As I continue studying the roles of young people throughout society, I find more places where the roots of youth voice, youth action, youth-led organizing, and civic youth engagement were growing a long time ago. After showing how these roots extend all the way into the Victorian Era, today I want to start in the 1930s when a different type of youth-led community organizing began to rise.
Suddenly, basic welfare and human rights were not enough. Instead, these youth were focused on political power. It was as if they knew Eduardo Galeano was going to write,
“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people.”
Rising Within the Depression
It was the Great Depression, and the American Youth Congress produced the Declaration of Rights of American Youth, which they presented in front of the U.S. Congress. This group succeeded in getting a concise youth-focused agenda in front of elected officials, if not nominating youth suffrage or other rights. Their approach led to the creation of the National Youth Administration.
However, they didn’t represent all youth: The educational and economic rights of Southern black young people were ignored; American Indian children were being actively ripped from their families to be “assimilated” into “American culture”; other young people of color were routinely discriminated against; and poor young people throughout the country were subject to the oppressive machinations of middle class American values, which insisted on gentrification.
Challenging White Supremacy
In addition to this age-based tension, racial awareness among young people was rising. The Zoot Suit Riots during World War II were led by youth. The Civil Rights Movement included a lot of brash leadership by young people. Claudette Colvin was 15 when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman, 9 months before Rosa Parks’ famous launch of the modern movement.
The students at the Greensboro Sit-ins were 18 and 19 years old, only in their first year of college, and their actions informed the creation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Birmingham Campaign, focused on challenging the cultural, political, economic, educational, and social discrimination blacks faced in that Alabama city, was most successful when organizers from the SCLC actively engaged child protesters. It was during these times that Dr. King wrote,
“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”
This was true of young people in these times, as it continues on through history. During this same era, working class and middle class white youth were creating new identities through Beat generation lifestyles and rock and roll, both of which relied on the appropriation and blending of cultural norms to redefine popular culture.
You Can’t Blame The Youth
The tension took shape with the creation of the Students for a Democratic Society, which challenged the very belief Americans held about the impetus for their nation’s existence. With the writing of the Port Huron Statement in 1962, young people took new ownership over their own roles throughout society. They emerged as a political force, and within a decade had succeeded in amending the U.S. Constitution with the passage of the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age across the country to the age of 18 in 1971.
The entrenched radicalization of youth became widespread at this point, supporting the creation of the Youth Liberation Press, based of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which printed materials for youth activists across the country. Youth ran for school board seats, and activities were sponsored by the U.S. government to further entrench young people’s participation throughout society, including the National Commission on Resources for Youth. These were largely successful efforts for their times, and led to further growth over the next 30 years.