Youth Activism in America: From Armbands and Walkouts to Bus Rides and Voter Drives that Would Shape Our Democracy

Demonstrators gather in front of the United States Supreme Court, where the Court is hearing arguments on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - DACA. | Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On October 4, 2020, a group of eight- and nine-year-old Gibbstown Falcon football players took a knee during the national anthem prior to the start of an away game in South New Jersey, joined by their head coach and an assistant coach. It started with just one player telling the coach, “I want to kneel.” Not all of the players’ parents welcomed this demonstration of youth activism, nor did a few board members of the league. Both groups assumed the players were directed to kneel by the coaching staff, and they reportedly expressed their disapproval toward the kids and coaching staff in a hostile manner.

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This incident sparked much discussion in their community, then statewide, over how the adults responded to kids’ participating in peaceful protest. These elementary school-aged athletes taking a knee during the national anthem was not an isolated event in South New Jersey, much less the country. Since August 2016, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick first started protesting the country's mistreatment of Black people and people of color by sitting (and later taking a knee) during the national anthem at NFL games, there have been many reports of kids exercising their right to free speech by sitting or kneeling in their classrooms and during school games. One account includes a six-year-old boy in Florida who was disciplined for taking a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance at his public school, though according to the law, it was his constitutional right under the First Amendment.

These activists are part of a long history in America, stretching back as far back as the 1830s (and likely beyond), of youth challenging and transforming our democracy. Here is a look at some of those movements.

1830s and 1840s: Lowell Mill Girls and Women Form the First Union for Working Women

Tintype of two young women in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA (ca. 1870) | Wikipedia
Tintype of two young women in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA (ca. 1870) | Wikipedia

Long before women fought for and won the right to vote, women and girls at textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, who started working as young as age 12, protested their abusive working conditions that included grueling 13-hour workdays. Author and poet Lucy Larcom (“A New England Girlhood” and “An Idyll of Work”) was among them, writing she “hated the confinement, noise, and lint-filled air, and regretted the time lost to education.” When their wages were cut in 1834, the female workforce organized, holding an outdoor rally and marching to other mills to attract other girls and women to the cause, followed by another strike in 1836.

While they were unable to get their wages restored, the mill girls continued their fight into the 1840s by founding the first union for working women, Lowell Labor Reform Association (LFLRA), and launching petition campaigns to cap their workday to 10 hours, according to the National Park Service: “Without the right to vote, this was one of the most effective ways to show legislators just how much support there was for their cause.” Though efforts to enact legislation to limit the workday to 10 hours were unsuccessful, they were able to get it down to 11 hours by the Lowell mills. And more importantly, from this show of solidarity by female workers would emerge many longtime labor activists, including former mill girl Sarah George Bagley, who was among the most prominent voices of the movement, and would inspire a generation of girls and women to fight for better working conditions.

1920s-1940s: The Girl Reserves Program Fosters Female Activism Among Youth of Color

The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) started the Girl Reserves program in 1918 during wartime to train girls ages 12 to 16 to “give girls through normal, natural activities, the habits, insights and ideals which will make them responsible women, capable and ready to help make America more true to its best hopes and traditions.”

Youth of color — including African American, Chinese American and Japanese American girls — would organize their own Girl Reserves programs across the country, some independent of the YWCA, providing vital and safe communities (and community centers) to develop their own goals and activities. One example was the San Diego’s YWCA Clay Avenue Brand for African Americans in California, whose activities included advocating for civil rights and providing young African American women with greater access to employment opportunities. These Girl Reserves groups also provided rare occasions for girls of different ethnic and racial groups to socialize and share aspects of their culture.  

Separate from the mainstream, predominantly white YWCA Girl Reserves, the Japanese American Girl Reserves Program was a series of programs, organizations, and clubs for Japanese American high school students — who often were not welcomed to participate in school activities or discriminated against in public places due to their race — to learn principles of self-determination, internationalism and New Womanhood. “The Girl Reserves programs developed into youth activism because many youth felt newly empowered to advocate an altogether different vision and culture of transpacific identity and relations from their parents,” says CalState Monterey Bay Assistant Professor Chrissy Yee Lau, author of the forthcoming book “Racial Arbiters: How Young People Rebuilt TransPacific Relations During an Era of Exclusion” (University of Washington Press, 2022). “Moreover, it empowered women to become community organizers and shifted norms around gender roles.” The YWCA Japanese American Girl Reserves would also organize community programs to help Japanese Americans cope with internment during World War II.

1960s: Youth Usher in an Era of Change in Numerous Ways Across the Country

The 1960s is filled with incredible youth movements that advocated for racial equality, peace, free speech, public school funding and many other issues that have significantly shaped American life generations later. In the following movements, many young women led the charge.

Students Use Nonviolent Tactics to Protest Racial Exclusionary Practices

Learn more about Diane Nash and the kind of leader she was. Watch this "American Experience" clip on Diane Nash "The Student Leader: A Short Film from Freedom Riders" now.
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Student organizer Diane Nash of the Nashville Student Movement (NSM) was 20 years old when she and other students first challenged the segregation policies at lunch counters in Nashville by starting a sit-in movement that led them to being desegregated. This was one of many instances when she would mobilize students and others, during the early 1960s, to challenge racial exclusionary practices using nonviolent means and often succeeded in enacting change. “I believe there was no more important invention of the 20th century than Gandhi’s inventing a way to wage war and to make social change without killing and maiming our fellow human beings,” Nash said in an interview with The Guardian. She also participated in a sit-in in Rockville, South Carolina, in support of the “Rock Hill Nine” — that led to her arrest and jail time — and she organized the NSM Ride to join the Freedoms Riders in Birmingham, Alabama, to desegregate public transportation in the South in 1960. That same year she, along with John Lewis, would become founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Through SNCC and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Nash would also organize voter registration drives in Black communities and support the Selma marches that led to the Voting Rights Act. Such actions led to SCLC, giving her the Rosa Parks Award in 1965.

