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  • If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality
  • Katharine Capshaw Smith
Rebecca de Schweinitz. If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009. 368 pp. $35.00.

Rebecca de Schweinitz’s superb If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality details the extensive participation of youth in twentieth-century civil rights efforts. She enables scholars to recognize that the young have inspired and achieved social change, but also to face astonishing elisions in conventional accounts of the civil right era. It is the latter success that best speaks to the energies of the present moment in historical and literary studies, for Schweinitz’s inclusivity and expansiveness join many other recent efforts to recover buried narratives of influential black accomplishment. By acknowledging that child activism has largely been left out of the civil rights story, Schweinitz opens up new avenues for research into political representations of black childhood and for attention to actual youth organizing.

One of the signal traits of Schweinitz’s study is its awareness of childhood as a socially constructed category. In building her analysis of the shifting valences of childhood and its association with black youth, Schweinitz employs the work of major cultural historians, which is to be expected. Yet she also attends to Julia Mickenberg and other critics of children’s literature as well as to historians of childhood such as James Marten and Wilma King. Her approach, then, productively draws on a variety of disciplines to frame a wide-ranging discussion of the ideology of childhood and its effects on social movements. Beliefs about the nature and rights of childhood shifted across the twentieth century; by analyzing the power of domestic ideals for black activists, Schweinitz extends the work of critics such as Elaine Tyler May, who pursue the political implications of midcentury American domesticity.

The book begins with the Scottsboro Boys, noting that the 1930 presidential policy statement, the Children’s Charter, helped to spark public attachment of the rights of childhood to black youth. Happily, the text does not rest in white public culture in order to explain this transformation. Instead, it turns toward earlier African American efforts to articulate the value of sentimental childhood to black youth for political purposes, in large part by examining Du Bois’s validation of middle-class black childhood in the Crisis in the 1910s and 1920s. In discussing the Great Depression, the text attends to larger cultural shifts, explaining that economic insecurity led young people to question adult leadership, and that the New Deal encouraged attention to the social and material inequity borne by the rural poor and led to increased ideological and material investment in education. If We Could Change the World acknowledges that the 1954 Brown decision was a defining moment for civil rights, but then positions that decision within a national conversation on the significance of childhood to democratic ideals and to national security. Schweinitz closely examines the Children’s Crusade for Children, the American Youth Commission, and popular deliberations about juvenile delinquency in order to contextualize the significance of Brown.

If We Could Change the World goes on to examine representations of sacrificial black childhood during the 1950s and 1960s. Schweinitz analyzes newspaper reports on Emmett Till, school desegregation, and the Children’s Crusade in order to argue [End Page 279] that the press on civil rights employed “widespread beliefs about childhood and ideas about children’s rights” (103). Enlisting white support for civil rights via the rights of childhood, however, carried with it certain limitations as whites resisted envisioning African Americans as independent agents. Just as the book seeks out Du Bois’s role in ascribing values of sentimental childhood to African Americans, it pursues the NAACP’s general investment in youth activism. The chapter titled “The NAACP and the Youth Organizing Tradition” enhances our understanding of the complexities of the political association and its long-standing investment in grass-roots child activism. Schweinitz explains that “NAACP youth programs after the mid-1930s . . . suggest that the association, often...


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pp. 279-280
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