The spirited activism of high school students in favor of increased gun control after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting—led by the shooting survivors from Parkland itself— has electrified a nation. By sparking conversations and boldly challenging the status quo, this recent surge of youth activism has proven that age is not a prerequisite for political influence.
While the student activists have earned praise for being savvy, passionate, and determined— their supporters include celebrities, politicians, and the Obamas— they’ve also attracted innumerable critics, who wield the age-old argument that children should not hold positions of power. However, youth activism is not a recent phenomenon: young people have been catalysts for change for almost all of American history.
These youth are not over their heads, as critics claim; they are exactly where they belong, as the most recent manifestation of a historic trend of activism. Here’s a look back at some of history’s most powerful youth-led protests to get today’s activists inspired to keep trudging forward— no matter what.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
The SNCC, a radical branch of the civil rights movement, was created to empower black youth in demanding justice and equality. John Lewis, a former member of the SNCC and current Representative from Georgia, looks back fondly on the “good trouble” of his civil rights heyday. These students served as the “foot soldiers” of the movement.
Working closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., the SNCC played a pivotal role in establishing the “Freedom Rides”— integrated bus trips through the South to protest segregated transportation. During their powerful voter registration drives in the South, three members of the SNCC lost their lives to the Ku Klux Klan, drawing major attention to their cause.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
The SDS, which first met in Port Huron in 1962, would emerge as a powerful political force of the “New Left” that protested the Vietnam War while challenging the status quo with its personal freedom and sexual liberation. Their radical document, the Port Huron Statement, outlines a vision for a participatory democracy for all Americans, opening with the powerful lines:
“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
Students were very active in challenging the Cold War mentality and protesting the Vietnam War. The SDS sponsored “teach-ins” in college campuses, which became powerhouses of dissent. In a tragic 1970 incident, four student protesters were killed by police at Kent State University, illustrating how students, even fifty years ago, were forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs.
East Los Angeles Walkouts (1968)
In a remarkable parallel to the gun control walkouts, hundreds of Mexican-American students walked out of East Los Angeles high schools to protest the erasure of their histories in school books. In an era where the Mexican-American political consciousness was emerging in American history, youth played a key role in forging the new status quo. They helped lead the “Chicano” movement, reclaiming a historically pejorative term to become a symbol of ethnic pride.
During the walkout, students held signs reading “We are not dirty Mexicans,” “Education, not eradication,” and “We demand schools that teach”— as well as American flags.
Student Homophile League
Students were also at the LGBTQ+ movement, helping bring solidarity, pride, and awareness of a historically marginalized group. The Student Homophile League, one of history’s first pride student organizations, was created by a bisexual young man, Stephen Donaldson, at Columbia University in 1965. Although it was not officially recognized at first, a second chapter appeared at Cornell University three years later. After the Stonewall riots and radicalization of anti-war youth, the SHL joined forces with the aforementioned SDS to create a formidable youth coalition. During their high point, the SHL organized sit-ins and other movements to increase awareness of queer issues.
Photo: Bill Ingraham / AP