In February 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T walked into Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat down at its “whites only” lunch counter. Every day for six months black students returned to the lunch counter; over time their numbers swelled. The sit-in—central in the fight for black civil rights—soon sparked similar nonviolent protests across the South. From its inception, the 1960s civil-rights movement was fueled by youth leaders and student activists. In many cases college students were the ones leading marches, voter-registration drives, and social-justice actions. Yet in lesser known, equally defining moments, younger students of color were spearheading efforts to tackle inequalities and systemic factors that worked against them.
This was the case in Chicago, where public schools in segregated black neighborhoods were under-resourced and overcrowded. In what’s been called “one of the largest and most overlooked civil rights actions of the 1960s” 250,000 students staged a one-day boycott in October 1963. Estimates are that half of Chicago students participated in the walkout, with about 20,000 marching to the Chicago Board of Education in a mass demonstration for equitable resources for black children. The following year (1964) over 450,000 black and Puerto Rican students protested de facto segregation in New York City’s public schools, a decade after Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregated schooling.
More than 50 years later movements for racial and educational justice are once again building momentum. A surge of student activism has swept across academia in recent weeks as black students and their allies forcefully call attention to racist climates on American college campuses. And even as some college-student leaders cite the Black Lives Matter social-justice movement as their inspiration, what’s happening in higher education is being matched by younger peers. High-school youth are flexing their collective muscles for equity: fighting budget cuts and out-of-school suspensions as they take on racial issues and academic offerings.
Andrew Brennen, 19, sees parallels between the movements at the high-school and college levels. A national field director for Student Voice, a youth-led nonprofit growing a corp of involved middle and high schoolers, he points to students’ shared desire “to have agency and voice in their … institutions” and a newfound ability to network and organize through social media. “The student-voice movement is mobilizing around the sense that students are ignored as active agents of their own destiny,” says Brennen, adding that student input is “largely relegated to the margin when it comes to conversations about education policy creation, feedback, and reform.”
But many youth today are not content to be on the sidelines. Like several hundred Chicago teens who rallied against public-school cutbacks and potential teacher layoffs earlier this month. With the state budget at an impasse and politicians locked in a showdown, students held a die-in to signify the harmful impact of yet another budget shortfall. Similarly, Philadelphia students, rocked by a severe school-funding crisis, took to the streets this fall to protest cuts to neighborhood schools. “We just want to let people know … students around the district still feel the effects,” youth organizer Cy Wolfe, a senior at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, told the local ABC affiliate. “If we don't raise our voice, then who will?”