The Civil Rights Movement included various strategies, groups, and individuals united by a single goal of combating white supremacy. However, the struggle was not restricted to adults, as many children, from elementary students to high school graduates, were involved in the events. Some willingly joined the movement by marching, boycotting schools, or staging sit-ins. Others were unfortunate victims of violence against Black people, and their deaths inspired further outrage over the status quo. Regardless of the manner of involvement, children played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement because they wanted a bright future for themselves or symbolized how easily it could be denied to them.
Children’s participation in the movement was determined by school desegregation, which directly impacted them. Many attempted to circumvent the decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, such as Prince Edward County, which decided to disband the public school system (Franklin, “Documenting the Contributions” 665). Consequently, Black children had to seek private alternatives or remain formally uneducated (Franklin, “Documenting the Contributions” 665). The Little Rock Nine incident was another example of how white supremacists prevented Black students from integrating into desegregated schools through verbal abuse and other pressure tactics (Franklin, “Documenting the Contributions” 666). The case prompted a response from President Eisenhower, who sent troops to protect them (Franklin, “Documenting the Contributions” 666). Despite the awful nature of the occurrences, their extensive publicity eventually led to more legal actions. Furthermore, students of all ages started boycotting schools unfair to African-American students due to segregation, poor quality, or overcrowding (Franklin, “Documenting the Contributions” 667). They used various means to publicize their experiences, such as school reports and newspaper articles, and promoted freedom in schools (Franklin, “Documenting the Contributions” 667). Overall, children contributed to further desegregation and improved education for black people.
High school and college students were actively involved in protesting, including such forms as sit-ins and marches. The former mostly occurred at lunch counters that refused to serve Black youth (Franklin, “The Young Crusaders” 69). Some scholars believe that the Greensboro sit-in in 1960 was responsible for invigorating the movement by drawing recruits and publicizing the issue (Franklin, “The Young Crusaders” 72). General stores could also serve as a sit-in place, as was the case with a rally in Washington, D.C., although it resulted in arrests (Franklin, “The Young Crusaders” 76). Southern University was associated with protests and marches involving college and high school students, which were subsequently met with expulsions and suspensions, but the leader managed to settle the matter (Franklin, “The Young Crusaders” 77). Easter boycotts also involved teenagers who attempted to uplift Black-owned businesses and combat segregation (Franklin, “The Young Crusaders” 79). The role of student-led protests in the movement was highlighted by the NAACP, which claimed, “Where the students lead, we follow,” despite being initially skeptical of sit-ins (Franklin, “The Young Crusaders” 91). Altogether, students spearheaded some tactics and inspired others with their brave actions.
One of the most prominent examples of children’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement is the Children’s March, which occurred in Birmingham in 1963. The idea that more young people had to be involved in the movement was suggested by James Bevel, who succeeded in energizing them by appealing to their future ambitions (Mayer 41). Although some, such as Gaston, opposed the push to make children participate in the marches, they joined the first one regardless (Mayer 41, 43). The protesters’ age ranged from six to eighteen, and Audrey, whose story became widely publicized, was only nine (Mayer 44). However, the tender age and being a girl did not spare her from being arrested for several days (Mayer 44). The subsequent march was met with fire hoses, despite the protestors remaining nonviolent (Mayer 47). The attack on the children mobilized their families and united the community, while Gaston had to review his original opinion (Mayer 51). Some pictures of the event spread throughout the country, reaching President Kennedy, who went “sick” upon seeing how a police dog bit a protester (Mayer 55). Therefore, the Children’s March revitalized the movement and further publicized it.
The fact that President Kennedy noticed the unwarranted violence directed at Birmingham’s youth was crucial for the fight for civil rights. His immediate response was to initiate negotiations between the communities, although he was aware that the city failed its Black citizens (Mayer 55). However, the protests continued, and Connor, which was in charge of the police department, was relentless. Kennedy-appointed Marshall tried to convince King to wait until a new government assumes its duties, but the leader persevered (Mayer 63). On May 8, almost a week after the first march, the President made a statement for equality, using the events in Birmingham as an example (Mayer 73). After several episodes of violence, the students who had participated in the marches were expelled, although the decision was reversed by the Court, and Connor also lost his post (Mayer 89). Ultimately, what happened in Birmingham prompted Kennedy to start working on a civil rights bill, which would address the protesters’ demands (Mayer 92). However, before it passed a year later, owning to children’s invaluable contribution, more victims had to be claimed.
Children were not always active participants of the movement – sometimes, they faced violence and death for simply existing. Birmingham continued to be the center of the events as the tension would only rise following the flimsy negotiations. A tragedy befell the city’s Black community again when six teenagers were murdered on September 15 (Cox 63). Four of them were fourteen-year-old girls, who became victims of a church bombing organized by the Ku Klux Clan, and two boys were shot in the aftermath by the white forces represented by the police and vigilantes (Cox 63). The case lasted many years until the culprits faced justice, which did not inspire much confidence in the Black community. However, a typical white person would probably refrain from association with child killers; furthermore, Christians could have viewed the act as sinful and being against the Church. In hindsight, the event further confirmed the need to pass a civil rights bill, although it cost several previous lives.
Following the complicated and violent Birmingham events, teenage students and young children also participated in the Selma march of 1965. Although the former mostly joined it on their own accord and were associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the younger members were likely to be brought by parents (Partridge 15). Both groups were trained on how to protect themselves, as the threat of violence was palpable (Partridge 30). It ensued on March 7, which is known as Bloody Sunday, prompting a response from President Johnson (Partridge 30-32). The injured included several children, the treatment of which was merciless, exemplified by Lynda, who needed 30 stitches to close a wound (Partridge 32). King later addressed the event in a speech, and President Johnson expressed his resolution to “overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice” (Partridge 39). Eventually, the Voting Right Act that would resolve the issue of being unable to register as an African American was passed. As in other cases, children played a significant role in making politicians take legal action against the oppression of Black people by pure determination, although they had to suffer injuries and tear gas.
The role of children in the Civil Rights Movement cannot be underestimated. They could experience discrimination firsthand by simply attending a school, regardless of whether it was segregated, so improving their environment was important. No one instigated them to participate in the protests; on the contrary, children managed to revitalize the movement on several occasions, such as the Greensboro sit-in and the Children’s March. They inspired adults to be more active in protecting and advancing their rights, even though it was accompanied by violence from the white community and officials. The incidents, including the tragedy in Birmingham, did not resonate with Black parents only; after all, everyone had children, including Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, which reacted to the violent events. Some may argue that using children was a deliberate strategy to advance the cause, and such leaders as Bevel and King openly admitted it. However, completely removing their agency is wrong, as many willingly joined the movement. Ultimately, such major legislative victories as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were achieved owning to Black children’s contribution and sacrifice.
Cox, Julia. “’ Sing It So Loudly’: The Long History of ‘Birmingham Sunday.’” Southern Cultures, vol. 24, no. 3, 2018, pp. 62-75. JSTOR. Web.
Franklin, V. P. “Documenting the Contributions of Children and Teenagers to the Civil Rights Movement.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 100, no. 4, 2015, pp. 663-671. Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Web.
Franklin, V. P. The Young Crusaders. Beacon Press, 2021.
Mayer, Robert H. When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Enslow Publishers, 2008.
Partridge, Elizabeth. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary. Penguin Group, 2009.