Skip to content

#WeGotNext: Black Youth Activism and the Rise of #BlackLivesMatter*

December 22, 2016


Sekou Franklin

Intended Audience: Middle School And/Or High School

Overview: Through collaborative exercises, students will learn about the origins and activities of student/youth-based formations during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Students will specifically learn how young people propelled racial and economic justice movements in the 1930s, the civil rights and black power movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the anti-apartheid in the 1980s, anti-poverty and anti-violence initiatives in the 1990s, and the Movement for Black Lives Matter in the twenty-first century.

Students will also understand the important role of movement bridge-builders in youth-based movements, as well as investigate how the make-up of movement infrastructures (the type of organizations, resources of activists, intergenerational relations, collaborations between activist networks) shape the direction of black youth activism. Students will learn how black youth have developed creative organizing strategies to elevate the political status of youth in social movement campaigns. In addition, students will assess the political context or environmental conditions that shaped black youth activism during different time periods. Students will also learn about the various organizations that coordinated black youth participation.  

National Council for Social Studies/College, Career, & Civic Life C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards[1]

  • Enable learners to develop the capacity to know, analyze, and explain how young people can effect change
  • Prepare students with critical thinking, problem solving, and collaborative skills needed for social change
  • Help students learn to work individually and together as citizens

Dimension 2, Participation and Deliberation

D2.Civ.8.9-12—Evaluate social and political systems in different contexts, times, and places that promotes civic virtues and enact democratic principles.

D2.Civ.9.9-12—Use appropriate deliberative processes in multiple settings.

D2.Civ.10.9-12—Analyze the impact and the appropriate roles of personal interests on the application of civic virtues, democratic principles, constitutional rights, and human rights.


Teachers are encouraged to review the following resources in preparation for teaching the lesson plan.

Internet Sources

Associated Press News Archive

Burke, Lauren Victoria Burke. “March2Justice Brings Fight Against Police Brutality to US Capitol.

Day, Elizabeth. “#BlackLivesMatter: The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement,” The Guardian.

Gruzen, Tara. “Unions Get New Breed of Activists: College Students Seeking to Boost Labor Movement.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series)

The King Center, “Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change.

North Carolina A & T University Student Newspaper Collection

Pierre-Louis, Kendra. “The Women Behind Black Lives Matter.

Southern Negro Youth Congress (1937-1949)

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Legacy Project


Black Youth Project 100, “Building a Movement #WeReadyWeComing.

Dream Defenders, “Dream Defenders Take Over Florida For Trayvon Martin”

Esther Cooper Jackson at 96, The Laura Flanders Show.

Freedom Rides, “The Student Leader” Excerpt, PBS.

Rainbow/Push “Solutions to Urban Violence” Conference, C-SPAN.

SNCC’s Legacy: A Civil Right’s History, CNN.


Goals of Lesson Plan: This lesson plan aims to guide students through the different forms of black youth activism, both chronologically from the 1930s to the twenty-first century, and, organizationally as students will evaluate the importance that grassroots organizations and infrastructures play in coordinating youth-based activities. The lesson plan is designed to take up to three class periods but can be shortened.

Warm-Up Activity (40 Minutes):

Have the class discuss the reading about black youth activism. The discussion should focus on the factors that shaped the social and political consciousness of black youth from the 1930s to the twenty-first century.

  • Describe the political context or setting that shaped the consciousness or attitudes of the organizations.
  • Describe the key figures (e.g. Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Baker, the Black Lives Matter activists) or movement bridge-builders who cultivated young activists during their respective time periods.
  • Explain why the type of organizations or networks—what is referred to as movement infrastructures—are important to expanding opportunities for young people to participate in grassroots activism

Activity #1 (1 hour and 40 Minutes):

After the warm-up activity, divide the class into four groups designated by a specific time period: 1930s-1940s, 1950s-1970s, 1980s-1990s, and the 2000s. Each group is advised to review the supplemental materials (see below) that expand upon the required reading about black youth activism. The materials provide concrete details of the strategies, tactics, motives, demands, and the socio-economic and political conditions of each time period. The groups will be given 40 minutes to review the materials, answer the guided questions and complete the graphic organizer for the time period. After the activity, each group will have 15 minutes (a total of one hour) to present their findings to the entire class.

