It seems like young people today are always ready to step up and fight for what they believe in, be it LGBTQ equality, racial or gender equity, or the right to safe schools. And we are loving it! Their passion and resourcefulness is fueling a powerful movement for a more just tomorrow.
And it’s not just today’s youth — there is a long history of youth-led activism creating real, tangible change for the better all over the globe. Ready for a history lesson? Dive in:
Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins, 1960
In an era when it was not uncommon for businesses to openly discriminate against Black patrons, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins were bold and revolutionary. In February 1960, four Black students from North Carolina A&T State University sat at a “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter and refused to leave. In the following days and weeks, hundreds more students joined the protest, and the movement spread to cities all over the South. Many people were arrested, and ultimately the protests spurred Woolworth’s and other businesses to revoke their segregationist policies.
University Uprisings, 1968
1968 saw student uprisings on college campuses in the US and beyond. At Howard University in Washington, DC, a historically black university, over 1,000 students took over an administrative building, demanding that the university’s white president resign over racially insensitive remarks he’d made, that African-American history be better represented in the curriculum, and that a judiciary system involving students be created. Students at New York City’s Columbia University staged a similar movement soon after, protesting a new gym being built in Harlem which would give only limited access to Harlem residents, and Columbia’s contract with a weapons think tank. Overseas in France and Poland, students rose up to protest government censorship and capitalist consumerism, respectively.
Vietnam War Protests, 1960’s/1970’s
Over two million young men were drafted into service during the Vietnam War. It’s no wonder, then, that protests against the war — and the draft — were fueled by the country’s youth. Protests began in the early 1960’s and peaked in 1968 when the war was costing taxpayers $25 billion annually and had already taken over 15,000 lives. And still, the draft was calling 40,000 young men into service every month. Young protesters gathered by the thousands in Washington, DC, marched to the Pentagon, and made their voices heard from coast to coast. Today, the Vietnam War protests are still some of the most memorable and well-known in our nation’s history.
Soweto Uprising, 1976
By 1976, South Africans had been living under apartheid for decades, but few outside the country were paying much attention to its atrocities. Two years earlier, the government had mandated that all education would be conducted in Afrikaans — a language unfamiliar to most Black South Africans and with strong associations to apartheid and the oppressive white government — and English, as opposed to students’ native indigenous languages. On June 16, 1976, between 10,000 and 20,000 students left their schools and rallied in protest. The protesters were met by violence by police, and hundreds of deaths resulted. But ultimately, the protest got the world’s attention and led to the international opposition that would eventually topple the racist government.
Velvet Revolution, 1989
1989 saw one of the fastest, most peaceful, and most successful protests in modern history. Just eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Communist government in East Germany, Czechoslovakia followed suit. Protesters, driven largely by students and young people and eventually numbering half a million, gathered in Prague to push the ruling Communist Party out of power. After just 11 days, they were successful. The Communist Party relinquished power, paving the way for free democratic elections in 1990.
Tiananmen Square, 1989
After weeks of student-led, pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989, the Chinese government retaliated against protesters by firing on the crowds in Tiananmen Square. Hundreds were killed, and today democracy activists, sadly, know just how far the Chinese government will go to quell dissent. But one iconic reminder of the bravery of that day endures: the photograph of Tank Man, a single man standing defiantly in front of four military tanks, embodying determination and resistance for all the world to see.
Arab Spring, 2010
In 2010, youth and social media took center stage as the Arab world was turned on its head. Through Facebook and Twitter, young people organized a revolution of unprecedented size and scope. Beginning in Tunisia, then spreading to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and other Middle Eastern countries, the pro-democracy protests rallied against oppressive governments, police corruption, economic struggle, and widespread human rights violations. Though people of all ages took part in the year-long movement, analysts agree that it was driven by social media-savvy young people.
Black Lives Matter, 2013-Present
When protesters filled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, rallying against the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man in August 2014, Black Lives Matter had already been in existence for about a year. But the Ferguson protests galvanized the movement into something bigger and stronger than ever before. Fueled by youth whose daily experiences with racism and violence could no longer be tolerated, Black Lives Matter went on to organize demonstrations all over the country and continues to do so today.
Dakota Access Pipeline Protests (DAPL), 2016
In its original plans, the Dakota Access Pipeline was slated to pass near Bismark, North Dakota, a predominantly white community. But when residents opposed it, it was rerouted to pass by the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, threatening their clean water supply and destroying sacred lands. Native activists knew it was no coincidence. Native Americans from all over the country, led by the Standing Rock Sioux, protested the pipeline vehemently, often enduring violence. The movement galvanized young Natives and gave birth to the International Indigenous Youth Council, which works to organize and empower young activists on behalf of the environment.
March For Our Lives, 2018
February 14, 2018, was a tipping point for advocates of gun control legislation. After a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL and killed 17 students and wounded 17 more, many felt that the country’s reluctance to enact common-sense gun legislation had gone on too long. Too many lives had been lost, too many public spaces felt unsafe. As the latest victims of lax gun laws, the students rallied and protested. They staged walk-outs, gathered by the millions in Washington, DC, and have continued to keep the pressure on lawmakers to enact gun legislation. While being pro-gun has always been a feather in the cap of many politicians, the tides are now turning. For those running on progressive platforms, they can no longer fly under the radar regarding their position on gun reform, as it's now front and center on the campaign trail.