“Most adults have bills to pay – house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills, but young people…are not hooked with all those responsibilities,” observed James Bevel, in arguing for recruiting children to participate in the 1960s civil rights movement.
Over 50 years ago, the Children’s Crusade had a profound effect on changing America’s attitude towards racial segregation. Young black schoolchildren walked through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, protesting for their civil rights. The images of the local police using attack dogs and powerful firehoses against the demonstrators precipitated federal intervention and shamed local authorities to begin the process of desegregation.
Angry teenagers are now protesting for stricter gun control in the United States. Survivors of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, are using social media – #NeverAgain – and widely reported public meetings with legislators in the Florida capital Tallahassee, and with President Trump in the White House to press their demands.
Where adults have failed to legislate common sense restrictions on who buys what in a country awash in weapons – over 300 million guns are in circulation – students at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland are taking the lead.
Can they make a difference?
No major changes have taken place following shootings in Newton, Conn., Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas, and Sutherland, Springs, Tex. Right after the 2012 fatal shooting of 20 six- and seven – year olds at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Barack Obama gave a televised address saying, “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Despite a Democratic-controlled Senate, he was unable to get passage of significant federal gun control legislation.
Will this time be different? According to Democratic Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, it could be. “There is an increasingly mature political movement that can combine with the unique moral authority of the kids,” he said.
What is the “unique moral authority of the kids”? In Birmingham, the children were sent out to march with the strong possibility that they would be defenseless against the racial antagonism of the authorities. It was the viciousness of the attacks against them, pitting their innocence against police brutality, that gave them moral authority.
The children’s march was part of a larger movement. Without the political savvy of Martin Luther King Jr. and men like James Bevel as well as organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, there would have been no desegregation. The Children’s Crusade was part of a larger movement, a tactic in a greater strategy designed by veteran activists.
That is why Murphy mentions “an increasingly mature political movement.” Groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords and Moms Demand Action, have been campaigning for greater gun control for decades. My inference from Murphy is that the combination of a “mature political movement” and the “unique moral authority of the kids” might lead to eventual legislation and reducing the chances of more school shootings.
I’m not sure if the students at Douglas High School see it this way. “Pissed,” – as the father of one of the victims exclaimed during the meeting with President Trump in the White House – the children are energized by their revulsion at what took place, at the friends they lost. Working day and night, with all the tools available to their generation via social media, they are planning a major demonstration in Washington on March 24. Many cities throughout the country will join in, perhaps even in Europe.
In the best of worlds, there would be complementarity between the children’s moral authority and the political know-how of veteran activists. It is hard to see how one can function without the other, as Murphy the politician understands
But times have changed. The children who walked in Birmingham were passive troopers carrying out the wishes of adults. They were pawns in a much more complex game. The Douglas students are not pawns. They have an agenda that will include challenging candidates in the 2018 elections. They are asserting leadership.
When Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old student who survived the school shooting, publicly questions his senator from Florida: “Sen. Rubio, can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” one senses that a shift has occurred. At that moment, Kasky had more than abstract moral authority; he was in control. It was the veteran Senator Rubio who was on the defensive.
So not only are these children/students “pissed,” they are ready to act on their own. There are intimations that they now have more than just moral authority, they are beginning to show political power.
Mature political movements have been formed and acted after each shooting. They have not been successful. This time may be different. The children/students in Florida and elsewhere seem ready to lead us, with a deep sense of the tragedy they witnessed combined with a mature responsibility to stop it from happening again.