Group I: 1930s-1940s

Supplemental Materials

  1. Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the most prominent youth activist in the NAACP
  2. Southern Negro Youth Congress
  3. Watch an excerpt of an interview with Esther Cooper Jackson of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (watch 2:00-5:00 mark).

Guided Questions

  1. Why did Juanita Jackson Mitchell get involved with the NAACP?
  2. Why did Esther Cooper Jackson join the Southern Negro Youth Congress?
  3. What initiatives were carried out by both the NAACP Youth Council and the Southern Negro Youth Congress?

FIGURE ONE: Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC)

Group II: 1960s-1970s

Supplemental Materials

  1. Watch an excerpt of the students involved in the Nashville students and the 1961 Freedom Rides (4:37 minutes).
  2. Watch videos: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Student Organization for Black Unity: The A & T Register newspaper

Supplemental Materials

  1. What were some of the challenges facing the students who joined the Freedom Rides of 1961?
  2. What were the goals and objectives of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Student Organization for Black Unity?
  3. Who were some of the key leaders or movement bridge-builders that helped to coordinate the Freedom Rides as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Student Organization for Black Unity?

FIGURE TWO: Freedom Riders, 1961

Group III: 1980s-1990s

Supplemental Materials

  1. Free South Africa Movement/Student Divestment Movement: Associated Press. AFL-CIO’s “Union Summer” labor initiative
  2. Watch excerpt of Errol James of the Black Student Leadership Network at the Rainbow/Push “Solutions to Urban Violence” conference (2:15:58-2:21:25 mark).

Guided Questions

  1. What were the main concerns of students involved in the Free South Africa Movement/Student Divestment Movement?

FIGURE THREE: Scenes from #BlackLivesMatter

Group IV: 2000s (Movement for Black Lives Matter)

Supplemental Materials

  1. Black Lives Matter, The Guardian.
  2. Women in the Movement for Black Lives Matter, In These Times.
  3. Watch Black Youth Project 100, “Building a Movement #WeReadyWeComing
  4. Watch Dream Defenders, “Dream Defenders Take Over Florida For Trayvon Martin

Guided Questions

  1. What are the goals and objectives of the Black Lives Matter organization and the broader Movement for Black Lives Matter?
  2. How has the Movement for Black Lives Matter given youth, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people opportunities to participate in social movements?
  3. What have been some of the initiatives carried out by organizations such as the Black Youth Project 100 and Dream Defenders, which are groups that affiliate with the broader Movement for Black Lives Matter?
  4. Based on the excerpt of the Black Student Leadership Network (see required reading) and the video of the “Solutions to Urban Violence,” what were the organization’s goals, strategies and tactics?
  5. What are the similarities and differences between the Black Student Leadership Network (see required reading) and the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer program?

FIGURE FOUR: Scenes from #BlackLivesMatter


This lesson plan has two objectives. First, it informs students and community leaders of the importance and diversity of youth-based (students, youth, young adult) initiatives that challenged injustices and inequalities. The participants will learn that youth activism is central to black politics, both historically and contemporary, and is constitutive of American politics. Secondly, the participants will understand how to build democratically-oriented social movements. They will discover that movement-building initiatives is a co-learning process between activists and the communities or constituents they are trying to organize for social change. Thus, this lesson plan allows the participants to learn about youth-based movements and to develop their own capacity as social justice leaders.

[1]. National Council for the Social Studies, The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History, Accessed on November 15, 2015.

Background Information


Since the early twentieth century, young people have been instrumental in shaping American political culture and the social and political life of African Americans.[i] From the NAACP Youth Council and the Southern Negro Youth Congress in the 1930s and 1940s to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Student Organization for Black Unity in the 1960s and 1970s, young people were the frontline activists during the two major protest waves of the twentieth century. Young blacks then helped to propel the Pan-African and black feminist movements of the 1970s, as well as the Free South Africa Movement/Student Divestment Movement of the 1980s. The Black Student Leadership Network was another group that set up dozens of freedom schools in low-income communities during the first half of the 1990s. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, young people affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives Matter protested racialized violence and police killings of African Americans.

