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Collection Civil Rights History Project

Youth in the Civil Rights Movement

At its height in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement drew children, teenagers, and young adults into a maelstrom of meetings, marches, violence, and in some cases, imprisonment. Why did so many young people decide to become activists for social justice? Joyce Ladner answers this question in her interview with the Civil Rights History Project, pointing to the strong support of her elders in shaping her future path: “The Movement was the most exciting thing that one could engage in.  I often say that, in fact, I coined the term, the ‘Emmett Till generation.’  I said that there was no more exciting time to have been born at the time and the place and to the parents that movement, young movement, people were born to… I remember so clearly Uncle Archie who was in World War I, went to France, and he always told us, ‘Your generation is going to change things.’” 

Several activists interviewed for the Civil Rights History Project were in elementary school when they joined the movement. Freeman Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was inspired to march in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963. While sitting in the back of church one Sunday, his ears perked up when he heard a man speak about a march for integrated schools. A math geek, Hrabowski was excited about the possibility of competing academically with white children. While spending many days in prison after he was arrested at the march, photographs of police and dogs attacking the children drew nationwide attention. Hrabowski remembers that at the prison, Dr. King told him and the other children, “What you do this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.” He continues, “I’ll never forget that. I didn’t even understand it, but I knew it was powerful, powerful, very powerful.” Hrabowski went on to become president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he has made extraordinary strides to support African American students who pursue math and science degrees.

As a child, Clara Luper attended many meetings of the NAACP Youth Council in Oklahoma City because her mother, Marilyn, was the leader of this group. She remembers, “We were having an NAACP Youth Council meeting, and I was eight years old at that time. That’s how I can remember that I was not ten years old. And I – we were talking about our experiences and our negotiation – and I suggested, made a motion that we would go down to Katz Drug Store and just sit, just sit and sit until they served us.” This protest led to the desegregation of the drug store’s lunch counter in Oklahoma City.  Luper relates more stores about what it was like to grow up in a family that was constantly involved in the movement.

While some young people came into the movement by way of their parents’ activism and their explicit encouragement, others had to make an abrupt and hard break in order to do so, with some even severing familial ties. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was a young white girl from Arlington, Virginia, when she came to realize the hypocrisy of her segregated church in which she learned songs such as “Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white.” When she left Duke University to join the movement, her mother, who had been raised in Georgia, “thought I had been sort of sucked up into a cult… it went against everything she had grown up and believed in.  I can say that a little more generously now than I could have then.” Phil Hutchings’ father was a lifetime member of the NAACP, but couldn’t support his son when he moved toward radicalism and Black Power in the late 1960s. Hutchings reflects on the way their different approaches to the struggle divided the two men, a common generational divide for many families who lived through those times:  “He just couldn’t go beyond a certain point.  And we had gone beyond that… and the fact that his son was doing it… the first person in the family who had a chance to complete a college education. I dropped out of school for eleven years… He thought I was wasting my life.  He said, ‘Are you … happy working for Mr. Castro?’”

Many college student activists sacrificed or postponed their formal education, but they were also picking up practical skills that would shape their later careers. Michael Thelwell remembers his time as a student activist with the Nonviolent Action Group, an organization never officially recognized by Howard University and a precursor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): “I don’t think any of us got to Howard with any extensive training in radical political activism. By that I mean, how do you write a press conference [release]? How you get the attention of the press? How do you conduct a nonviolent protest? How do you deal with the police? How do you negotiate or maneuver around the administration? We didn’t come with that experience.” Thelwell’s first job after he graduated from college was to work for SNCC in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist.

Similar reflections about young people in the freedom struggle are available in other collections in the Library.  One such compelling narrative can be found in the webcast of the 2009 Library of Congress lecture by journalist and movement activist, Tracy Sugarman, entitled, “We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi.”   As is readily apparent from that lecture and the previous examples, drawn from the Civil Rights History Project collection, the movement completely transformed the lives of young activists.  Many of them went on to great success as lawyers, professors, politicians, and leaders of their own communities and other social justice movements. They joined the struggle to not only shape their own futures, but to also open the possibilities of a more just world for the generations that came behind them.

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