The Roles of Children and Young People During the Civil Rights Movement

On September 18th, 1963 Dr. King gave a sermon titled “Eulogy for Martyred Children”, to a room filled with the grieving friends and family of 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson and 11- year-old Denise McNair. Within this speech he beautifully outlined the importance of children in the civil rights movement while also acknowledging that they did indeed play a role/ many roles in obtaining civil rights by saying, “They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their role exceedingly well.” In this quote Dr. King is comparing the lives of these children to the lives of an actress playing a leading role. A play cannot go on without the lead role, likewise the civil rights movement could not have gone on without the heroic acts and daring sacrifices of the nation’s youth. After intense research I can confidently state that not only did children and young people play roles in the Civil Rights Movement; they played crucial roles.

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A scripture referenced by Dr. King in six of his speeches comes from the book of Isaiah and it reads: “A child shall lead them.” Young people often served as leaders during the civil rights movement and played this role exceedingly well. Fred Hampton started his activist work as a teenager and became an accredited leader of the Black Panther Party when he was 18. Often remembered for his quote: “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill revolution… you can jail a liberator, but you can’t jail liberation,” Fred Hampton was the chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party branch. Hampton’s efforts made the Chicago chapter one of the largest and most successful branches of the party. Hampton did an amazing amount of work while acting as chairman of his chapter. He organized weekly rallies, taught political education classes, launched a project that supervised the Chicago police, and started a free breakfast program that is now used by nearly all public schools in the United States of America. His success made him a primary target of the local police and FBI. On December 4th, 1969 Fred Hampton was assassinated by the Cook County Tactical Unit. He was shot twenty-one times and died at the young age of 21. Author, Desire Thompson from Vibe magazine memorialized Hampton on December 4th, 2018 and wrote: “Fred Hampton’s Vision for the future was clear. The iconic revolutionary wanted solidarity amongst the people and an end to oppression and racism against people of color. While he left the earth at the age of 21 after he was assassinated by the FBI and Chicago police, his mission and role in the Black Panther Party live through activists and musicians of today.” Hampton’s leadership is a prime example of youth leadership during the civil rights movement; a role excellently played. His role had a great affect on the black community in the 1960’s. Black communities in Chicago were striving under his leadership.

Personally, the work of Fred Hampton is truly inspiring to me and fully demonstrates the roles Children and young people played in the civil rights movement and why they were crucial. Fred Hampton has the largest effect on me because I’m the same age as him when he became chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther. The stress he went through was probably overwhelming. Being a chairman of anything is a difficult task at any age but, he was given this responsibility at the age of eighteen. That accomplishment is outstanding. In addition, he was one of the most accredited chairmen and earned the respect of his community and older peers. Fred Hampton inspires me to work towards greatness and not to turn down opportunities due to my age. He proves that age is just a number, and anyone is capable of being a leader. Sadly, his success attracted racism and malice intent towards him. This ultimately led to his assassination.

Fred Hampton was an outstanding young leader and revolutionary, but young women also took on leadership roles during the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about youth leadership during the civil rights movement without bringing up the beautiful and intelligent Barbra Johns. On April 23rd, 1951 16-year-old Barbra Johns led her classmates and peers in a strike. This was in protest of the sub-par resources at their high school, Robert Russa Moton High School. After the protest an interviewer asked her why she felt that a protest was necessary; she answered: “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!” In other words, she led this protest because she saw injustice and wanted to lead a change. It was her moment and she seized it. Many young people served as leaders during the civil rights movement. Her leadership had many affects. Like Hampton she shows that age doesn’t matter when it comes to leadership. This was a crucial role that many youths took on to obtain civil rights.

Young leaders had a large effect during the civil rights movement. They successfully got their peers involved in the movement and their energy was necessary and vital to the movement. Hit song by John Legend, “Glory” speaks upon this. A verse from the song reads:” No one can win the war individually. It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy. Welcome to the story we call victory. The comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory. “ This song is about the struggle the black struggle of attain civil rights and the satisfaction that will be granted when its obtained. Young leaders inspired not only their peers but the older generation to fight for their rights as well, this was their affect.

Children and young people served as martyrs to obtain civil rights. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes a martyr as: someone who suffers persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, or refusing to advocate a belief or cause as demanded by an external party. Nobody wants their child to die to the hands of racism and injustice but sadly it happens. Death is never necessary to a revolution but often occurs and when it does occur; it brings people together. Arguably the most important martyr of the Civil Rights Movement was Emmett Till. His death was tragic, brutal, and disgusting. His mutilated body served as a visual representation of racism, it showed how ugly and disturbing racism truly is. During an Interview with Jet Magazine Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother was asked why she chose to have an open casket funeral; she answered, “I wanted the people to see what I’ve seen.” Photos of his disfigured face reached every city within our country and showed every American how ugly racism is. His death caused groups such as the NAACP to work more diligently to obtain civil rights. One-hundred days after Emmett Till’s murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Emmett Till’s story added fuel to the civil rights movement. Some historians argue that his death was the catalyst in the civil rights movement.

