Student Activism to Understand the Past and Future

R. R. Moton High School Classroom, Farmville, Virginia, ca. 1951 (National Archives), docsteach.org

Today’s guest post is by Jon N. Hale, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of South Carolina. His article, “Future Foot Soldiers or Budding Criminals?: The Dynamics of High School Student Activism in the Southern Black Freedom Struggle,” appears in the August 2018 issue of the Journal.

The research on which my August 2018 article in the Journal of Southern History is based began as I prepared my first monograph, The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (Columbia University Press). In writing this book, I was keenly aware of the pervasiveness of high school activism. Yet I was struck that young people in the southern black freedom struggle were routinely overlooked by scholars and students of the movement, as well as many history teachers in our public schools.

We seem to be familiar with the civil rights movement role of youth on both black and white college campuses, and with the radical work of organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). But youth who were still in high school, and even elementary and middle school, provide scholars with a nuanced lens through which to approach a topic that has been seemingly exhausted by well-documented histories and analysis. Reconstructing the freedom struggle from the perspective of high school activists elucidates methodological and conceptual issues while promising to inform those directly involved in contemporary initiatives to protect youth.

Following the work of young people can be difficult. Overlooked in the historiography and treated as mere youngsters in a movement led by elders, young actors are often seen as immature, isolated, or without serious consequence. But across the South—in Charleston, South Carolina; Montgomery, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Farmville, Virginia; and a multitude of other locations—high school students spearheaded local movements and grassroots organization, many times with national implications and far-reaching consequences. Youth were unafraid to join the front lines of the movement when cautious local adults were unwilling or when a historically black college was not in proximity to provide the foot soldiers.

To reconstruct any history of student activism, oral history is critical. Standard sources such as local newspapers and the records of established civil rights organizations often refer to youth, but they rarely capture young people’s rationale or sentiment. It was a tremendous privilege to meet and listen to student activists such as Eddie James Carthan, Hymethia Thompson, Harvey Gantt, and others who shared their history throughout the course of this research. While it is easy to celebrate the accomplishments of young activists, it is incumbent upon scholars to examine the contradictions and tensions inherent to youth activism. Youth activists, now seasoned veterans and civic leaders, did not necessarily see themselves as activists, though we want to see them as such. Some attribute their involvement directly to their elders and parents, while others convey the autonomy and independence with which they acted, outside the purview of adults.

In addition to wanting to incorporate and make sense of the voices of young people who shaped the history of the black freedom struggle, I also wrote this article to reach teachers and organizers who draw on history to inform contemporary struggles. After the Parkland, Florida, shooting in February 2018, the #MarchForOurLives movement demanded from lawmakers a removal of guns from schools, commonsense gun legislation, and greater protection. Some pundits drew attention to the youth protests of the civil rights movement, illustrating the long history of student activism.

But following the voices of high school activists of a movement that presages the contemporary moment should enrich our understanding and analysis in other ways. Youth activists of an earlier era point toward a history of the school-to-prison pipeline, through policies and legislation adopted that criminalized student activism and targeted students of color. When examined in the current context, this history also illustrates a disconnect between the #BlackLivesMatter movement and #MarchForOurLives. This history exposes how critical questions that explore the affinity further can be missed or ignored. The criminalization of black youth in “urban” schools does not raise the same concerns as the loss of life in white suburban schools. This history challenges us to make the deeper connections and to follow the voices of young activists and to handle them with greater care.

About the Author

Bethany L. Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Southern History.