Inspiring Activists

Inspiring+Activists

Freddie Wolfe, Journalist/Editor

A news editor holding up an anti-war sign during a Russian live news broadcast. “No war. Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you. Russians against war.” Courtesy of CBS news.

 Right now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a devastating thing going on in the world. You might think there is nothing you can do about it, especially if you are in seventh grade in the United States. But looking back into US history, you will find a lot about peaceful protests. A peaceful protest is a demonstration voicing an opinion. Peaceful protests have contributed to many laws being changed, and awareness being spread, all without causing harm. While we usually think about Martin Luther King Jr. or Caesar Chavez when we think about peaceful protests, there are plenty of children, teenagers, and young adults that have been a part of protests around the world. Here are a few great young American protesters to take inspiration from.

Greensboro Four

The “Greensboro Four” being denied service at the counter of the local Woolworth’s. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Sentinel.

 It’s February 1, 1960, in the town of Greensboro, North Carolina and there is a diner and store called Woolworth’s. Because of the Jim Crow laws, only white people can be served at the counter. Little do the employees (some of whom are black) know that that rule is about to change – all because four college students are about to sit at a counter.

 Before that February day, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil planned the sit-in that would become famous. They were all black college students at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. These four wanted to speak out for their rights. They were greatly inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, who peacefully protested against the British rule over India and the Freedom Riders who had ridden buses to protest against segregated bus terminals. They also were called to action because of the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till that had occurred five years earlier. Till had been killed by being beaten beyond recognition by two white adult men. When his mother insisted he had an open casket to show how awful his death was, he became a symbol for the civil rights movement. Soon, the students were going to be symbols too.

 A white store owner in the area, Ralph Johns, was also against segregation and encouraged his young black customers to protest for their freedom. Johns was the one who suggested the four go to Woolworth’s, purchase items, and then sit down at the counter. He thought it was the perfect protest, and the four agreed. Soon, February 1st came. The four sat down at the counter and were refused service, but they continued to stay at the counter. Soon, an employee called the police. However, the police weren’t able to do anything because the four had not been rude or disruptive. They just simply were sitting at a counter. The four stayed at the counter until the store closed. They had a plan for the next day that would make a name for themselves.

 February 2nd, the men brought a big group of students from the local colleges with them to Woolworth’s. Of course, this brought attention to them, which is just what they needed. Film crews arrived at the store and soon, they had national attention. This started sit-in protests all over the country. All over the south, people were changing America, just by going to stores and restaurants. By the summer of 1960, a big number of segregated stores became integrated because of the protests. In late July, Woolworth’s started to serve black customers. The first customers served were their black employees.

 Now the Greensboro Woolworth’s is the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. It still houses a portion of the very counter the four sat at. Some of the counter is now at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Four college students who idolized symbols of the civil rights movement were now iconic themselves.

 

East L.A. walkouts

A group of students protesting at the East L.A. walkouts outside of their school. “Long live the race. Mexican American liberation.” Courtesy of California State University Los Angeles Magazine.

 In East Los Angeles in 1967, public high schools were overcrowded, full of unqualified teachers, and segregated in education. Chicano, US-born Mexican, students felt like the lack of good schools in the area was a racist issue. Students were crammed like sardines into classes that mainly focused on vocational and domestic topics, which weren’t good classes for anyone who wanted to go to college. The smaller population of white students at the school were often given better classes, as they were more expected to go to college. Because the Chicano students weren’t college-ready, many of them would go into labor. This contributed to a racist social pyramid. Drop-out rates were almost fifty percent at these schools. A history teacher at Lincoln High School, Sal Castro, noticed this. Castro made sure he taught Mexican-American history and made his Chicano students feel proud. He encouraged Chicano students to protest their education. Castro even reached out to students in other schools and alumni. When he felt there were enough people, the group started to plan.

 On their own, Chicano Lincoln High School students reached out to the school administration, who ignored them. That was when the group decided they needed to start the action. Students were inspired by the controversial Watts Riots of 1965, where black rioters burned down buildings and threatened police officers in Los Angeles protesting against police brutality toward the African-American community. However, this group would end up doing a non-violent protest. Castro and the students decided to do a “walk-out” or “blow-out”, where students would leave the school buildings during school hours.

  The group formed a list of demands, which included bilingual education in English and Spanish, Mexican-American history to be taught, and the hiring of more Latino staff. These were just a few things the group would be protesting for. They planned the walk-out at Lincoln High for March 6, 1968. However, word reached out to Garfield High School, and a walk-out with around two thousand students occurred on March 5. Garfield doing their walk-out early sparked students at other high schools in the area to do their walk-outs on the scheduled day. Students at multiple schools that day would get out of their seats and walk right out of the buildings. Staff at some of the schools tried to bar the doors, but there were so many students involved that they were able to go through. Police were called to the schools, which only encouraged students more. The police used violent and intimidating tactics to get the teenagers to return to their classrooms, but nothing seemed to stop them.

