Student Activism Starts in High School

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Photo: University of Illinois

Photo: University of Illinois

Photo: University of Illinois

Cole Mier and Grady Trexler

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Throughout my tenure as Maggie Walker’s Opinion’s Section Editor, I have worked off of one principle: only write about topics people actually care about. Personally, I find any analysis of political and economic events on a national, or even global, scale in a student newspaper to be tedious. There is very little I can say that has not already been said by the pundits and “talking heads” that appear on CNN every night. And, in all honesty, I doubt I am experienced or intelligent enough to handle analysis of nuanced issues like health care reform or Supreme Court picks. However, this time, it is different. This time, I feel uniquely qualified to write about the issues plaguing America. In fact, I, along with every other high school student in America, am more qualified than any “expert” from a cable news channel. Because, this time, the politics of the nation are not centered around lowering corporate taxes or deregulating industries. This time, it is not nuanced; in fact, it is black or white. This “political issue” should not be even remotely political- it is about saving the lives of America’s youth. And this time, I firmly believe, America’s students actually have a chance to make a difference.

It is time for student activism to be at the forefront of all of our minds. In the past, I have heard students, many of whom are my friends, mock activist groups and activities despite agreeing with their principles. “What did the Women’s March accomplish? Congratulations, you walked around D.C. for a bit.” While I can understand this perspective, it is imperative that we collectively disregard our cynicism and our partisanship. While gun control is typically a liberal policy, saving the lives of our nation’s students is a movement we can all rally behind. Seventeen children died this Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School due solely to a government that refuses to act and pass comprehensive legislation that can prevent, or at least mitigate, occurrences like this from happening again.

Since the Columbine massacre occurred 19 years ago, nothing has been done to stop maniacs from obtaining assault weapons and taking innocent lives. Nothing. Some may ask, “What makes this time different? Why does something that was impossible to accomplish during eight years under a liberal president suddenly seem feasible during the perversion of conservatism present in Trump’s presidency?” To answer that question, we must look back at the last time student activism actually played a significant role in enacting change: the Civil Rights movement.

One of the best examples of high school student activism happened here in Virginia, at Moton High School, in Farmville.  Moton High School, the first black high school in Prince Edward County, was built in 1939 to house 180 students, but by the 1950s, it had over 400 high schoolers enrolled.  Students spilled into hastily constructed overflow classrooms built with tar paper walls. When it got cold, heat was provided by stoves. When it rained, students had better have packed an umbrella, for many parts of the roof leaked.  To learn about dissections, one student recalled, the group all had to crowd around one microscope and watch a teacher dissect a frog.

In 1951, students decided to fight for change.  They were fed up with their excuse for a school, especially when their white counterparts enjoyed the much nicer Farmville High School.  Sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns spearheaded the movement, and, with other students, meticulously planned a walkout. On April 23, 1951, students called an assembly without the principal’s knowledge.  Here, they gained overwhelming student support, walked out and picketed the school for the remainder of the day. Signs read, “We want a new school or no school at all.” The day after, several leaders consulted superintendent T. J. McIlwaine, who told them that nothing could be done until the students returned to class.  They refused until May 7.

Thank goodness they refused.

The students called the NAACP office in Richmond, who sent down two lawyers, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson.  The following court case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, a plea to integrate Prince Edward schools, was rolled together with four other cases involved with Brown v. Board of Education, one of the most important cases in United States history.  Brown, of course, overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” put forth in Plessy v. Ferguson.  To restate: sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns led a school-wide walkout that changed the course of American history and facilitated one of the greatest civil rights victories in history.

Change is not impossible; it has happened before, and it has happened because young Americans became fed up with the cruel status quo. A similar moment in history is arising. The success of the Civil Rights movement was due in large part to the expansion of television into the homes of almost all Americans. People from all over could see the struggle African Americans faced in the South. In present day, social media serves as our source of amplification. Now, not only can others see our struggle, but they can hear our specific voices as well. Every student has an equal opportunity to let their viewpoint be heard by those at the top. Now, all we need to do is unify. The time is right for a massive upheaval in the current system, and we are the only ones who can foster it. Money is not at stake here. Votes are not at stake here. Lives are at stake here. Our lives. For those who say it is impossible, you must believe in the power you possess. For those who say it’s not worth it, I say consider the victims of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Or Sandy Hook. Or Columbine. Or the many other mass shootings that have rattled our nation to its core. This is the time for action. For once, I am advocating for long, complicated, and personal FaceBook posts on political matters. I am advocating for marches, walkouts, and protests. I believe we need to write our Congress people, hold town halls, and hold the people in charge of keeping us safe accountable for their inaction. This is not a matter of politics, this is a matter of principle. Now is the time to act.

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