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When a school walkout made a huge difference

Updated 2:59 PM ET, Wed March 14, 2018

Editor's Note: Alexandra Styron's forthcoming book, "Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence, and Fixing (Almost) Everything," is for teen readers. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN) - On May 3, 1963, more than 800 black children in Birmingham, Alabama, skipped school. That morning, local DJ "Shelley the Playboy" Stewart served up some coded patter, confirming that the plan was on as scheduled. "Kids, there's gonna be a party at the park," he said. "Bring your toothbrushes because lunch will be served."

For months, Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had focused their desegregation efforts on Birmingham, a city riven by racial division. Some of the children, inspired by workshops at the 16th Street Baptist Church, had received enthusiastic permission from their parents to participate in the march. Some had to beg their mothers and fathers to go.

And some, like the high school students who got wind of the protest and jumped the fence after their principal locked the gate, went without anyone's approval.

At 1 o'clock, the kids set out from the church, walking calmly toward the downtown business district. They carried signs indicative of their pacifist message -- "Can Man Love God and Hate His Brother," "We Are One In Christ Jesus" -- and sang spirituals to calm their nerves. The city's infamous commissioner of public safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, and his police force were waiting. So was the international press corps.

By nightfall, close to 1,000 children between the ages of 8 and 20 had been taken to the Birmingham jail. In the following days, after brutal pushback from Commissioner Connor's men, hundreds more were detained.

Inside their cells, the kids had courage and faith -- and toothbrushes -- to keep themselves in order. Outside, chaos broke out before the eyes of an astonished public.

The Birmingham Children's Crusade is now widely recognized as a major turning point in the civil rights narrative. News coverage of the children's ordeal shocked the world and shamed the city. In the lead-up to the march, King had clashed with other organizers over the wisdom of letting kids demonstrate. In the aftermath, as Birmingham's police force was being compared to Nazi storm troopers, Alabama's white elite had their own soul searching to do.

But one thing was never in question: the sincerity of the children's motives. No one accused the kids of being "crisis actors" or puppets for special interest groups. Rather, the images that beamed out -- of boys and girls being set upon by police dogs, of small bodies pinned by the force of fire hoses -- provided evidence to a stunned world of what every black person in America already knew: youth was not a shield from violence and childhood no inoculation against hate.

Four months after the march, 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed during Sunday morning services. Four young girls were killed in the blast. It would be years before their killers, all members of the KKK, were brought to justice. The children of Birmingham weren't just marching for desegregation. They were marching for their lives.

Fifty-five years after Birmingham became a symbol of America's shame, children all over the country on Wednesday will again be skipping school, this time to demand sensible gun control. They're charging over a well-traveled intersection. Here, at the corner of Youth and Survival, is where revolutions catch fire.

Adults may lay their claim to partisan victories, rocky transitions of power, and even good old fashioned CIA-backed coups. But there is nothing like a youth movement to slap some sense into people and reset the compass of history, usually in the direction of good.

In the few short weeks since Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, student protesters have already notched a tangible victory by moving Gov. Rick Scott to sign legislation raising the age requirement to purchase guns. Florida was ahead of many other states in enacting a concealed-carry law, and has owned the title of most mass shootings by state in recent years.

But, in the face of opposition from the teenagers of Parkland, The "Gunshine State" may at last have met its match.

The Mill Children. The White Rose Movement. Vietnam War protesters. The front line of the Arab Spring. Like their new comrades, youth protesters usually come to the party with more than toothbrushes. They bring full kit bags. Much of that space is reserved for moral clarity, a highly defined sense of right and wrong not yet smudged by the disappointments and ambiguities of adulthood.

There's some moral relativism, too. Legislators can wrap themselves in the flag all day. But when old people make decisions that cause young people to die, it isn't hard to seize the high ground. And then, of course, there are optics. Fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio on her knees in an anguished scream at Kent State; Elizabeth Eckford entering Little Rock Central High trailed by a demonic horde; Emma Gonzalez wiping away a furious tear under the hot Florida sun. If you aren't affected by children manifesting this combination of pain and courage, you might want to check to see if you still have a pulse.

A word should be said, too, about privilege. The intrinsic privilege most American kids possess -- no clocks to punch, no mouths to feed -- that allows them to test the limits of their bodies and convictions, circumscribed only by what a parent or a principal will indulge. But also the more material blessings that make activism easier and, sometimes, more effective.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where Cruz killed 17 people with a semiautomatic rifle, are residents of the affluent community of Parkland, Florida. Many of the survivors of the February 14 shooting were accompanied to an anti-gun rally in Fort Lauderdale three days later, and a subsequent listening session at the White House, by parents with both the time and the means to support their children's mission.

Allies are a bonus in all of life's endeavors; they are essential to a winning protest movement. As David Harris, leader of the draft resistance movement at Stanford University, recently said of his experience, if you were in college in 1967 "you wouldn't end up in the tall grass with the poor people... all that was required of me was cooperation. I wasn't comfortable with that." Harris didn't have to go to Vietnam. But he spent 15 months in jail because boys, less fortunate than he, did.

Still, what may be most remarkable -- and promising -- about these new activists is not what separates them from one another, but what binds them together. They are browner (minority groups are now the majority among American youth), greener (young people have shown they are willing to pay more for sustainable products), and queerer (only 48% of today's teens consider themselves strictly heterosexual) than any American generation before them.

They do stare at their smartphones an ungodly amount, but what they are finding there is a cohort that, increasingly, looks and lives and loves a lot like they do. Their challenges are serious, but they no longer face them in the same kind of isolation.

And when they stick up for themselves, they are sticking up for one another. If, as adults, we cannot manage to protect them, we'd do best to get out of their way and let them lead the fight.


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