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is another example of children playing the role of martyrs during the civil rights movement. The death of children due to racism and prejudice leads to mass mobilization of the oppressed group. This happens because children are perceived as innocent in society. The death of a child equals the death innocence. Children shouldn’t be affected by the petty problems of adults and when they are it causes both sides of a revolution to reflect and ask the question: “what if that was my child?” Dr. King said the following about this incident, “The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.” In this quote King is referring to these children being martyrs and not dying in vain. He suggests that their deaths may although sad, may help the movement by targeting people’s emotions.

Children and young people inspired the older generation during the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine being a forty-year-old adult and seeing over 3,000 children marching down a busy street in protest of segregation. Seeing this public demonstration would probably inspire you to either join them or contribute to their cause in some way, shape, or form. On May 2nd, 1963 this very thing happened. Over 3,000 children participated in the Children’s Crusade of 1963 in protest of segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The youngest child to be detained during the protest was only 6-years-old. This event gained national attention in the media and served as great inspiration to many older civil rights activists. In an interview Marian Wright Edelman, the president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said the following about this inspiring public demonstration: “Pictures of the bravery and determination of the Birmingham children as they faced the brutal fire hoses and vicious police dogs were splashed on the front pages of newspapers all across America and helped turn the tide of public opinion in support of the civil-rights movement’s fight for justice.” Seeing children being attacked on television would lead many people into action. Children have an advantage when inspiring people due to their purity. The actions of a child are always pure while the actions of adults sometimes aren’t. Deviance isn’t natural but is learned as you get older. However, protesting wasn’t the only way children inspired people.

You’ve probably never heard of Claudette Colvin but, you’ve probably heard of Rosa Parks. Claudette Colvin was a nurse and pioneer of civil rights. On March 2nd, 1955 15- year-old Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded and segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This scenario sounds familiar, right? Later that year Rosa Parks sat on the same bus and was arrested for the same thing and it started the Montgomery bus boycott. Now you’re probably asking yourself,” Why did Rosa Parks getting arrested cause a boycott while Claudette Colvin getting arrested caused little to nothing?” Claudette Colvin played the role of inspiring Rosa Parks to sit on that bus and the NAACP to start a boycott. President of the NAACP in 1955, E. D. Nixon said the following in an interview,” Colvin acted a few months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, played the lead role, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began that year.” We can clearly see from that quote that Claudette Colvin served as the main inspiration for the Montgomery bus boycott, so why wasn’t she the face of the bus boycott? Colvin wasn’t the face of the protest due to her personal life. The NAACP didn’t think she’d be a good case for the movement due to a rumor that the unmarried teen was pregnant by a married man. She was ultimately erased from the movement she inspired.

The children and young leaders of the civil rights movement serve as inspiration for Lincoln University students. While conducting research for this paper I decided to interview a couple Lincoln University students. It seemed only right, considering this school birthed great minds such as Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes. Senior, Destiney Kadima majoring in mass communications had the following to say,” The restaurant sit-ins led by college students truly inspires me. It shows that with persistence anyone at any age can promote a positive change.” Many college students protested by sitting at white only counters. This form of protesting was made famous by students at North Carolina A&T University. They were often beat, spat on, and threatened during protests but they persevered.

Another Lincoln Student was inspired by the Children’s Crusade of 1963. He said,” When I look back and realize that these children were standing up against oppression and making a difference at the ages of six through twelve, it makes me reevaluate my life and motivate me to do something with it.” I believe many people would agree with his statement. There were kids risking their safety at such a young age because they believed in equality. That’s something that can truly inspire anyone.

In Conclusion, the youth played many crucial roles in the civil rights movement. They served as leaders; Fred Hampton and Barbra Johns were the leaders I listed but not the only young leaders in this movement. Many young men and women took up great responsibility and chose to lead. Their leadership gained nationwide coverage and helped fuel change. Children playing the role of martyrs also gained national attention. From Emmett Till, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson and 11- year-old Denise McNair; many children died due to injustice and prejudice. Although their deaths were in human, unnecessary, and heartbreaking; they helped American see how brutal and ugly racism and prejudice can be. Many children died, and none will be forgotten. Through mass-protests children also inspired many people. This role was crucial and played exceeding well. The Children’s Crusade of 1963 helped to inspire many individuals to join the movement. Claudette Colvin may not be given her credit in most articles but, she undoubtedly inspired the NAACP and Rosa Parks to start the Montgomery bus boycott. Many other children and young people took the role to inspire others as well. Lastly, children and young people during the civil rights movement influence today’s youth. Lincoln University students are personally impacted. As you can see, the youth played many crucial roles in the civil rights movement.

Work Cited

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  3. “Common (Ft. John Legend) – Glory.” Genius, 11 Dec. 2014,
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  5. “April 23, 1951: 16-Year-Old Barbara Johns Leads a Student Strike.” Zinn Education Project,
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07 April 2022

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