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The discussion of the Civil Rights movement is still relevant today as there is a range of issues and topics that can be applied to modern society. The organized effort to end racism and segregation in the United States stemmed from the devastating position in which African Americans were placed throughout U.S. history leading up to the middle of the twentieth century. To end violence and prejudice, communities mobilized and gave a start to an unprecedented movement for equality and opportunity that lasted two decades. The role of the youth in the Civil Rights Movement has often been overlooked, which will serve as the premise for the current discussion focusing on exploring Robert Moses’ sentiment that young people should be the agents of both social and political change. Youth played a central and critical role in the organization and engagement of the Civil Rights Movement, basing their activism on the examples and groundwork established by adults, but often acting collectively and establishing independent leadership in the numerous acts of defiance and protests in communities across the United States.
Role of Children
In the autobiography, Moody describes a childhood that many black children and families experienced in the early 20th century. Despite liberation, African Americans were still working for unfair wages on white plantations and living in poverty. From an early age, black children already experienced the horrors of prejudice, segregation, poverty, and racism through social interactions and viewing the struggles their parents faced (Moody, 1992). This is partially why children were voluntarily so active during the Civil Rights Movement, as the cause that they were fighting for was beyond the right to vote but greatly affected everyone.
The symbol for this generation was Emmett Till, a young boy accused of flirting with a white woman, and after unfair prosecution, he was tortured and brutally murdered, with the criminals found not guilty by the jury even after open confession. This is inherently known as the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, as Till and many other African American children were often utilized as a trigger point against the adults and activists. Later, children would go on to participate in protests and marches beside their families, particularly in the Children’s Crusade in the March on Birmingham organized by Dr. King himself. This was a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement that was planned and executed largely by young people, contributing to the historical significance and public attention towards creating social change (Visable Thought, 2017)
Role of High Schoolers
High schoolers, being slightly older, could begin to see the social implications and ramifications of such aspects as segregation and its impacts on social relations and economic divides. In the autobiography, Anne begins to hear about the NAACP and become aware of racial inequalities in everyday life. It frustrates her as she challenges the status quo and begins a conflict with her family, who seems to accept things the way they are, as long as there is stability (Moody, 1992). High school youth played an important part in many key roles during the Civil Rights Movement, particularly those regarding the desegregation of schools after Brown v. Board of Education. In 1952, a sixteen-year-old teenager Barbara Johns organized an assembly at her segregated school, protesting the inequitable conditions and funding than white schools received in comparison to black schools. She encouraged an attendance strike and wrote to the NAACP, whose lawyers picked it up along with other schools for the desegregation case, which led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. NAACP officials recall the students demonstrated superb organization and passion for making a change.
An example of the active participation of high schoolers in the Civil Rights Movement includes the Little Rock Nine, when the nine students began attending a school in Arkansas after desegregation in 1957. They were met by an angry mob and, for weeks, the students and their families faced backlash and threats of violence but continued to attend bravely (Olson, 2015). This was a situation where the federal government was forced to intervene in order to protect the children, leading to a shift in long-standing political perspectives, something that can be argued that the children were forced through their perseverance.
Role of Young Adults and College Students
In the autobiography, Anne takes her newly found independence in college to join the NAACP against the protests of her family. She is threatened by local law enforcement but becomes an active member of the organization. She demonstrates defiance and encourages other students to participate in events (Moody, 1992). This highlights the sentiment of many college students that, in combination with a level of independence and social responsibility, began to join student organizations such as the SNCC. The primary purpose was to replace the culture of segregation and give African American youth control over the decisions in their lives. This unique position and character traits put African American college students at the forefront of many key events during the Civil Rights Movement (Foner, 2017).
Many of these events were focused on peaceful civil demonstrations. One famous protest was the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in where African American college students sat at a segregated place in Greensboro, N.C. College students were part of the famous Freedom Riders group, which tested the federal legislation for desegregating public transportation in the South. This group often faced violence from citizens and law enforcement alike but continued in their ambition. Many young adults were vital to the organization and participation of the famous marches in the South led by Dr. King, serving as an inspiration to his speeches and ambition (Foner, 2017).
