I wrote recently about a few of the brave children who helped change our nation during the Civil Rights Movement. There are many, many others whose examples should inspire us today. Claudette Colvin – sometimes called “The First Rosa Parks” – was a 15-year-old Black girl who challenged bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama on March 2, 1955, nine months before Mrs. Parks. Claudette boarded a Montgomery city bus and refused to give her seat to a White person when ordered by the driver to do so. Claudette had been studying the U.S. Constitution and the connection between constitutional rights and segregation in school, and insisted she had a constitutional right to her seat because she had paid the same fare. She became the first of several women arrested for refusing to abide by the state’s segregation laws and one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama. Later, when Claudette described her decision to stay in her seat that day, she used a powerful image: “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”
Claudette was just one of many young people determined to prove in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education that they would no longer be confined to “separate but equal.” On August 27, 1956, twelve Black students desegregated Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee making it the first public high school in the South to desegregate. Two years later the school building was bombed; no one was arrested. But the Clinton Twelve were the leading edge of a change wave that could not be stopped. A year later, nine Black students who enrolled at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas despite White mob violence captured national headlines after Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block their entry into the school. The students refused to give up requiring federal troops to be called in to escort the Little Rock Nine to class.
Other students fought for other freedoms. In January 1965, a group of students at the all-Black Henry Weathers High School in Issaquena County, Mississippi began wearing Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) freedom pins to class. A reprimand by school administrators sparked an outpouring of support from other students and community leaders causing 300 students to be suspended for wearing and distributing banned “freedom” buttons. The fearless Unita Blackwell, then a SNCC field officer and parent of one of the students, filed a lawsuit to allow suspended students to return and wear the pins and to demand that Issaquena County schools finally desegregate. She and other community leaders helped open an alternative Freedom School to educate those who boycotted the high school while the fight went on. Unita Blackwell would later become the first Black woman mayor in Mississippi.
Even the youngest children were determined to make a difference. Sheyann Webb, “The Smallest Freedom Fighter,” was eight years old. Her story is captured in the book and movie Selma, Lord, Selma. Sheyann was walking by a civil rights meeting at a local church and curious so went closer to see what was happening. She was immediately drawn in and, despite her parents’ concerns, started attending such meetings regularly on her own. Sheyann was the youngest to join the march from Selma to Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. After the day’s violent events she went home and wrote plans for her own funeral, but returned for the final Selma march without her parents’ knowledge or consent. She was suspended from her elementary school for participating in the Selma march but kept fighting for freedom.
We should make sure children today know these and many other stories about courageous children from the past. We are at another inflection point where children’s voices are desperately needed to help create the nation they deserve. Let’s applaud those young people who have stepped forward to end epidemic gun violence in schools and churches and on streets they must walk; protest the separation of children from their parents; and seek to ensure the right to vote is exercised by all who have it. I hope they will continue to stand, march, and work together seeking freedom and justice for all. We adults should follow their examples.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on Mom’s Rising.