 By the end of the week, fifteen thousand to twenty thousand students at seven different schools had walked out for better education. Community members started showing up at the schools during the walk-outs to show support. On March 11, a new committee called the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee demanded to meet with the Los Angeles Board of Education. Finally, on March 28, they met for a discussion, the EICC with demands in hand. Unfortunately, this led to nothing as the board claimed there was no money to fund new improvements. March 31, Castro and twelve other walk-out organizers were arrested. They became known as the East L.A. thirteen. The thirteen protested against their incarcerations and were released from prison on bail on June second. Castro ended up losing his job, but students and other community members protested against the board of education and he was reinstated. The next year, 1970, all charges were dropped on all of the East L.A. thirteen.

 The East L.A. walk-outs show that communities can be great when they come together and that even students can fight for their own education.

Kent State Shooting

National guard moving protesters up Blanket Hill. Courtesy of the AARP.

 In 1970, the US was supporting South Vietnam in the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon had agreed US troops were going to invade Cambodia, a neutral location near Vietnam. Before his official address where he was going to reveal this to the public, rumors got out. Soon the whole country knew. Protests occurred in colleges all over the country objecting to sending US troops to Cambodia. Kent State University protesters began protesting on May 1, 1970, the day troops were sent. The protest occurred in the commons, the center of the college and students gathered together. People spoke at the protest against the Vietnam War and President Nixon. These protests went into the night and off-campus.

 In downtown Kent, Ohio, protesters were hitting police officers with bottles. Though these claims were mostly fabricated, the mayor of Kent, Leroy Satrom, declared a state of emergency and shut down all the bars in Kent. Reinforcements were called in to lure protesters back to Kent State. The police used tear gas to move students back to the campus.

 May 2, concern was brought on Kent by people who were in support of President Nixon. These people said that “radicals” were going to harm the university and town. Mayor Satrom asks Ohio Governor Rhodes to send in the Ohio national guard. The national guard was on duty near the area, so they arrived in Kent quickly. Protesters had set fire to Kent State’s Reserve Officers Training Corps building. When the national guard and fire department arrived, chaos allegedly occurred. Some people claimed that protesters were fighting with firefighters while they were trying to put out the ROTC fire and with the national guard. Many protesters would be arrested that night.

 May 3, it seemed like all the chaos was over, but that was definitely not true. It was a peaceful day in the Kent State Commons, despite the fact over one thousand national guardsmen were watching closely as the students went about their day. The next day was supposed to be a regular Monday at the college. But it would go down in history, and not for a good reason. May 4, a protest was scheduled. It was supposed to be a peaceful event with almost three thousand spectators. Surrounding the now burnt-down ROTC building were a hundred national guardsmen with A1 rifles. Even though the protest was peaceful and the protesters had not been disrupting anyone, the general told the protesters to leave.

 A police officer in a jeep drove through the commons, telling the protesters to disperse. He used a bullhorn to speak over the protesters. The people then began to shout and throw rocks at the guardsmen. This caused the general to make the worst decision he could have made that day. He told his men to lock and load their guns. Tear gas was used to move the protesters to a nearby hill in the commons called “Blanket Hill”. The guardsmen followed the protesters up the hill near a football field. There was fencing around the field, which kept both groups in tight quarters with one another. The protesters began throwing rocks again, and the guardsmen went up the hill. When they reached the top of the hill, they began shooting.

 Twenty-eight of the guardsmen shot their rifles according to witnesses. Some shot them into the sky, and some shot them right into the crowd of students. In only thirteen seconds, almost seventy shots had been fired by those twenty-eight. Thirteen students had been shot. Four of these students, Jeffery Miller, Allision Krause, William Schroder, and Sandra Scheuer were killed. The nine other students had been injured. In court, the guardsmen would claim that they had felt threatened and shot in self-defense. However, many people believe that shooting into the crowd was not an act of self-defense, but a terrible decision the guardsmen had made. This idea was only spread further when the Ohio National Guard ended up paying six hundred seventy-five thousand dollars for the nine injured nine years after the shooting in 1979. It seemed the National Guard did not care about the situation.

 Miller, Krause, Schroder, and Scheuer have gone down in history as “the four dead of Ohio”. One famous instance of this is in the Neil Young song “Ohio”. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming. Four dead in Ohio. Gotta get down to it. Soldiers are cutting us down. Should have been done long ago. What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?” After the shooting, over four hundred and fifty other colleges went on strike. The national guard was supposed to stop the protests, but they only ended up continuing them.

 People have debated over the Kent State shooting. But one thing that isn’t up for debate is the fact that the four dead died for what they believed in, and that truly is the most heroic thing a person can do, even if unintentional.

 These are just three great examples of young people fighting for what they need, without actually fighting. Of course, there are countless other examples, such as the students at the University of Virginia who started Day of Silence to oppose the bullying of LGBTQIA+ children, and Claudette Colvin who sat on a bus for her rights nine months before the famous Rosa Parks did. Remember, silence makes you a part of the problem! Speak out for what is right!

Resources:

History: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/the-greensboro-sit-in  https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/kent-state-shooting

Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/East-L-A-walkouts