students are a part of America’s longstanding tradition of youth-led activism

Young people have led the charge on some of the biggest shifts in social policy and justice throughout U.S. history.

Sofia Hidalgo, 15, of Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., and other students calling for Congress to act on gun control, demonstrate on the east lawn of the Capitol on February 21, 2018. (CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sofia Hidalgo, 15, of Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., and other students calling for Congress to act on gun control, demonstrate on the east lawn of the Capitol on February 21, 2018. (CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Over the past week, survivors of the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have emerged as leaders at the forefront of the gun control movement — appearing on every major cable news channel, delivering fiery speeches at rallies, and organizing marches and trips to meet with lawmakers.

Many conservative figures have questioned whether the students deserve to be heard or whether protesting is the right way to address the issue of gun control, but few have recognized that the teenagers are continuing a longstanding tradition of youth-led activism in U.S. politics, often leading the way toward social change.

The oversight is, perhaps, because this was not the way things were supposed to go. In the past, mass shootings have followed an all-too-familiar pattern — “thoughts and prayers” are doled out by politicians, people on the left call for gun control, people on the right claim that it is not the time to talk politics, and the National Rifle Association (NRA), which funnels millions of dollars to lawmakers and candidates every election cycle, remains silent until the drama boils over. We forget, we move on. Until it inevitably happens again.

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But things seem different this time. This time, the school shooting survivors have no patience for “thoughts and prayers.” This time, they are angry, frustrated, and outspoken — willing and eager to take the reins and to call out adults for failing to act. At a CNN Town Hall between survivors, Florida lawmakers, and NRA representative Dana Loesch Wednesday evening, students asked pointed questions, refusing to let up when politicians dodged or changed the subject. In a key moment, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) broke with President Donald Trump, when he said he doesn’t believe in arming teachers.

The power of these students is undeniable, but that hasn’t stopped people from undercutting their accomplishments or dismissing their influence.

“[I]f you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march,” wrote conservative columnist David Brooks in The New York Times on Monday. “It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points … Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.”

On Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight on Tuesday, Carlson accused the media of using the students as “moral blackmail” to influence the gun control issue, while his guest, Dan Bongino, a former secret service agent, dismissed “teenagers’ expertise” on guns.

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In a tweet the same day, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly suggested that the media should not be listening to the teenagers because they are too emotional.

But what all these conservative commentators are forgetting is that youth-led activism is responsible for some of the biggest shifts in social policy and justice throughout American history — from the civil rights movement to immigration rights to racial justice. While this is, by no means, an exhaustive list, here are some key moments in youth activism:

Civil rights sit-ins

In February 1960, in what is considered to be a pivotal moment in the fight for Black civil rights, four Black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter in Woolworth’s in Greenboro, North Carolina. They did this every day, with more and more students joining them overtime, setting off a movement that soon spread throughout the South. Eventually, the sit-ins led to a national movement, generating “wade-ins at pools and beaches, kneel-ins at churches, read-ins at libraries, and walk-ins at theaters and amusement parks” — all in a piecemeal effort to tackle the country’s Jim Crow laws. And it worked. Woolworth’s desegregated in July 1960 and other establishments soon followed their lead.

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The Greensboro sit-in is just one example among many within the civil rights movement in which young people led the way in tackling inequality. In 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to move to the back of the bus to allow a white person to take her seat. In 1957, a group of nine Black students in Little Rock, Tennessee enrolled in an all-white school in the segregated South, laying the foundation for education equality for all Black students. And in 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges was the first Black student to attend a segregated school in New Orleans, Louisiana. These actions awakened the national consciousness to the need for social change.

The fight for the DREAM Act

Today’s push for a permanent solution for hundreds of thousands of undocumented individuals who came to the country as children began in 2001, when the first iteration of the DREAM Act, legislation that would have provided undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship, was introduced in Congress. But the issue gained widespread attention in 2010, when a group of four young student immigrants traveled from Miami to Washington, D.C. to push for a long-term solution. What followed was months of nationwide rallies and protests, sit-ins in lawmakers’ offices, and street lay-ins by activists who sought to block federal authorities from deporting immigrants — grassroots actions that continue to this day. The actions eventually convinced former President Barack Obama to issue an executive action to protect undocumented youth from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Although President Trump ended the Obama-era program and although the DREAM Act has failed in Congress numerous times, youth activists continue to push for a permanent fix, even as the current administration and the Republican-controlled Congress stands in their way.

Black Lives Matter

Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors were in their late 20s and early 30s when they launched the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin the previous year. In the years since, the movement has gained widespread traction among young activists and students throughout the country, as the leading grassroots group in the fight against police brutality and racial inequality.

Today, BLM boasts dozens of chapters across the country, influencing the national conversation about institutionalized racism in the United States. Their actions extend far beyond rallies and protests, with student activists tackling broader issues of racism on college campuses, from funding for African American studies programs, racist mascots and building names, and implicit racism in classrooms.

Some of BLM’s most significant accomplishments include its role in pressuring the University of California to drop its $30 million investment in private prison companies in 2015, as well as influencing the resignation of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe over his handling of a flurry of racist incidents at the school.

In the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, BLM said it was “sickened by the acts of violence in Parkland” and denounced “white supremacy and the violence it perpetuates in our communities.”

Vietnam antiwar movement

College students played a key role in the movement against the decades-long Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1975. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, students teamed up with peace groups to rally against the war — running campus teach-ins, organizing protests, attempting to shut down induction centers, publicly burning draft cards, and pushing colleges to divest from firms like Dow Chemical, which made napalm, a gasoline used for firebombs. The first anti-war demonstration, organized by the Students for a Democratic Society, drew 20,000 people to Washington in 1965. As the war escalated, “Racism became a focus when it was revealed that blacks were drafted, assigned to combat units and killed at rates significantly higher than whites were,” wrote Bill Zimmerman, author of a memoir about activism in the 1960s.

Opposition mounted in 1970, when students across the country protested the U.S. bombing of neighboring Cambodia. At one such protest at Ohio’s Kent State University, National Guard troops shot and killed four unarmed student protesters. The news triggered an outpouring of condemnation and anger among activists, with students responding through strikes, continued protests, and the seizure of university buildings.

The actions of students throughout the war helped to “normalize opposition,” at a time when “many Americans were hesitant to oppose their own country in a time of war,” Zimmerman wrote. Public disenchantment over the war grew and countless prominent leaders in politics, entertainment, and academia voiced their objection to the war.


These are only a few examples. Students have also played a major part in advocating against tuition hikes at schools across the country, racial apartheid in South Africa, and just last year, an earlier version of the GOP tax bill that made graduate school more expensive (and was later changed following protests). To now dismiss students’ role in the gun control debate — simply because of their age — is to ignore a major part of U.S. history.