- If We Could Change the World: Young People and America's Long Struggle for Racial Equality
This splendid book by Rebecca de Schweinitz has the virtue of seeking, and realizing, two clear purposes: to restore young people to the vital historical place they played in the civil rights movement, and to begin to explain how and why youth were so vitally engaged in activism on behalf of social change in American society. That the work succeeds better at the first part of that purpose, documenting activism, than at the second, explaining it, leaves work for future historians of children and youth who might want to follow up on some of the tantalizing avenues of investigation de Schweinitz so skillfully opens up here.
If We Could Change the World is a significant scholarly contribution to understanding not only the civil rights movement, but also how the broader youth movements of the 1950s and '60s emerged. Throughout, the author deftly weaves together attention to federal laws and commissions, national organizations, state and local developments, literary commentary, and even media and images to make her key points: youth were the "fighting arm" of the civil rights movement, not as pawns of adult leaders but of their own volition, and they were motivated to become leaders because of a long, durable history of youth activism in the African American community.
De Schweinitz builds this sensible case in five chapters. Chapter one, "The Shame of America," highlights how by 1930 and the creation of The Children's Charter (helpfully included as an appendix) a consensus was developing among American experts that all children, including African Americans, had "rights" which might be realized through education. The author sensitively tracks the ironies of efforts by reformers such as W. E. B. DuBois to cultivate a politically attractive ideal of middle-class black youth who might help mobilize public action against racist systems that constituted "crimes versus childhood." [End Page 158]
Chapter two, "A Crusade for Children," advances the story of youthful mobilization through 1954 by documenting how expert consensus began to converge on the idea of learned racism. In a somewhat meandering chapter, de Schweinitz pays attention to the war-era American Children's Crusade (for European children), the publication of the novels Native Son (1940) and Strange Fruit (1944), and the 1948 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, all of which were bracketed by White House Conferences on Children in 1940 and 1950. Together, de Schweinitz argues, these contextual dynamics helped lead to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, (officially) desegregating America's schools.
Chapter three, the weakest in the book, "No Place for Children," picks up the story after Brown and tries simultaneously to track backlash to the decision (e.g., White Citizens Councils) and rhetorical mobilization of children in narrative tropes shared by the popular media and leaders of the civil rights movement. Three such tropes appear: that African American children deserved (and were capable of) entry into middleclass gentility, that racial equality was necessary for national security, and that African American children deserved the same respect and opportunities as other children living under the idealized "sanctity of the child" common to the decade of the fifties. By the end of the chapter de Schweinitz is clear about the "limits of sentimentality" in organizing social change, but less clear about why African Americans (and especially young people) accepted these three tropes (if indeed they did).
Chapter four, "The NAACP and the Youth Organizing Tradition," is the most focused and effective chapter in the book. In it, de Schweinitz clearly overturns any easy stereotype about NAACP "conservatism." She documents the long history of radical activism by African American young people that the NAACP intentionally developed in the 1930s and '40s, including some surprisingly militant "direct actions."
Chapter five, "Youth Unlimited," turns to the voices of young people themselves to document their activism in the civil rights movement from 1950-1965. Interestingly, however, de Schweinitz discovers...