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Craven: Student Activism

The sudden burgeoning of high school-driven youth activism, focused on issues of gun violence, reminds me of the 1963 Birmingham Alabama Children’s Crusade, which changed the course of history and moved President Kennedy to take a dramatic stand against racial segregation – in Alabama and elsewhere - which had until then stubbornly refused to yield. Thousands of students, some as young as seven years-old but trained in non-violence, fanned out into the streets just several weeks after Martin Luther King marched in Birmingham, was arrested, and wrote his powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” These legions of children protested peacefully, asking to meet with the Birmingham Mayor.

Instead, they were met with force. Hundreds were arrested and, on their second day of protest, Public Safety Commissioner Bull O’Connor ordered police to deploy heavy fire hoses to deluge the children with water, hit them with clubs, and threaten them with police dogs.

The children persevered. Some were joined by adults and others marched to the city jail and sang to the jailed children. Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked King to call off the demonstrations, saying that a black child could be maimed in the protests. King replied that “Black children are hurt every day.”

The protestors’ persistence paid off - after more than a week of tension and confrontation city officials agreed to meet - and to de-segregate local businesses which had refused to serve or hire black citizens.

Several weeks later, President Kennedy offered his most moving and decisive speech on civil rights - directly in response to King’s letter from jail - and the children’s march. He called for immediate Congressional action in the areas of de-segregation by all businesses and in education – and for voting rights.

Today’s young protestors seem as determined and as fearless as those kids did fifty-five years ago. And they’re demanding a voice in deliberations about the future of our nation - and our state.

Scotland, Austria, Ecuador, and Brazil allow 16 year-olds to vote and I can’t think of a better way to respect and retain our young people than to involve them in our governing process while they’re still here at home, in their classrooms, and our communities.

Some would still leave for college or jobs, but if they’re encouraged to develop a deeper commitment to our state now, we might be surprised to see how many would come back later.