On Monday, Feb. 1, 1960, four freshmen from North Carolina A&T State University entered a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., and took seats at the lunch counter.
As American as baseball, Woolworth’s is where we get the phrase, “five-and-dime.” But its nostalgic patina camouflaged the cruelty of a Jim Crow South.
The four teenagers, who knew they were in violation of the city’s segregation laws, ordered coffee and waited until closing time without being served. They did so, fully aware of what happened to Emmett Till five years prior, and how no one was held accountable for it.
They sat, knowing that if things went wrong, no police officers would be coming to their rescue.
In the weeks to follow, the sit-ins grew. Students persisted, even as they were pelted with flour and scalded with coffee.
Their cause was taken up by adults who picketed retailers with “Don’t shop where you can’t work” signs.
Mark Twain was right: History might not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. The latest movement born on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, reminds us that young people always have been the tip of the spear in fostering change.
The teenagers who survived a Valentine’s Day mass shooting that killed 17 of their classmates have lighted a fire in response to adults’ inability — or unwillingness — to offer little more than thoughts and prayers.
Youth embraces what’s possible, even if no one else can see it. Martin Luther King Jr. was not yet 30 when history came calling. His “Children’s Crusade,” with its televised images of children and teenagers being stuffed into jail cells and facing down fire hoses and police dogs, landed in American living rooms like a bomb.
Nine months before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But civil rights leaders deemed Colvin too mouthy, too defiant to serve as a test case.
In other words, she was a teenager.
The Vietnam War’s demise was hastened by the passionate and unrelenting protests led by young Americans who saw it for the quagmire it was. By the way, Hollywood got it wrong: It wasn’t middle-age men who saved the world from the Axis powers during World War II. Most GIs were teenagers, 20-somethings, and young husbands and fathers.
Instead of being dismissive of the protests being led by teenagers in Parkland, Florida, we should be rejoicing that another generation has stepped forward to become more engaged in determining their country’s future.
The young leaders of this latest outburst are the embodiment of the words of Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
No going back
Sometimes, youth forgets to tell you how scared you should be. Rep. John Lewis was 18 when he jumped feet first in the civil rights movement, eventually chairing the Student Nonviolent Action Coordination Committee, and became one of hundreds assaulted on Bloody Sunday in 1963.
Carl Bernstein was 28 in 1972, when his reporting on the Watergate break-in helped to bring down an American president and changed the course of history.
Once people realize they hold the power to make change, there’s no going back, no matter how young they are. The current generation, armed with the power of social media, is leaving us adults in the dust.
Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr. could not have foreseen how their simple, dignified act of ordering a cup of coffee would change America. Certainly they had faith something would change; otherwise, why take such a risk?
In July of that year, Woolworth’s desegregated. Other businesses quickly followed suit.
Wouldn’t it be something if as a result of teenagers, the most powerful legislative body on the planet found the courage to act in the best interests of the vast majority of its constituents who favor better mechanisms of trying to ensure guns don’t fall into the wrong hands?
There are adults who are dismissing and trying to undermine the student-survivor movement in Florida, believing the teens are being coached or prodded, that they couldn’t possibly organize and lead without help from adults with an agenda.
This year, an estimated 4 million teens will turn 18 before Election Day.
Ignore them at your own peril.
— Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or firstname.lastname@example.org , On Twitter: @cgoshayREP