"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, January 21, 2013

Young People of the World: Adults Will Not Save You

From Mike Martin: 
It was interesting to watch the inauguration of President Obama on 
Martin Luther King Jr. Day but I still say people need to understand 
what really brought about the Civil Rights Act. What really allowed 
Barack Obama to win the Presidency in the United States of America.

People want to publicize the Tuskogee Airmen, and their history is 
important and dramatic, but mostly as an illustration of the stupidity 
of racism. The Tuskogee Airmen themselves had little effect on people in 
the Jim Crow south. It had an influence in the banning segregation in 
the U.S. military, but not much effect on civil society. The same is 
true of the Brown v. School Board decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. 
That decision made segregation illegal, but it was largely ignored. 
Busing didn't happen because of Brown. School integration didn't happen 
because of Brown. President Eisenhower forced the intregration of Little 
Rock High School, but that was essentially a one time event. Similarly, 
Rosa Parks is lauded for her courage, but she had a very limited effect 
on Jim Crow. Her protest is noted primarily because it was the first 
involvement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has historical import for 
that reason but not because it significantly changed the lives of 
African Americans in the U.S. There were many different efforts to break 
Jim Crow in the 1940s and 1950s, including violent riots. Nothing really 

However, on February 1, 1960, four Black college students (Ezell Blair, 
Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond) started a 
sit-in at the lunch counter of the F. W. Woolworth's in Greensboro, 
North Carolina. As I detailed in an essay at 
http://www.azsba.org/static/index.cfm?contentID=199 this action started 
the movement that crushed Jim Crow. It was 4 college students, not 
college graduates, not adults, not Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who 
started the sit-in that ignited a wildfire across America. Those 
students learned about freedom and courage in American public schools. 
They were still in college when they stood up to Jim Crow. And to top it 
off, the Greensboro business community refused to cave because they new 
the college students would go home for the summer. But when that 
happened, Dudley High School students led by William Thomas took up the 
protest and expanded it to Meyer's and Walgreens. It was then that the 
local business community capitulated. High school students broke Jim 
Crow. They were emulated throughout the country and a national meeting 
of sit-in participants was called to form the Students Nonviolent 
Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

College students in Tennessee were encouraged by the sit-ins and 
performed a sit-in on interstate buses. They were contacted by the 
Congress On Racial Equality about participating in a Freedom Ride on 
buses through the south. That Freedom Ride started in Washington, D.C., 
and when it got to Atlanta they were told by Dr. Martin Luther King, 
Jr., that they would never make it through Alabama. In Birmingham, 
Alabama, violence against the Freedom Riders, including the firebombing 
of one bus, resulted in the adults calling off the effort. But SNCC 
students refused to stop and continued the ride into Montgomery, 
Alabama, where a mob severely beat the riders. One of the white students 
was hospitalized where he told the others to keep going. And they 
continued, with support from the Kennedy Administration and Dr. Martin 
Luther King, Jr., on to Mississippi where they were arrested but the 
federal transportation agency decided to enforce integration in bus 
transportation, so the students won.

That, in turn, inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to try integrating 
businesses in Birmingham, Alabama in early 1963. He instituted marches 
and boycotts, but the adults were repeatedly arrested and thwarted. Dr. 
King wrote in his biography that they were defeated: "As we talked, a 
sense of doom began to pervade the room. I looked about me and saw that 
for the first time our most dedicated and devoted leaders were 
overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness." There was no way the adults 
could defeat Jim Crow. Dr. King realized "If our drive was to be 
successful, we must involve the students of the community. Even though 
we realized that involving teenagers and high school students would 
bring down upon us a heavy fire of criticism, we felt that we needed 
this dramatic new dimension. Our people were demonstrating daily and 
going to jail in numbers, but we were still beating our heads against 
the brick wall of the city officials' stubborn resolve to maintain the 
status quo. Our fight, if won, would benefit people of all ages. But 
most of all we were inspired with the desire to give to our young a true 
sense of their own stake in freedom and justice. We believed they would 
have the courage to respond to our call."

When you see movies of the fire hoses used on marchers, and police dogs 
biting marchers, those marchers were students. Bull Connor had 
peacefully arrested the adults, but when thousands of kids joined the 
protest he turned violent because he ran out of jail space and they 
still kept marching. The fire hoses and police dogs didn't stop the 
students from continuing the protest marches. The business community 
finally capitulated in the face of the student protest. The student led 
triumph in Birmingham resulted in a national vindication for Dr. King 
and nonviolent protests. It resulted in the galvanizing of protests 
against Jim Crow and the organization of the "March On Washington" where 
on August 28th, 1963, in Washington, D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 
gave his "I have a dream" speech. That is a historical event, but it 
wasn't a triumph of adults. Condoleeza Rice lived with her parents in 
Birmingham, Alabama, at the time and they did not participate in the 
protests. The adults lived with Jim Crow, it was the students who 
learned about freedom and justice in their public schools who broke Jim 

The Birmingham Board of Education, however, expelled over a thousand of 
the protesting students, which continued the controversy. So in the fall 
of 1963 protesters attempted to integrate Birmingham schools, 9 years 
after Brown. They enrolled children in white schools in the face of 
rioters who tried to attack them, and after a series of unfortunate 
events, the schools were, in fact, integrated. The protests were 
organized and led out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church. It was in 
September, 1963, during this school integration struggle that this 
church was bombed, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair and three 
14-year-olds: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins. It 
was this bombing that outraged the nation, even the world, and 
galvanized efforts to finally bring civil rights to Black Americans. 
Certainly the protests were organized and instigated by adults, but it 
was the courage of 11-year-old Dwight and 9-year-old Floyd Armstrong 
enrolling at Birmingham’s Graymont elementary school in the face of 
jeering adult mobs, and teenager Richard A. Walker who integrated Ramsay 
High School as a White mob fought with police, that integrated public 
education. And, of course, four young students died in the process as well.

For some reason, no one wants to give credit to the children and their 
public schools for liberating America. Certainly I haven't heard Barack 
Obama talk about them. Certainly I haven't heard Arne Duncan talk about 
them. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., learned from them, not the other 
way around. Where did 4 young adults get the idea to stand up against 
Jim Crow nonviolently in Greensboro, North Carolina? Where did the young 
Freedom Riders who refused to quit when the adults gave up get their 
ideas of courage and liberty? What possessed young people in Birmingham, 
Alabama, to face down fire hoses and police dogs to rescue a failed 
adult protest? With adults screaming violently at them, how is it that 
school children in Birmingham integrated schools? Do we really want to 
teach that history just happens? Mysteriously?

It seems to me that this is the most important lesson to teach young 
people today: the adults are not going to save you. The adults are not 
going to prevent global warming. It is not Barack Obama who will control 
guns and stop children from being shot to death in classrooms. The NRA 
is nothing compared to Jim Crow. Jim Crow had night riders, lynchings, 
assassinations. Students crushed Jim Crow. They did it by learning about 
history, by learning about leadership, by learning about courage, by 
learning about perseverance, by learning about working together 
nonviolently. Where did they learn this?
Mike Martin
Phoenix, Az

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your point of view regarding "who really saved America from its racist stronghold", and I agree somewhat. But I think that it was a concerted effort on the part of all who protested, marched, sit-in, debated, walked, died, prayed, stayed, and lived to tell about it.