Students Wear Black Armbands to Protest the Vietnam War and Take Their Fight to the Supreme Court

When 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker, along with her brother, John, and three other students — Christine Singer, Christopher Eckhardt and Bruce Clark — in Des Moines, Iowa, wore black armbands to their respective schools in 1965 to protest the war, they were suspended and not allowed to return unless they removed them. The group returned without their armbands but instead donned black clothing as a continued form of protest. They also, together with their parents’ support, sued the school for infringing on their First Amendment rights and took their case to the highest court, represented by the ACLU, after the Des Moines School Board and lower courts ruled in the schools’ favor. Four years later, in a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court said, “Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the school house gates,” confirming that students have a right to free speech in public schools in the Tinker v. Des Moines decision. This ruling is what also confirmed the aforementioned six-year-old boy’s right in September 2017 to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance at his school in Wesley Chapel, Florida.                                                                           

Des Moines, Iowa: Mary Beth Tinker and her brother, John, display two black armbands, the objects of the U.S. Supreme Court's agreement March 4th to hear arguments on how far public schools may go in limiting the wearing of political symbols. |  Bettmann
Des Moines, Iowa: Mary Beth Tinker and her brother, John, display two black armbands, the objects of the U.S. Supreme Court's agreement March 4th to hear arguments on how far public schools may go in limiting the wearing of political symbols. | Bettmann

The East L.A. Chicano Student Walkouts for Racial and Educational Equality

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Walkouts have long been an important, nonviolent tactic used by students to protest injustices, long before the student walkouts of 2006 across California when upwards of 40,000 kids in Los Angeles alone left their classrooms to protest an anti-immigration House bill, and, more recently, the National School Walkout of 2018 by thousands of students all over the country to demand stricter gun-control measures after experiencing numerous school shootings that took the lives of numerous kids and teachers. In May of 1963, thousands of students, as young as 14 years old, skipped classes in Birmingham, Alabama, to participate in civil rights marches protesting segregation practices in the city, in what became known as the Children’s Crusade. And in East L.A., in March 1968, nearly 20,000 students participated in a series of walkouts to call for significant changes in the schools themselves.

Led by such youth leaders as 17-year-old Paula Crisostomo of Lincoln High School, along with her teacher, Sal Castro, Mexican American students from five East Los Angeles high schools first walked out of their classrooms March 6, to protest the many inequalities and racial injustice Chicano students experienced in L.A. public schools. Crisostomo still celebrates the anniversary of that pivotal moment in Los Angeles history each year, as it sparked a larger Chicano civil rights movement in the city. Also known as the East L.A. “Blowouts,” the walkouts also involved such grassroots activist groups as the Brown Berets and The Young Citizens for Community Action (YCAA), helping mobilize students to participate in the walkouts and then later taking the students’ demands to the Board of Education, leading to important educational reforms. Because of their efforts, L.A. schools added bilingual classes, more Mexican American school staff and ethnic studies to the curriculum, as well as making improvements to their schools’ libraries and classrooms.

2007-Present: Young Immigrants Mobilize for Immigrant Rights and Form the United We Dream Network

Learn more about Tereza Lee, the Inspiration for the DREAM Act. Watch this clip from "Asian Americans."
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When the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) was enacted in 2012 during the Obama administration, nearly 800,000 undocumented adults, who were brought into the U.S. as juveniles, were allowed to temporarily, in the words of the American Immigration Council, “work lawfully, attend school, and plan their lives without the constant threat of deportation.” But in 2017, the Trump administration announced they would be phasing out the program, putting the lives of those individuals — known as Dreamers — (and the thousands still waiting to qualify) in limbo. It wasn’t until recently, in June 2020, by a narrow vote of 5-4, that the Supreme Court ruled against the administration’s plan.

Sit-ins, marches, walkouts, rallies and digital toolkits are just some of the ways youth have been coming together for more than a decade, to first make DACA a reality during the Obama administration and then defend DACA from the Trump administration, and also to expand the rights of all unauthorized immigrants, and advocate for legislation that would allow for a path to citizenship, not unlike what was proposed in the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act of 2010, but failed to pass the senate. They founded the immigrant youth-led United We Dream organization in 2008, which today is 400,000-plus members strong. The group was instrumental in bringing about DACA and also striking down other anti-immigrant policies in the country through targeted campaigns. In solidarity with Dreamers, youth of all backgrounds and statuses participated in a sit-in at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2017, followed by, in 2019, school walkouts by kids all over the country and a march to the Supreme Court by immigrant youth and their supporters. Such activism continues every day, including virtually.

Students and supporters of DACA rally in downtown Los Angeles, California on November 12, 2019 as the US Supreme Court hears arguments to make a decision regarding the future of "Dreamers." | FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images
Students and supporters of DACA rally in downtown Los Angeles, California on November 12, 2019 as the US Supreme Court hears arguments to make a decision regarding the future of "Dreamers." | FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

The youth of today are mobilized more than ever, especially in the age of social media. They are continuing to fight for the same or similar issues their predecessors did — from demanding better working conditions for young workers and requiring ethnic studies at colleges to dismantling systemic racism and calling for the end of police brutality in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. American youth have also taken to the streets by the thousands to protect and expand women’s rights and to call attention to climate change. They are the future — and they will fight to have a say in it, as they have for the last two centuries. As one protest poster by a teenage girl read at the Youth Climate Strike in 2019: “Hey adults, we’ll take it from here.”

Top Image: Demonstrators gather in front of the United States Supreme Court, where the Court is hearing arguments on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - DACA. | Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images 

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