History

“They Were Assumed to Be Puppets of Martin Luther King Jr.”

For decades, we’ve been replaying the same absurd partisan debate over whether to take high school activism seriously.

Majory Stoneman High School student Cameron Kasky addresses students as they rally after participating in a countywide school walkout in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday.
Majory Stoneman High School student Cameron Kasky addresses students as they rally after participating in a countywide school walkout in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday.
Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

The right is coming for the Parkland activists. First, we got the standard-issue accusations that the Florida kids who are walking out of school, tweeting, and organizing a march on Washington from their parents’ living rooms are professional protesters or brainwashed tools of the liberal establishment. Next, Ben Shapiro wrote a less conspiracy-minded, more ideologically complete articulation of right-wing objections to the young survivor-activists in the National Review. Kids, Shapiro argued, are not “fully rational actors. They’re not capable of exercising supreme responsibilities. And we shouldn’t be treating innocence as a political asset used to push the agenda of more sophisticated players.”

The Parkland activists are following in the footsteps of decades of high school protesters who’ve intervened—both successfully and unsuccessfully—in local and national debates of great significance. In the 20th century, American kids still in high school and middle school forced educational desegregation, fought for the right to protest in school, and spoke out against nuclear war. Over the years, the right has refined its arsenal of objections. Now, in the backlash to the Parkland activists, the argument against the very idea that young people should have any political clout is taking shape once again.

The most successful American high school activist ever must be Barbara Rose Johns (later Barbara Rose Johns Powell), a high school junior who organized a strike with her classmates at the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1951. Moton High was horrendously overcrowded and underfunded. When black parents protested the conditions, the school district built tar-paper shacks to serve as additional classrooms. Johns’ breaking point came when a few of her classmates, who were employed at the nearby white high school, reported that their student counterparts there enjoyed amenities like science labs, a gym, and working heat.

Johns and her 114 compatriots petitioned the NAACP for help. The organization voiced initial misgivings about the suit, but Johns’ group insisted. That suit eventually ended up as one of the five cases brought to the Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which mandated desegregation in public schools in the United States. Somehow, the fact of Johns’ youth went overlooked at the time of Brown v. Board. Historian Taylor Branch thought that was because of how early Johns’ stand came in the course of midcentury civil rights activism: “The idea that non-adults of any race might play a leading role in political events had simply failed to register on anyone.”

That would change. Teenagers Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, arrested for refusing to give up their seats on a bus months before Rosa Parks became the spark for the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, became plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the 1956 case challenging segregation on public transportation that eventually went to the Supreme Court. Historian Jeanne Theoharis writes that Colvin and Smith “agreed to take part in the case when most adults did not have the courage to do so.” In 1963, 3,000 young people protested in Birmingham, Alabama, as part of the Children’s Crusade, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While the adult leaders in the SCLC launched this particular protest, many participants remembered joining up out of their own sense of right and wrong. Protester Jessie Shepherd, 16 at the time of the protest, told journalist Lottie L. Joiner in 2013: “I was told not to participate. But I was tired of the injustice.” As Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford, told Joiner, “[King] had never led a massive campaign of civil disobedience before, and there were not enough adults prepared to be arrested. So the Children’s Crusade turned the tide of the movement.”

Children participating in a civil rights protest wait for a police van to take them to jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
Children participating in a civil rights protest wait for a police van to take them to jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
Bettmann/Getty Images

The images of children being blasted by fire hoses and menaced by police dogs shocked the nation and helped King negotiate for the removal of the city’s racist commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor. Yet the students didn’t get much credit at the time, and in fact, their involvement offered ammunition to opponents of King. Theoharis writes of the reaction: “The students whose actions gained that attention are not taken seriously as actors, but are often assumed to have been puppets of King.” Other young people in the movement faced similar accusations; as historian Kevin Kruse noted on Twitter recently, segregationists also insisted that the teenagers who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, were paid protesters imported from the North.

Later in the 1960s, white high school students, influenced by the political tenor of the times, mounted their own crusades. In 1970, 16-year-old Chesley Karr went to court to fight the school policy mandating short haircuts for boys. Historian Gael Graham points out that during a short period at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s, a hundred hair-related court cases went to the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, and “nine were appealed all the way to the U.S.
Supreme Court.” Graham cites a report from the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on General Education on student unrest in 1968–69, which found that in American high schools, “nearly 70 percent of student protests involved student discipline and dress codes.”

Police handcuff two young women in front of Belmont High School during a protest at the school on March 8, 1968, in Los Angeles.
Police handcuff two young women in front of Belmont High School during a protest at the school on March 8, 1968, in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Herald-Examiner Collection photographs/Los Angeles Public Library

These kinds of complaints could seem like piddling stuff, compared to the big asks for desegregation being made by young protesters of color. But in a way, the hair complaints of white boys like Karr, and the more comprehensive demands of Chicano high school activists who walked out of six Los Angeles high schools in March 1968 to petition for a more diverse curriculum and more resources for their schools, were bound up together. As Graham writes, “the issue of long hair on minor boys may seem trivial today” (and, she points out, “many contemporaries, including judges, found it trivial then”), but the fervent adult reaction to the kids’ equally fervent demands for change reveals something important about the way intergenerational relationships were changing during the ’60s.

Some of the adults arrayed against Karr referred to the greater social disruption of the ’60s in arguing that the haircut line was important to hold. An assistant principal at Karr’s school said, in explaining his position against an amendment in the haircut rule: “Any good army has discipline.” Graham read letters to the editor in local papers, reacting to the Karr case, and concluded: “To some adults, traditional authority could tolerate no diminution.”

