Professor Jon Hale

At the NAACP’s annual convention in 1959, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights association, leaders paid homage to Youth Council chapters in Wichita and Oklahoma City. High school youth in these towns received the honor for staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Both protests were successful, pressuring the owners to desegregate and prompting the NAACP to contemplate the utility of direct-action protests. Though the Association opted to continue their more conventional legal strategy to challenge segregation, youth in Kansas and Oklahoma arguably established the blueprint for the sit-in movement that captivated the consciousness of the nation over a year later. While these high school students and others across the South played critical roles in the Civil Rights Movement, their influence is regrettably overlooked as we commemorate the milestones of the movement, such as the sit-ins, whose origins we typically trace to Greensboro, North Carolina.

Though dismissed in the historiography, youth understood the historic import and significance of their actions. When looking back upon the first sit-in in 1960 in Charleston, South Carolina, Rev. James Blake noted that, “You saw the rise of a new kind of black youth in America and the Southland. We saw young people who were not able to accept things as status quo.” Blake was a student leader of a cohort that thrust themselves into the frontlines of the movement. He helped organize the first direct action protest of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the southern town where, nearly ninety-nine years to the day, the first shots of the Civil War were fired. What was even more significant is that Blake and his cohort were still in high school, attending the segregated Burke High School in downtown Charleston. They took their cue from the North Carolina A&T students who sat-in at a Woolworth’s two months before. “We were fascinated, as you can imagine,” Harvey Gantt, a fellow Burke High School student and later the first black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, recalled. Cognizant of his age, Gantt went on to note, “You know, those kids are in college. Why can’t we do the same thing to show our dissatisfaction with segregation?” [1]

James Blake and Harvey Gantt correctly noted they were “a new kind of black youth.” They were on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement while they were still in high school. They were younger than the college students capturing national headlines, yet they received little credit. In the case of the twenty-four Burke High School students who proudly sat-in the white section of the lunch counter at the S.H. Kress in downtown Charleston, they were the first to initiate a local movement. Especially in towns like Charleston that did not have a historically black college (the College of Charleston remained segregated until 1968), carrying forth the freedom struggle fell upon the shoulders of high school youth.

In cities across the South, young people like those in Wichita, Oklahoma City, and Charleston contributed to local movements already in motion. High school students in the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi, organized a citywide walkout in May 1963 in support of burgeoning economic boycotts and an increasing number of sit-ins. Over five hundred students walked out of their schools to protest legal segregation and to join local demonstrations downtown. “We were able to organize three high schools,” Hezekiah Watkins, a high school student at Lanier High School who served time in the state’s notorious prison Parchman Penitentiary for his activism in 1961, “and we made history that day.” City police arrested and placed the young protesters in the livestock pens at the state fairgrounds because the jails were overcrowded. “I remember walking out of Brinkley High School and we were put in a garbage truck and were taken to the fairgrounds until our parents came and got us,” Hymethia Thompson, a high school activist, recalled of the protest.[2]

That same month Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the “Children’s Crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama. When local adults did not respond to King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Wyatt Tee Walker and Rev. James Bevel turned their attention to youth. Charismatic leaders able to attract young people to the front lines, Walker and Bevel mobilized youth for an unprecedented challenge to Jim Crow. Thousands of children courageously responded. Jackie Haze, a student at Birmingham’s Parker High School recalled, “you could hear the people on the bull horns saying, ‘come on and join us.’ We were told not to leave the classrooms. We were told not to leave the school grounds.”[3]  Haze and her peers disobeyed the warnings issued by teachers and walked out. Deborah Hill, a student at Western Olin High School, remembered of the chaos and turmoil at Kelly Ingram Park, where Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor released dogs and sprayed firehoses on the children, “We honestly felt that we were going to die. I had never encountered a force so strong in my life. We thought we were going to die, that we would never see our parents again.”[4]  By the end of the day, more than 1,000 students were arrested and King’s call for support was answered, just not by the foot soldiers he anticipated. The shocking imagery of police dogs and water hoses unleashed on children constituted a watershed moment in American history.

Young people were influential actors in the local movement across the South. They filled the jails, sat-in on the lunch counters, walked out of schools. They galvanized local movements. They inspired their parents to take a stand. More than a contribution, their participation provokes deeper analysis. Their presence on the frontlines expands our understanding of the freedom struggle because youth posed serious questions as to how the movement should be organized, for what purposes, and who, if anyone, should be kept on the sidelines.

As scholars continue to examine and reevaluate the contours of our nation’s historic struggle for freedom, particularly during Black History Month, youth voices must be brought to the fore as they communicate different truths and layered nuance to our understandings of the historic freedom struggle. Their participation illuminates how youth participation steered the actions of organizers to avoid controversy or breeding mistrust in local communities. As Dave Dennis, a Congress of Racial Equality field organizer in Mississippi and Louisiana, recalled, “many times it was our job to keep kids off the front lines.”[5]  Youth participation could be divisive as well. Malcolm X derided Dr. King for the decision to use young people of foot soldiers. “Real men,” Malcolm X noted to a New York Times reporter just days after the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, “don’t put their children on the firing line.” [6]

As scholars and education practitioners continue to search for the means, methods, and mechanisms to push the contemporary movement to new heights, we must move beyond the traditional paradigm of education. A mere inclusion of youth activism into our analysis and curriculum will not suffice as young people in our classrooms are not simple receptacles of this history. The very history we seek to instill bespeaks an agency rarely recognized. A history of youth activism is one method by which encourage our students to see themselves in history as they contemplate the future that they must determine of their own accord. Student agency is a topic of the past as much as it is a valid course of action in the contemporary context.


[1] Rev. James Blake in “South Carolina Voices of the Civil Rights Movement,” transcript, p. 198, Avery Research Center, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC; Harvey B. Gantt, interview with the author, November 28, 2011.

[2] Hezekiah Watkins, interview with the author, August 26 and 27, 2008; Hymethia Washington Lofton Thompson, interview with the author, August 26, 2008.

[3] Dr. Horace Huntley interview with Jackie Haze, January 21, 1998, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Oral History Project, Volume 31

[4] Dr. Horace Huntley interview with Deborah Hill, May 12, 1997, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Oral History Project, Volume 26;

[5] Charles McDew, interview with Katherine Shannon, August 24, 1967, Civil Rights Documentation Project, Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University (transcript in possession of author, courtesy of Joellen ElBashir), 76; Dave Dennis, interview with the author, October 25, 2011 (quotation); Dittmer, Local People, 110.

[6] Malcolm X quoted in M. S. Handler, “Malcolm X Terms Dr. King’s Tactics Futile,” New York Times, May 11, 1963; Andrew Young, “The day we went to jail in Birmingham,” Friends (February 9, 1964), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) collection, box 135 folder 26 “Young – “Teens on the March in Birmingham – 1964’”, King Center, Atlanta, GA; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954-1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 680-187.