This essay provides an overview of black youth activism from the 1930s to the twenty-first century. It gives special attention to four periods of black youth activism: black youth radicalism from the 1930s-1940s; the modern civil rights and black power movements between the 1950s-1970s; the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, followed by Black Student Leadership Network and other youth-oriented movements; and grassroots youth activism in the twenty-first century such as the Movement for Black Lives Matter.

Black Youth Activism in the 1930s-1940s

The Great Depression politicized black youth and their adult allies in the 1930s. Mary McLeod Bethune, the director of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration, drew attention to the Great Depression’s impact on black youth. In 1937, she sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt stating that while the United States “opens the door of opportunity to the youth of the world,” it slams it shut in the faces of its Negro citizenry.”[ii] In the late 1930s, she organized the National Conference on Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth and the National Conference of Negro Youth. The American Council on Education’s American Youth Commission also sponsored series of studies on black youth in the Depression Era. The studies found that poverty and racism of the period deepened the alienation of young blacks.[iii]

Thus, the 1930s experienced an upsurge of black youth militancy as demonstrated with the establishment of the NAACP Youth Council and the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Even before the creation of the NAACP Youth Council in 1936, black students in the 1920s revolted against the conservative leadership of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).[iv] In the early 1930s, young activists volunteered in local campaigns coordinated by the NAACP and other groups. In New York, civil rights activist Ella Baker teamed with George Schuyler[v] to form a youth economic cooperative called the Young Negro Cooperative League in response to the economic crises of the Great Depression. Also, black and white youth organizations in New York, assisted by the NAACP, formed the United Youth Committee in order to rally support for the National Labor Relations Act and an anti-lynching bill in Congress.

Juanita Jackson, the first national youth director of the NAACP Youth Council, was one of the most influential young activists of the 1930s. Historian Thomas Bynum writes that as director, “She believed that black youth, in particular, should be at the forefront of [the civil rights] struggle and have its voice heard in improving its own plight.”[vi] Prior to the appointment, she was involved in the City-Wide Young People’s Forum (CWYPF) in Baltimore, Maryland. The group assisted NAACP activist, Clarence Mitchell, with racial desegregation campaigns, and mobilized Baltimore’s black youth around a “Buy Where You Can Work” campaign that targeted local department stores.[vii]

The Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) was the most radical youth organization of the 1930s and 1940s. In 1937, the SNYC assisted 5,000 black tobacco workers in Richmond, Virginia who went on strike and formed the Tobacco Stemmers and Laborers Industrial Union. It then organized labor youth clubs, labor and citizenship schools in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, New Orleans, Louisiana, Birmingham and Fairfield, Alabama.

In addition, SNYC activists advocated for voting rights such as the Right to Vote Campaign in 1940, as well as issued reports that publicized racial violence. SNYC affiliates set up committees to pay the poll taxes levied against southern blacks and organized the Abolish the Poll Tax Week in 1941.[viii] Another SNYC initiative was the development of youth legislatures in Alabama and South Carolina that outlined positions on labor policy, foreign affairs, and voting rights.

The SNYC eventually collapsed because of organizational fatigue and after it was targeted for political repression during the early years of the Cold War. By the end of World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initiated a secret surveillance campaign of SNYC affiliates in a dozen cities.[ix] Additionally, the SNYC had to answer repeated claims by the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) in Congress if it was a Communist-front organization.[x]

Black Youth Activism after World War II

The post-World War II generation grew up under different circumstances than those young people of the 1930s. The social and political consciousness of the activist generation were shaped by the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954; Emmett Till’s murder by Mississippi segregationists in 1955; the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955/1956; the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools; and the Little Rock desegregation campaign in 1957. Cold War politics further altered the landscape as political elites became increasingly concerned about the negative portrayal of race and American democracy within the larger international arena.[xi]

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is considered the most important student/youth-based formation of the post-World War II era. It emerged in the aftermath of the 1960 student sit-in movement that encapsulated the South. Ella Baker, who was then on the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, urged the organization and other allies to sponsor the Southwide Leadership Conference. Out of this conference, student leaders organized a temporary organization that was later called SNCC.

