Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Young Crusaders

    The Untold Story of the Children and Teenagers Who Galvanized the Civil Rights Movement

    V. P. Franklin

    Boston: Beacon Press, 2021. 313 pp. 29.95 (cloth).

    Months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for committing the same act in the same city. Colvin explained that her decision to remain seated was the result of her being angry, “like any teenager might be” (p. 39). She had never forgotten the story of Jeremiah Reeves, a Black teen who had attended her high school and was arrested and electrocuted by the state after being accused of rape by a white woman. Colvin’s anger—and the anger of other Black teenagers across the country—stemmed from the daily indignities of being Black under Jim Crow, including watching their peers be mistreated and murdered by the racist justice system. Colvin’s story is one of many in V. P. Franklin’s The Young Crusaders, a book that recounts the often-overlooked history of children’s and teenagers’ contributions to the civil rights movement. Not just the domain of adults and college students, civil rights organizing has always involved youth leading and attending boycotts, marches, sit-ins, protests, and riots, and also serving jail time, for various causes, including anti-lynching laws, educational justice, and fair employment.

    The Young Crusaders is organized chronologically, beginning with youth organizing in the 1930s and 1940s, before Brown v. Board (1954), and ending with calls for Black Power in the late 1960s. Part 1 focuses on youth activism before the pivotal March on Washington in 1963. In chapter 1, Franklin describes how young people during the 1930s and 1940s largely joined offshoots of adult organizations, such as the NAACP Youth Councils or the youth division of the National Negro Congress. Connections to adult institutions provided youth activists with access to resources like lawyers as well as financial, social, and political support. However, even when affiliated with an adult organization, young people often led bold actions without adult oversight. For example, in 1951 in Prince Edward County, Virginia, sixteen-year-old Barbara Jones led her high school in a walkout over the poor quality of their segregated schools. Jones explained that “if we had asked for adult help before taking the first step, we would have been turned down” (p. 34). Even before the most active years of the civil rights movement, teenagers were leading adults past their comfort zones in expressing demands for radical change.

    Chapter 2 highlights the children at the frontline of school desegregation as plaintiffs in court battles and as the first Black children to integrate all-white schools. In describing these children as “young freedom fighters” (p. 42), Franklin makes a case that these students are as much activists as those students who engaged in mass direct actions. The chapter covers well-known cases, such as the Little Rock Nine, teens who endured constant harassment from white students and the community when they integrated Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. But a strength of The Young Crusaders is the attention it pays to cases that have eluded popular memory, such as the Milford Ten of Delaware, Black students who enrolled in all-white schools following Brown in 1954 but who were transferred out by the school board after white parents affiliated with the National Association for the Advancement of White People withdrew their children from school in protest.

    Chapters 3 and 4 focus on student campaigns throughout the South. One important theme through these chapters is the unique vulnerabilities of youth activists as compared to their adult counterparts. For example, schools retaliated against student activists through suspensions, expulsions, and criminalization by labeling students as “delinquent” and transferring them to harsh reformatory schools. Adult activists recognized the potential danger of having children on the frontlines of social and political conflict. In 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched a campaign in Birmingham to desegregate the city. As the number of adults willing to be arrested dwindled, King and his colleague James Bevel debated the role of young children in the movement. While King wanted to limit protests to older students, Bevel argued that Black children had already experienced the violence of racism and should be allowed to fight for its eradication. These two prominent civil rights leaders knew that even if adults wanted to protect them from the direct actions, children were still vulnerable to the dangers of white supremacy and Jim Crow in their everyday lives. On May 1–2, 1963, thousands of children who demonstrated in what would be known as the Birmingham Children’s Crusade were met with violence by police and arrested. Their bravery helped lead to the Birmingham Truce Agreement on May 10, which promised to end desegregation and discrimination in public facilities in downtown Birmingham.

    The second part of The Young Crusaders focuses on what Franklin calls the “quality integrated education movement.” Franklin’s use of this phrase honors the fact that Black parents, students, and educators demanded more from school boards than just desegregation. These two chapters highlight stories of the civil rights movement outside of the South, turning to the North and Midwest, regions whose involvement in the movement is often overlooked. Popular narratives about racism in the United States tend to localize it to the South given the more overt forms of institutionalized racism, like the Jim Crow laws. In contrast, white supremacy in the North and Midwest manifested as de facto segregation or discrimination in schooling, housing, and employment. For example, in Milwaukee, school officials sought to alleviate the overcrowding of Black schools while maintaining segregated classrooms through the practice of “intact busing,” which involved transporting teachers and students from classrooms in predominantly Black schools and moving them “intact” into empty classrooms in all-white schools. In addition to overcrowding, Black parents and students across northern and midwestern cities also complained about racist curricula, crumbling school buildings, and lack of supplies. In their fight for quality education, Black youth and adults in Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, New York, and other cities outside of the South held massive school boycotts, created Freedom Schools, and clashed with organized white resistance.

    In Part 3, which focuses on the movement’s shift from demanding civil rights to Black power, Franklin describes the nonviolent and violent tactics Black youth used to demand better schools, Black history in the curriculum,
    and community oversight of the police. Franklin describes the riots of the “long hot summers” of the mid-1960s, taking care to explain the historical and social contexts of these expressions of Black youths’ anger. Even in the present, Black anger as a response to the murder of Black children and adults at the hands of the police is often labeled a “riot” in order to malign and control its expression. Franklin’s work helps us recognize that this practice has a long history and challenges us to look beyond the label to the real fear, frustration, and fury expressed by the acts of destruction.

    In the Epilogue, Franklin makes clear that though the book focuses on Black youth activists, the legacy and lessons of this history apply to youth activism regardless of race, cause, or time period. He gives an overview of youth activism for progressive causes since the 1970s—from the LGBTQ+ activists of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) in the 1990s, to the March for Our Lives response to gun violence since 2018, to the contemporary reparatory justice movement. Though I appreciate that this book contains many stories diverse in age, region, ideology, and cause, at times the volume of cases made the reading experience feel somewhat scattered. Readers unfamiliar with this history would benefit from more interpretation from Franklin about what patterns emerge from collecting these stories and what can be learned from those patterns to inform our work as historians or activists. Rather than linger on a particular story or group of stories to offer analysis, the volume of stories demands that Franklin move onto the next state, year, and historical actor. For example, in the last chapter of the book, students of color other than Black youth begin to join in activism with demands for culturally relevant curricula and pedagogy. Franklin does not provide context for when and why student activism in the late 1960s became multiracial, which left that section of the book feeling thin. Finally, although I appreciated the Epilogue’s shout-out to the valuable progressive work of contemporary youth activists, the end of the book felt abrupt without a traditional concluding chapter in which the author summarizes his work and shares the main takeaways for the reader.

    Overall, however, Franklin’s The Young Crusaders is an important new perspective on a history many readers think they know. The archive privileges the history of adults, especially those with the resources to preserve their own stories, so this collection of stories directly from those who were children and teenagers in the movement is invaluable. Franklin challenges readers to see the ways youth pushed the movement forward by experimenting with new directaction techniques like lunch counter sit-ins or putting their lives and bodies on the line by boycotting school. This history also highlights the unique political and social vulnerabilities of young people, particularly young children, and the costs associated with spending so much of one’s childhood fighting for dignity. Densely packed with stories both familiar and not, The Young Crusaders is a valuable resource for historians, lay readers, and youth activists looking for inspiration from the past on how to make change.

    Alyssa Napier
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