Other adults who saw the Karr case unfold viewed the stakes as equally high but agreed with the kids that the treatment high schoolers received in school violated their rights. 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Minor Wisdom, dissenting from his court’s ruling against Karr in 1972, phrased Karr’s case in a rebuttal Graham calls “blistering”: “Forced dress, including forced hair style, humiliates the unwilling complier, forces him to submerge his individuality in the ‘undistracting’ mass, and in general, smacks of the exaltation of organization over member, unit over component, and state over individual.”

Mary Beth Tinker and her brother, John, display two black armbands, the objects of a U.S. Supreme Court case, in 1968.
Mary Beth Tinker and her brother, John, display two black armbands, the objects of a U.S. Supreme Court case, in 1968.
Bettmann/Getty Images

You can see the political importance of these fights over dress codes in another case, Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), which, unlike Karr’s, made it to the Supreme Court. John and Mary Beth Tinker, the named plaintiffs in that case, were 15 and 13 in 1965, when they wore black armbands to school to protest the war in Vietnam, violating an anti-armband policy the school board hastily put in place after learning of their plans. After a four-year court battle, the justices of the Supreme Court ruled that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Although Justice Potter Stewart wrote a concurring opinion that held that children’s First Amendment rights were not necessarily guaranteed if the school could prove their speech was disruptive, the case did open the door for students to protest in school, under certain conditions.

And many of those protests had consequences. In the early 1980s, children’s arguments against nuclear war galvanized adult activists. President Jimmy Carter invoked Amy Carter’s critique of nuclear weapons in a 1980 presidential debate. When The Day After aired in 1983, the national media spent quite a bit of time dissecting the movie’s possible effects on children, whose nuclear fears the general public perceived as acute and harmful. Groups like the Children’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament flooded the White House with thousands of letters advocating for the end of the Cold War.

Just as adults who believe in gun control have celebrated the clarity they’ve found in the testimony of the Parkland activists, adults predisposed to be critical of the nuclear arms race saw children’s anti-nuclear arguments as carrying a special kind of truth. The children, ethicist Roger L. Shinn wrote in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1984, were canaries in the coal mine: “There are some signs that the public seems largely unaware of the issue. But other signs, sometimes in the inadvertent remarks of children, reveal a deep awareness that we live in a fragile civilization that could go up in a mushroom cloud.”

Meanwhile, reports of anti-nuclear feeling among the young met with the kind of conservative scorn that further refined the blueprint for today’s arguments against Parkland activists. In 1985, Joseph Adelson and Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote a skeptical take on kids’ nuclear protests in Commentary, leading with an account of the testimony teenagers gave to the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families in September 1983, advocating for nuclear disarmament. Adelson and Finn critiqued children’s anti-nuclear activism on two fronts. First, they argued that the science proving a mass of American kids were anxious about the issue was soft and that psychologists and psychiatrists were ignoring that fact because they had been “called into missionary service.” These professionals, Finn and Adelson argued, had become “reckless,” because “the righteousness of the cause and the felt urgency of its success ride roughshod over any effort at scientific constraint.”

The objection more relevant to the present-day right-wing campaign against the Parkland kids is their second one. Adelson and Finn thought the very idea of kids having a political voice was misbegotten. “That we can attain truth more easily through innocence than through intelligence is a notion too sentimental to withstand scrutiny,” they wrote. “To accept the childlike as testimony or as argument requires a suspension of disbelief.” Because they were unnatural advocates for their causes, children or teenagers who participated in activism had a short shelf life. “The child must be forthcoming yet not brassy, bright yet not freaky, articulate yet not overbearing … above all, coachable without seeming overcoached,” they wrote. Samantha Smith, the child pacifist who visited Russia in 1983, “although carefully managed, soon came to seem artificial and tedious,” at least to Adelson and Finn.

And so we come back to Parkland. Let’s set aside the hypocrisy in the right’s position, galling though it may be. (As my colleague Osita Nwanevu writes, conservatives seem quite willing to give a high schooler or middle schooler a voice when that child has the correct opinion.) Ben Shapiro’s argument is the most cogent contemporary articulation of the right’s belief that children and teenagers are incapable of rationality and therefore need to be excluded altogether from political conversation. In Shapiro’s view, children’s observations on matters that concern them—will my school be desegregated, will I be killed in a nuclear explosion, will a shooter come into my chemistry class—can only ever be emotional and therefore must be considered external to politics.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez speaks at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Saturday.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez speaks at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Saturday.
Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

Shapiro’s position gets framed as scientific, but it feels authoritarian at heart, consonant with a philosophy that treasures hierarchy above all. It’s worth noting that objections to children’s activism sound a lot like those that have been mounted to the inclusion of women and people of color in the body politic. All of these groups have been variously portrayed as hysterical, irrational, demanding, biased, and easily manipulated. In an accusation like the one President Donald Trump levied against Judge Gonzalo Curiel (remember when the candidate insinuated during his campaign that the judge would be incapable of fairly evaluating a case against Trump because he’s of Mexican descent?), you can see how the assignment of “childlike” traits of emotionality can also be used to diminish a nonwhite authority figure’s power.

Watching the right advocate for a nation of armed schoolteachers, it’s screamingly obvious that political positions, even those held by supposedly “rational” adults, come from both heart and head. And the history of youth activism on the left shows that kids can in fact make a difference.

For Jeanne Theoharis, who has written about young civil rights activists, the omission of their stories from the civil rights narrative serves to dampen present-day youth activism, leading to the bizarre spectacle of Black Lives Matter supporters being chastised and told to act “more like Martin Luther King.” This can happen because “[young midcentury activists’] willingness to push the envelope and be more confrontational than their elders is all but absent in understandings of the movement’s successes,” she writes. The Parkland activists are pushing that envelope right now. Let’s remember Barbara Johns, and cheer them on.