Since the tragic mass shooting in Parkland, FL that resulted in the deaths of 17 innocent people, we have witnessed high school students in Florida and around the nation standing up, speaking out, and organizing for reforming gun laws. Some have criticized the students for being too young and naive to seek this kind of change. A few have even accused some of the most visible student leaders of being "crisis actors." These critics must not know the history of how young people including high school students played a key role in the progress our nation made in during the civil rights movement. In particular, I want to lift up the campaign in Birmingham, AL in 1963 that was seeking to end segregation in public accommodations through non-violent direct action. That campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was failing until the decision was made to allow children to engage in direct action. Their courage, faith, and persistence in the face of police sponsored violence directed by the infamous Eugene "Bull" Connor turned the tide of that campaign. Birmingham is now remembered as one of the highlights of the civil rights movement. In his book Why We Can't Wait, Dr. King reflected on what it meant to include the children:
The children understood the stakes they were fighting for. I think of one teenage boy whose father's devotion to the movement soured when he learned that his son had pledged himself to become a demonstrator. The father forbade his son to participate. "Daddy," the boy said, "I don't want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off. If you think I deserve to be punished for that, I'll just have to take the punishment. For, you see, I'm not doing this only because I want to be free. I'm doing it also because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die." That father thought again, and gave his son his blessing.
The students in Florida and around the country are turning the tide again. This time it is not to dismantle segregation but to challenge a culture of gun violence that threatens all of us. They deserve our blessing, support and partnership in this struggle.