Those who walk out on Wednesday will join a rich history of student protest

March 12, 2018

When we think of student protests, it is most often of protests on college campuses — from the waves of unrest during the Vietnam War to the more recent campus clashes involving Black Lives Matter advocates and white nationalists.

But since the Civil Rights era, some of the most impactful youth protests have taken place in high schools and even junior high schools. Acts of civil disobedience by students barely into their teens have marked seminal points in historic battles over bedrock issues like segregation and gay rights, and led to landmark Supreme Court decisions.

In 1957, there were the nine African-American children who defied the governor of Arkansas and enrolled in the all-white Little Rock Central High School. In 1965, 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker’s black armband, which she wore in protest of the Vietnam War, sparked a lawsuit that ultimately gave free-speech rights to public school students. In 1968, thousands of Chicano students in East Los Angeles high schools forced a school reform movement that continues today.

And now, in 2018, we’ve watched a group of students emerge from the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida to fearlessly take on the powerful gun lobby, and in doing so have an impact that has eluded older, more polished and better funded gun control advocates.

On Wednesday, students in California and throughout the country will join the National School Walkout that was announced the week after Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and opened fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle, killing 17 people and injuring more than a dozen others.

The walkout is scheduled to take place at 10 a.m. in all time zones and last for 17 minutes — one minute for each person killed. The walkout is the brainchild of EMPOWER, the Women’s March youth group. A related event, called the March for Our Lives, is planned for March 24.

Only time will tell whether this week’s protest will ultimately have the impact of the Little Rock Nine, Mary Beth Tinker, 1968’s East L.A. Chicanos or other historic student protests. But it certainly signifies the moment we’re living in, said Pippa Holloway, a history professor from Middle Tennessee State University who specializes in how law and politics shape society.

“There has definitely been an uptick in people feeling a need to have a voice in politics,” Holloway said. “And along with that a recognition that schools are political places — they are not sterile, isolated, apolitical environments.”

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