- Young Activists: American High School Students in the Age of Protest
Through the 1960's and 1970's, tumultuous racial politics, the Vietnam War, and cultural challenges such as feminism fueled tens of thousands of student protests. But as Gael Graham argues in her book, Young Activists, scholars a poor understanding of how high school students responded to social upheaval. According to a contemporary study cited by the author, fifty nine percent of high schools reported unrest during 1969. In a valuable contribution to the fields of youth culture and education, Graham analyzes the major characteristics of juvenile rebellion and its connection to wider communities of color and political interest. She claims that high school activists found inspiration from the overall climate of protest but that their struggles signified the awakening of a generation determined to reform schools, American society, and the understanding of youth itself.
The book's organization is thematic. The first chapter examines how the post-World War II high schools created an adolescent cohort segregated from adults. High school faculty and administrators enjoyed wide authority to regulate student behavior, ostensibly to create a safe and controlled environment for adolescents to develop social identities free from outside interference. Segregation from neighbors, parents, and workers increased the tendencies of teenagers to identify themselves as a distinct population with its own rights and attitudes.
In her second and third chapters, Graham argues the 1954 landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling placed high schools squarely inside the emerging battle to expand the civil rights of Black Americans. Drawing largely from the recollections of former students, the author illuminates responses to this mandate that range from enthusiastic collaboration, grudging acquiescence, to covert and massive resistance. Black and Latino respondents recounted ostra- cism and hostility faced as "minority" students in newly integrated schools. With the rise of Black and Chicano nationalism in the mid-1960's, many African American and Latino student activists emphasized their identification with ra- cial communities beyond school grounds. In many cases, this shift fractured alliances between white liberals and moderate Black activists. Graham's usage of underground student papers and student recollections also provides a fresh perspective on episodes such as the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict and "blowouts" staged by Latino students in California and Texas.
Subsequent chapters offer convincing grounds that high school protests should be studied separately. Graham argues that teenage dissent centered around limits on personal appearance and expression, or what the author calls a "rights revolution." Students critiqued school guidelines on hemlines and male facial hair, ably demonstrating that regulations did not enshrine educational principles so much as 1950's gender expectations. When students demanded respect for personal autonomy, they won partial relief from onerous dress codes. On the issue of whether students enjoyed First Amendment rights, court challenges gave an ambiguous protection to political speech, such as black armbands worn to protest Vietnam or underground newspapers that discussed birth control and drug use. But Graham critiques the 1969 Supreme Court Tinker [End Page 806] v. Des Moines ruling, observing that the justices neglected to provide guidance on what rights adolescents actually enjoyed. Going beyond expanded student rights, some students claimed that high school students should control their education. Protestors were most successful when they cultivated a "moderate" political stance and couched their demands in the language of existing struggles for civil rights. In most cases, adults were not ready to cede power over schools to the students.
The final chapters deal with the relationship between high school activists, the protest culture of college students and political movements, and the adults who regulated the schools. High school dissidents were actively recruited by groups such as the SDS and the Black Panthers, although Graham maintains that teenagers retained their political independence. From limited statistical and anecdotal evidence, Graham argues that the predominant issue of late 1960's politics, the Vietnam War, appeared only peripherally in high school politics. Since most young men faced at least the possibility of being drafted after graduation, I am...