Impact of Youth on the Movement
Anne participates in civil protests such as the sit-in at Woolworth and works at the Coalition for the Organization of Racial Equality (CORE), becoming a political activist. However, facing violent threats and never-ending work, she begins to realize that, despite the well-meant intentions, the movement is doing little to factually improve the lives of black citizens in segregated states such as Mississippi. This is due to the focus on political issues of voting and disenfranchisement rather than direct impacts like protesting economic issues and helping rural minorities to achieve an education. Anne is faced with an existential question of whether African Americans can ever overcome the system (Moody, 1992). Once transitioning to the realities of politics and economics, many African American youths faced an uphill battle. Many of their efforts in Southern states felt unsubstantial. The Civil Rights Movement was primarily focused on achieving legal desegregation and voting rights, hoping that by eliminating disenfranchisement, voters would select leaders that would make substantial changes. However, to this day, the states remain strongly conservative and largely anti-minority in the policy.
Organization and Leadership
Young adults who emerged after participating in college organizations such as NAACP and SNCC often became the faces of local movements. Having some organizational skills and awareness of how to deal with challenges, they were able to lead effectively. Leaders such as John Lewis, who founded the SNCC along with Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Bernard Lafayette, later took on critical leadership and organizational roles in the Civil Rights Movement. These individuals became directors of various organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that served as the organizational foundation for Civil Rights in the South and organizing movements the likes of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and Selma voting rights movement. At a relatively young age, they became prominent members of the movement, which supported Martin Luther King Jr. and his inner circle in the political objectives they were trying to achieve.
Even on a smaller scale, the extent of the protests and civil defiance was extensive, requiring organization and leadership on multiple levels. This was done largely by the youth who were active in the organizations, interested in change, and the courage to face possible consequences. Dr. King understood that and often used it to address young people to offer advice and guidance (Olson, 2015). This provides evidence to the network of organizational strategies which was taken upon by youth leaders as activists and how they had the challenge of inspiring masses to follow a similar direction and maintain a nonviolent civil approach in the face of pressure and violence.
In the general context, the role of youth in the Civil Rights Movement should not be discredited nor underemphasized historically as modern education often does by only focusing on the key adult figures. The evidence supported in this essay does demonstrate the deep-felt impact, change, and often leadership that youth of various ages have demonstrated in the spanning decades of the movement. This youth became known as the Emmett Till generation, the youth that believed in equality and justice just as much as their adult counterparts because it greatly affected their lives as well. Dr. King, once addressing some teenagers jailed for the protests, said, “What you do this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.” However, the recollections of many youth activists at the time do credit their elders and families for either laying the groundwork or supporting them in their efforts. Parents who were active in the NAACP and other organizations often included their children to participate in the discussion and peaceful protests when it was reasonably safe. Segregation impacted whole families, and it was younger generations building on the progress and organization of previous generations that allowed them to achieve success.
However, it was not always easy for some people. There were instances where youth activists had to sever familial ties due to the disapproval of their activities. This was evident in Moody’s autobiography as she began conflicting with her family and friends after becoming part of the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, youth members of the NAACP, SNCC, and other organizations often had no adult leadership, very little guidance, nor was there anyone to teach them about conduct with law enforcement, negotiations with administration, and leading a nonviolent protest. Students had to organize and learn themselves, giving them life skills to later become prominent activists or politicians supporting the cause.
It was historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and his inner circle that was engaged in the organization of the large and well-known protests of the movement as well as political negotiations, which youth simply had no leverage or expertise to initiate. However, these leaders and national organizations such as NAACP often relied on youth activism and widespread dissent to garner support in various states as a manner of protest against oppressive legislation and segregation. This allowed gaining public support as people, including young white citizens and politicians, began to empathize with their peers. The dedication and hope of black youth inspired liberal tendencies, which were further propelled by the images of violence and state government hostility against peaceful protests. It was ultimately the political organizing and youth fighting for their destinies which led to the overwhelming public support which allowed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation to be passed.
It is evident that Robert Moses’ statement regarding the role of youth as organizers and agents of socio-political change was strongly applicable to the Civil Rights Movement in retrospect. The youth of all ages actively participated and demonstrated leadership and organization at both local and state levels in efforts to protest segregation and demand equitable rights. This activism took on different forms, but it is ultimately the collective resistance of young people which sought to take risks and defy the status quo in the attempt to create a brighter future and greater opportunities for civic participation for minorities which allowed the Civil Rights Movement to achieve such success and public support.
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Foner, E. (2017). Give me liberty! An American history. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Moody, A. (1992). Coming of age in Mississippi: The classic autobiography of growing up poor and black in the rural South. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Olson, R. (2015). Eyes on the prize VI — Bridge to freedom, 1965 [Video file]. Web.
Visable Thought. (2017). The murder Of Emmett Till (the full documentary) H.D. [Video file]. Web.