During its first five years, SNCC concentrated much of its activities on eliminating racial desegregation and voter disenfranchisement. In addition to its participation in the freedom rides, the youth group set up freedom schools and initiated community-organizing campaigns in the rural South beset by racial terrorism. In fact, it was common for SNCC members to immerse themselves in a community for a couple of years and organize, while simultaneously, urging local residents to shape the programs that were relevant to that particular community. SNCC’s philosophy, as Baker noted, was “through the long route, almost, of actually organizing people in small groups and parlaying those into larger groups.”[xii] According to Bob Moses and Charlie Cobb, both former SNCC activists, SNCC’s organizing approach “meant that an organizer had to utilize everyday issues of the community and frame them for the maximum benefit of the community.”[xiii] This strategy allowed SNCC to expand its membership beyond the ranks of student and youth members. It created a pathway for incorporating older and poorer constituents into the organization. In the late 1960s, SNCC also attempted to build alliances with the Black Panther Party and the National Black Liberators. Though these efforts failed, they represented the types of creative organizing strategies that SNCC experimented with during its years of operation.

The Student Organization for Black Unity (SOBU) was a youth-based formation that was founded in 1969 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The group had close ties to local networks and institutions such as the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP), Malcolm X Liberation University, Foundation for Community Development, and youth activists from North Carolina A & T University. SOBU’s signature initiative occurred in 1969 when it assisted the protest efforts of students from Greensboro’s Dudley High School.

SOBU’s energies were dedicated to organizing high school and college students; building alliances with prisoners; working on black political parties such as the Black Peoples’ Union Party of North Carolina; implementing survival programs in impoverished communities; and establishing clothing centers, food-buying clubs, and community service centers. These activities were amplified in SOBU’s bi-monthly newspaper, The African World, which had a circulation of 10,000 people.

The most important years for SOBU occurred between 1971 and 1972 when it sponsored several regional conferences with the purpose of building a national Pan-African student and youth movement. It started local affiliates in New Haven, Connecticut; Houston, Texas; Kansas City, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Denver, Colorado; and in a dozen other cities. After merging with the Youth Organization for Black Unity (YOBU), the group launched a campaign to save black colleges and universities from being “reorganized” and eliminated.

Despite the emergence of black power and groups such as SOBU, youth activism waned in the 1970s. SOBU collapsed in 1975 and the Black Panther Party’s influenced declined by the late 1970s. Young activists were the targets of political repression, most notably surveillance and infiltration by the FBI and COINTELPRO. The elections of Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 signaled a conservative resurgence that culminated with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan as president in the 1980s.

Furthermore, the decline of black youth militancy was partially due to the victories of the civil rights movement such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These victories expanded opportunities for members of the post-civil rights generation to articulate their grievances in the voting booth in ways not experienced by previous generations of African Americans. They also led to the development of a new black political class as indicative of the growth of black elected officials by 640 percent between 1970 and 2000. Yet as political scientist Robert C. Smith asserted in his acclaimed work We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era, the resources and energy of black politics shifted away from popular mobilization initiatives that were central to black youth activism to institutionalized politics and other forms of elite mobilization.[xiv]

The post-civil rights generation became increasing fragmented along socioeconomic lines. While a thriving black middle-class was situated at one end of the spectrum, a significant portion of African Americans lived in America’s ghettos and was most harshly affected by public health epidemics.[xv] Indicative of these epidemics were the proliferation of crack cocaine, the spread of AIDS, gun violence, and high incarceration rates.  For example, 20 percent of blacks born from 1965-1969 – the years immediately following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – were likely to have served time in prison by their early thirties. This trend far outpaced black men who came of age during the civil rights movement, as 10.6 percent born from 1945-1949 were likely to have been incarcerated by their early thirties. Overall, the black male incarceration rate was six times higher than white men born during the early stage of the post-civil rights era.[xvi]

Youth Activism and the Post-Civil Rights Generation

Even though popular mobilization declined after the mid-1970s, the post-civil rights generation spawned new youth-based movements and organizations that targeted racial, economic and social injustices. In the mid-1980s, students of color and progressive whites organized protests on college campuses against apartheid regime in South Africa. Students set up campus-based shantytowns or makeshift “shacks” that symbolically represented the “living conditions of many black South Africans.”[xvii] The protests pressured universities to relinquish their business ties to corporations that had financial investments in South Africa. Some divestment initiatives were coordinated by multiracial coalitions, while others were predominantly black. For example, the Progressive Black Student Alliance organized against South African apartheid and other foreign policies such as the U.S. interventions in Grenada and Nicaragua.

