The Power of Youth

The participation of young people made a critical difference in the outcome of the recent presidential election. CIRCLE, The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, reports:

An estimated 23 million young Americans under the age of 30 voted in Tuesday’s presidential election, an increase of 3.4 million compared with 2004…. This year’s youth turnout rivals or exceeds the youth turnout rate of 52% in 1992, which is the highest turnout rate since 1972 (55.4%).

Likewise, back in the 1950s and 1960s, young people played a critical role in charting the future of our nation. During the civil rights movement, children and teenagers bravely faced down police dogs, staged lunch counter sit-ins, and filled jails while parents who couldn’t risk getting fired went to work.

In a recently-released transcript of a 2004 interview, Barack Obama commented on the influence of the civil rights movement on his worldview.

The way I came to Chicago in 1985 was that I was interested in community organizing and I was inspired by the civil rights movement. And the idea that ordinary people could do extraordinary things.

With that in mind, I want to shine the spotlight on a book for young readers called Witnesses to Freedom: Young People Who Fought for Civil Rights by Belinda Rochelle. In just 85 pages, this little book shows how ordinary young people achieved extraordinary things. A review from Reed Business Information says:

While adult leaders’ contributions to the civil rights movement have been well chronicled, those made by young people have not received as much attention. Rochelle relates the pivotal roles played by young African Americans in nine major events, including the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the lunch-counter sit-ins at Woolworth in North Carolina.

Published a decade ago, this book is simple, straightforward, and compelling. The author includes interviews with the courageous students who risked a great deal to improve our world. One chapter is devoted to the story of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Eckford says:

Every day it was something, and often I cried because of the torment that my parents and I went through.

Another chapter describes what happened to 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who lived in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Colvin says:

When I refused to get out of that bus seat, I knew that I was going to be arrested. The bus driver and the policeman thought that it was just about a bus seat. It wasn’t just about a seat. I felt the Jim Crow laws were unfair.

Readers may be surprised to learn that Colvin did this months before seamstress Rosa Parks did the same.

Witnesses to Freedom will remind young people—even those too young to vote—of the important role they can play in civic and political life.

Posted in Civil Rights, Educators, Shana's Posts on 11/17/2008 01:04 pm

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