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  • Future Foot Soldiers or Budding Criminals?:The Dynamics of High School Student Activism in the Southern Black Freedom Struggle
  • Jon N. Hale (bio)

It felt like So journer Truth's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on another shoulder," Claudette Colvin recalled of the day in March 1955 that she, as a fifteen-year-old student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to move from her bus seat. Police harassed, arrested, and jailed Colvin, who had clearly and publicly violated city segregation ordinances. In addition to her inspiration from freedom fighters like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Colvin remembered other historical forces that were at play at the time of her arrest. Colvin's schoolmate Jeremiah Reeves had recently been sentenced to death after he was convicted of the rape of a local white woman. Colvin's English teacher, Geraldine Nesbitt, was teaching the United States Constitution in class, a seemingly innocuous lesson in a white high school but a lesson with radical implications for racialized, criminalized, and oppressed black youth. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which defended Colvin after her arrest, was already active in Montgomery, organizing local Youth Council chapters to imbue young people with the skills to challenge the de jure segregation that shackled African Americans across the South. Colvin's activism and its larger context add a different perspective to the popular narrative of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery nine months later, on [End Page 615] December 1, 1955.1 Parks's story, like that of a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s meteoric ascent to civil rights icon, is perhaps the most symbolic of the civil rights movement, putting forth a comfortable narrative of progress as the arc of American history.2 Students, and even scholars of history, are far less familiar with someone like Colvin and her high school peers, a cohort closer to the age of the young people many educators seek to reach and one that shaped the contours of the southern black freedom struggle by challenging the conventional boundaries placed on youth and young activists.

Colvin was not alone on the front lines of the southern freedom struggle. High school activists and the high school itself served as local incubators of the movement, as can be seen in the numerous examples of local yet nationally significant youth demonstrations that unfolded in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, in 1951 students at R. R. Moton High School in rural Prince Edward County, Virginia, led a student walkout and contacted the Richmond law firm of Hill, Martin, and Robinson, which was affiliated with the NAACP. Mass meetings followed, and local families filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, which was later combined with four other court cases into the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of [End Page 616] Education (1954).3 Twenty-four Burke High School students in Charleston, South Carolina, organized the first nonviolent direct-action protest in the city, at the downtown S. H. Kress department store in April 1960. The sit-in launched a sustained protest that lasted more than three years.4 Months later in the small town of McComb, Mississippi, more than one hundred high school students walked out in protest of the conviction and expulsion of Brenda Travis, a fellow student at Burglund High School, who sat-in at the local Greyhound bus station in 1961. This protest helped shape the agenda for the historic Freedom Summer campaign during the summer of 1964.5

Though high school activists significantly shaped the movement, such accounts of their activism have been until recently a marginal part of popular understandings of the black freedom struggle in the South.6 This is partly explained by the fact that the work of collegiate and other [End Page 617] postsecondary activists dominates the overall narrative, usurping instances of high school student protest. Colleges were central battlegrounds of the civil rights movement, to be sure. The University of California, Berkeley, Northwestern University, the University of...


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