Other young activists of the post-civil rights cut their teeth in local organizing initiatives in cities such as the New Haven, Connecticut in the mid-late 1980s. The youth movement, or “Kiddie Korner” as it was called, was fostered by a coalition involving the Greater New Haven NAACP Youth Council, the African American Youth Congress (initially called the Black Youth Political Coalition), Elm City Nation, Dixwell Community House, and the Alliance of African Men. The coalition organized anti-gang violence initiatives, electoral organizing campaigns that eventually elected the city’s first black mayor, and mobilized youth around equitable education policies.

One important organization that emerged in the post-civil rights era was the Black Student Leadership Network (BSLN). The formation of the BSLN began in 1990 when Lisa Y. Sullivan, a community and political activist in New Haven, urged prominent civil rights activists such as Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), to assist black student and youth activists in the development of a mass-based, black student and youth activist organization. In 1991, Sullivan and others organized a black student leadership summit at Howard University that recruited student and youth activists from around the country. After much deliberation, the summit attendees officially founded the BSLN. The BSLN’s parent organization was the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC), which operated as an arm of the CDF. For the next six years until its collapse in 1996, the BSLN linked a national advocacy campaign with local political and community initiatives in an effort to combat child poverty, political apathy, and public health epidemics.

Through its Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute and Advanced Service and Advocacy Workshops, the BSLN trained over 600 hundred black students and youth in direct action organizing, voter education, child advocacy, and teaching methodology. The organization developed freedom schools in dozens of urban and rural cities and teamed with child advocacy groups to spearhead anti-childhood hunger initiatives. Beginning on April 4, 1994, the BSLN and local community activists launched its National Day of Action Against Violence (NDAAV) in concurrence with the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The NDAAV activities, occurring in forty cities in 1994 and dozens more in 1995 and 1996, highlighted community-based strategies for reducing gun violence and police misconduct.

Among the more interesting set of youth and intergenerational initiatives emerging in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the Juvenile Justice Reform Movement (JJRM). JJRM campaigns in Louisiana, Maryland, California, and New York set out to reverse the zero-tolerance measures, shut down youth prisons that were known for human rights abuses, and end the disproportionate confinement of black and Latino youth in the juvenile justice system. These initiatives were coordinated by youth and adult-led advocacy organizations such as Project South, Youth Force of the South Bronx, New York’s Justice 4 Youth Coalition and Prison Moratorium Project, Baltimore’s Reclaiming Our Children and Community Projects, Inc. organization, Correctional Association of New York, Critical Resistance, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

Similar to the BSLN, JJRM activists made an extensive effort to develop community-based responses to youth violence and crime. They developed what scholar-activist Sean Ginwright calls a “radical healing” approach that integrates community organizing, self-development, and consciousness-raising activities into a holistic approach to social justice.[xviii] In most cities where youth spearheaded campaigns to challenge mass incarcerations, the same youth groups were also at the forefront of rites of passage and violence reduction programs.

Moreover, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) made a concerted attempt to mobilize young people, especially black students, from 1989-2005. It created Union Summer in 1996 that placed young people as frontline organizers for locally based campaigns, including nearly a thousand interns in its first year. Modeled after SNCC’s Freedom Summer of 1964, the Union Summer field staff intentionally recruited black students through its HBCU plan that was first established a decade earlier as part of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute. Blacks made up the majority of non-whites during the program’s latter years and students/youth of color (blacks, Latinos, Asians) comprised the majority of Union Summer organizers.

Black Youth in the Age of Black Lives Matter

The most recent wave of black youth and young adult activism has focused attention on criminal and juvenile justice reform. In 2007, young activists joined prominent civil rights leaders in mobilizing support for six black youth in Jena, Louisiana who were incarcerated as a result of a violent dispute between black and white teenagers. The black youth faced the prospect of a 100-year collective sentence, yet a similar punishment was not proposed for their white counterparts. As such, thousands of activists gathered in Jena on September 20, 2007 to protest the decision.

