Saluting the Children on the Frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement
By Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children’s Defense Fund
“I can make a difference!” Every July thousands of students from Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® sites across the country participate in the CDF Freedom Schools National Day of Social Action. This year’s action focused on the need to vote for children and the fact that every vote matters. Though children and teenagers in Freedom Schools are too young to vote themselves, they held rallies and marches urging adults to get registered and vote for leaders this election cycle and in every election who will stand for children. Young people are refusing to sit on the sidelines as they see even children’s most basic needs under assault by many in the Trump Administration and Congress.
I am so proud of the Freedom Schools scholars who have learned they are following in the footsteps of children and youths who were the foot soldiers and infantry of the Civil Rights Movement. Some of their stories from the Movement are well known: six-year-old Ruby Bridges in New Orleans walked through White mobs to attend school—even praying for those jeering at her; the Little Rock Nine; the four little girls killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Thousands of children were on the frontlines of history. Whether sung or unsung heroes, we owe all of them a debt of gratitude.
For example, in April 1951, Black students at Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia—led by 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns—walked out of class to protest conditions at their segregated school. Moton was built for 180 students but had 450. Some classes were held in old farm buildings. Students lacked all the basics such as science labs, a gym, or a cafeteria found at all-White Farmville High, just a few blocks away. When Barbara Johns complained how unfair this was a teacher told her she should do something about it. She did, leading her fellow students in a strike. As she later said, “It was time that Negroes were treated equally with Whites, time that they had a decent school, time for the students themselves to do something about it. There wasn’t any fear. I just thought—this is your moment. Seize it!” That strike was a critical push in the start of America’s desegregation movement.
The Moton students’ demonstrations resulted in a court case ultimately bundled with four others before the U.S. Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown case was named for lead plaintiff Oliver Brown, whose nine-year-old daughter Linda in 1950 was barred from attending all-White Sumner Elementary School near their Topeka, Kansas home with her White neighborhood playmates, and instead forced to enroll in an all-Black school miles away. The landmark victory in Brown overturned the “separate, but equal” doctrine established under Plessy v. Ferguson. Years later Linda Brown, who died in March of this year, engaged as a parent in a follow up suit in Topeka because the city’s schools were still not fully integrated. She knew her case had sparked transforming change in our nation, but real change is slow.
For children in Prince Edward County, the Brown victory was shamefully delayed. The county eventually took Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” to school desegregation to its full extreme. In 1959 it closed its entire public school system and created private schools to educate the county’s White children using tuition grants from the state and tax credits from the county. No provision was made for educating the county’s Black children, forcing them to move in with relatives in nearby communities or study in makeshift schools in church basements. Prince Edward public schools remained closed for five years while legal challenges bounced between courts, and about 1,700 Black and lower-income White students struggled to find schooling elsewhere or stayed home. It took another U.S. Supreme Court ruling to force Prince Edward’s schools to finally reopen.
Remembering these past struggles and the price of progress to get non-White children an equal education makes recent threats and actions by the Trump Administration simply evil—as they seek to halt or reverse course on civil rights, education and juvenile justice protections; school desegregation; housing discrimination; and affirmative action. On July 3rd, the Department of Justice announced it was repealing 24 federal guidance documents that all sought to clarify basic federal civil rights protections for children, older youths and young adults and the Department of Education announced it would delay, for two years, a requirement that states identify and address racial disparities in special education, including disparities in the ways children of color are disciplined. What a mean unjust slap in the face of our most vulnerable children.
We must continue to support and praise the action by today’s children and youths standing up against injustice, gun violence, child poverty, and unequal education and let them know we stand with them, are determined not to go backwards, and will step forward with them on the front lines seeking justice.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.