Six years after the Jena 6 case, young activists coalescing under the umbrella of the Movement for Black Lives Matter protested Stand Your Ground laws, as well as racialized and police violence targeting blacks. The movement started as the twitter hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the Florida court’s exoneration of his killer, George Zimmerman. The movement blossomed after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York as protests broke out across the country. Though young blacks made up a large number of the protesters, the movement has also galvanized non-black protestors.

The Movement for Black Lives Matter is composed of dozens of groups and activists. These include the official organization of Black Lives Matter and other well-known youth and young adult groups such as the Dream Defenders of Florida, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice in New York, Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis, Gathering for Justice/Justice League NYC, and Black Youth Project 100 in Chicago. From July 24-26, 2015, these groups along with hundreds of young activists, convened in Cleveland, Ohio at the National Convening of the Movement for Black Lives.

The Movement for Black Lives Matter has attempted to reshape the dialogue around race, class, and the criminal justice system. It has further challenged the respectability narrative that deems the black poor and youth as pathological and denies them community recognition. This narrative reflects what political scientist Cathy Cohen calls the “secondary marginalization” of the black poor who are routinely the targets of social stigma by the black middle class.[xix] Accordingly, the Movement for Black Lives Matter situates marginal youth, including women and LGBT youth, at the forefront of social activism.

By all accounts, activists and groups at the forefront of the Movement for Black Lives Matter have a policy window or political opportunity to advance serious reforms of a broken criminal justice system. There is already evidence that the resistance has made a difference. State and local legislative bodies sponsored racial profiling measures in 2015. Congress approved the Death in Custody Reporting Act, and the U.S. Justice Department announced new rules to reduce racial profiling by federal law enforcement officials.

In August 2015, activists and researchers affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives Matter released a national platform called Campaign Zero that outlined ten policy recommendations for reforming police departments. These activists then garnered commitments from three presidential candidates in the Democratic Party (former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley) to develop comprehensive restorative justice measures if elected president.

Furthermore, the Movement for Black Lives Matter has fueled racial justice protests on college campuses. Taking a cue from the street protests of 2014, young activists from the University of Missouri at Columbia led a semester-long campaign in the fall 2015 protesting racial incidents at the college. After a hunger strike by a graduate student activist and a threatened boycott by the university’s football team, the University of Missouri president and chancellor resigned for not effectively responding to racial incidents on campus. Afterwards, a wave of college-based protests blossomed across the country.

Black Youth Activism: Lessons Learned From the 1930s to the 2000s

This overview of black youth activism from the 1930s to the 2000s underscores important lessons about how young people participate in grassroots mobilization initiatives, and the central role that black youth have in American politics. The first lesson is that movement bridge-builders or the leaders of movement infrastructures play an instrumental role in fueling black youth activism. They can generate opportunities for young activists to participate in movement campaigns through the use of creative organizing, or strategies that are intentionally designed to elevate the social and political status of black youth such that they become vehicles for popular mobilization.

As highlighted in Figure 1, movement bridge-builders use several strategies to position youth activists at the forefront social movements and politically salient initiatives. Some bridge-builders use framing to develop narratives that explain a particular problem that has relevance to marginalize groups. For the purposes of mobilizing youth, these narratives identify a problem, assign blame to it, and then propose solutions to resolving the problem.[xx] For example, the Black Lives Matter frame has been useful in fueling youth protests against racialized killings by law enforcement officials. It has even been an agenda-setting instrument in the 2016 presidential campaigns as Democratic Party candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley aligned their criminal justice platforms with Black Lives Matter.

Movement bridge-builders will also intentionally position black youth at the forefront of a particular policy debate, as did Mary McLeod Bethune to pressure the federal government to adopt economic justice measures for African Americans during the Great Depression. This is accomplished by using a strategy called “positionality” that intentionally alerts grassroots organizations and allies about political decisions or regressive policies that affect young people. The objective is to dramatize the impact of these decisions and policies on young people and create opportunities for intergenerational collaborative initiatives. This then positions young activists as the group that is best positioned to resolve these challenges. For example, the local campaigns to reform juvenile justice systems used positionality to garner support for young activists among street workers, educators, child advocates and other activists who were unfamiliar with the dimensions of juvenile justice policies. These campaigns alerted local groups and leaders about abuses in youth prisons and the harmful impact of zero tolerance policies.

Movement bridge-builders will further link the interests and collective identities of local activists and adult-led groups – or what are referred to as indigenous networks – with the goals of young activists. The intent is to create opportunities for young people to unite their interests with indigenous networks, as well as activate or appropriate these networks such that they can support youth-based movements. As an example, the AFL-CIO leveraged (or appropriated) local labor unions in order to garner their support for the Union Summer program.

In general, the central role of movement bridge-builders is essential to understanding how youth-based movements are sustained. Bridge-builders sow the seeds of black youth activism by identifying strategies and tactics that allow youth to become vehicles for popular mobilization initiatives. They help youth acquire the resources to sustain activism and connect young activists to indigenous groups and seasoned activists. They also help to develop the leadership capacity of young people.

The significant role of movement infrastructures in cultivating black youth activism is another important lesson of this overview. These included youth-led organizations such as the Southern Negro Youth Congress, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Student Organization for Black Unity, and those affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives Matter. Others joined adult-led or network-affiliated youth organizations such as those that led the juvenile justice initiatives in the 1990s and 2000s as well as the Union Summer campaign. Still, some activists belonged to multi-generational/intergenerational infrastructures such as the Black Student Leadership Network.

Movement infrastructures (youth-led, multi-generational, network-affiliated) facilitate youth involvement in social justice initiatives. Youth-based initiatives require resources, linkages with indigenous organizations, and political education, all of which are coordinated by movement infrastructures. Movement infrastructures also establish norms and standards for democratic deliberation among young activists. Thus, movement infrastructures that are cohesive and democratic are more likely to minimize internal conflict and mediate philosophical divisions between competing activists.

The third lesson of this overview underscores how black youth are shaped by the political, social, and economic conditions of their respective time periods. The Great Depression of the 1930s politicized black youth during this period to embrace more militant economic justice initiatives and to support labor unions; Cold War politics impacted young activists in the 1950s and 1960s by allowing them to make a direct connection between the struggles for racial democracy in the United States and the promotion of democracy in the international arena; and the conservative movement’s resurgence between the 1960s and the 1980s heightened the racial or oppositional consciousness of young blacks during this period.

The social, political, and economic conditions are equally important for understanding youth activism in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black youth and young adults in the twenty-first century have been the disproportionate targets of state violence, racial profiling practices such as the “Stop-and-Frisk” policing approach in New York City, and “Stand-Your-Ground” measures including Florida’s law that lead to the killing of Trayvon Martin. These policing practices have converged with a broader mandate by municipal officials to remake cities into attractive destinations for middle-class residents. Large cities are increasingly displacing blacks and gentrifying moderate-income residents. They are also downsizing public sector programs and institutions (housing, schools, jobs, utilities), which is adversely affecting poor blacks and black youth. Policing practices are thus reinforcing a displacement ethos that is increasingly carried at the expense of moderate-income and young blacks. These conditions have amplified the concerns of young activists affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives Matter.

Overall, black youth activism has been an important vehicle for addressing racial, economic and social injustices. Young activists have raised awareness about black poverty during the Great Depression and laid the groundwork for the repeal of state and local poll taxes in the 1940s. Black youth participation in marches, sit-ins, freedom rides, and local organizing initiatives from the 1950s-1970s challenged racial terrorism in the South. Black youth-based formations are also credited with the passage of seminal civil rights laws in the 1960s including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By the 1980s, blacks and multi-racial networks organized protests at 100 universities in order to end racial apartheid in South Africa. A decade later, the Black Student Leadership Network and the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer program set up dozens of freedom schools, organized labor initiatives, and called the nation’s attention to systemic poverty. The Movement for Black Lives Matter has also been instrumental in advancing anti-racial profiling platforms and addressing state violence against blacks.

In addition, academicians (social scientists and education specialists) have an important role to play in supporting black youth activism. If youth-based movements are going to be viable responses to inequality in the twenty-first century, then black social scientists must be integral to this struggle. There are multiple roles that they can play including assisting young activists with press releases, op-eds, strategies, fundraising initiatives and research.

During the protest waves of the 1930s-1940s and the 1950s-1970s, there was a partnership between resistance movements and hybrid academicians (or scholars who had one foot in movements and the other one in the academy). Ira De Reid, E. Franklin Frazier, and Charles Johnson belonged to a cadre of black scholars commissioned by the American Council on Education in the 1940s to study the challenges facing black youth. Their pioneering studies provided a broader context for shaping radical youth organizations such as the Southern Negro Youth Congress.

The National Conference of Black Political Scientists was also established in 1969 as an outgrowth of the civil rights and black power movements. More recently, black political scientists have been on the frontlines of the Movement for Black Lives Matter. Political scientist Cathy Cohen at the University of Chicago assisted youth with the formation of the Black Youth Project 100, one of the leading organizations in the movement. As the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter affiliate in Los Angeles, Professor Melina Abdullah has organized protests against the Los Angeles Police Department, which has one of the highest rates of killing unarmed blacks in the nation.

[i]. I use the terms African American and black interchangeably.

[ii]. Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999), 229-230.

[iii]. E. Franklin Frazier, Negro Youth at the Crossways: Their Personality Development in the Middle States (New York, New York: Schocken Books, 1940); Charles S. Johnson, Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South (New York, New York: Schocken Books, 1941); Jesse Atwood, Thus Be Their Destiny: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in Their Communities (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 1941); Ira De Reid, In a Minor Key: Negro Youth In Story and Fact (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1971 [1940]); Allison Davis and John Dollard, Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in the Urban South (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 1946).

[iv] Raymond Wolters, The New Negro On Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975); St. Claire Drake, Interview by Robert E. Martin, June 19, 1968, 46-47, Ralph J. Bunche Oral History Collection, Civil Rights Documentation Project, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Washington, D.C., 1969.

[v] George Schuyler became one of the leading black conservatives in the country by the 1950s. Yet, he was a prominent activist and cultural critic allied with civil rights organizations in the 1920s-1940s.

[vi] Thomas Bynum, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965 (University of Tennessee Press, 2013), pp. 6-7.

[vii]. Ibid., 59-74.

[viii]. Sekou M. Franklin, After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 59.

[ix]. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Southern Negro Youth Congress, #100-HQ-6548, Part I, “Undeveloped Leads,” 28-30.

[x]. Johnetta Richards, “The Southern Negro Youth Congress: A History,” Doctoral Dissertation, University of Cincinnati, 1987, 48.

[xi] Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[xii] Ella Baker, Interview by John Britton, June 19, 1968, Ralph J. Bunche Oral History  Collection, Civil Rights Documentation Project, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Washington, D.C.

[xiii]. Robert P. Moses and Charlie Cobb, Jr., “Organizing Algebra: The Need to Voice a Demand,” Social Policy 31, no. 4 (Summer 2001): 8.

[xiv]. Robert C. Smith, We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996).

[xv]. See Clarence Lang, “Political/Economic Restructuring and the Tasks of Radical Black Youth,” The Black Scholar vol. 28, no. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 1998): 32-33; Also see Luke Tripp, “The Political Views of Black Students During the Reagan Era,” The Black Scholar vol. 22, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 45-51.

[xvi]. Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review 24 (2009): 156-165.

[xvii]. Sarah A. Soule, “The Student Divestment Movement in the United States and Tactical Diffusion: The Shantytown Protest,” Social Forces vol. 75, no. 3 (March 1997): 857-858.

[xviii] Sean Ginwright, Black Youth Rising: Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[xix]. Cathy Cohen, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 28.

[xx]. David A. Snow and Robert D. Benford, “Master Frames and Cycles of Protest,” in Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, ed. Aldon Morris and C. McClurg Mueller (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 137.

*This lesson plan was originally published in the Association for the Study of African American Life & History’s Black History Bulletin and is reprinted here by permission of the author and is available here.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: