Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

The power of children protesting, from the civil rights movement to the gun violence walkouts

Students at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, join countless peers across the country in staging a school walkout to protest gun violence | Photo Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr (cc)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sightings is sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up to get Sightings in your inbox twice per week (on Mondays and Thursdays). You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

“How Young Is Too Young for Protest?”—an article by Stephanie Saul and Anemona Hartocollis in the New York Times published the day before the March 14 protest marches against gun violence in a great number of American high schools—posed questions which concentrated less on gun rights and more on the role of children on all sides of the guns-and-schools controversy. While formal religious arguments and incidents rarely make headlines, this incident has helped reveal fissures within the public where religious and ethical concerns were, and are, prime. These have to do with all the standard issues, and public attitudes by people of all ages. But this time there were good reasons to focus on concerns about children protesting, many of the young being prohibited from holding demonstrations.

Without doubt, the March 14 walkouts and anti-walkout events will receive attention from leaders in churches and schools, public interest factions, activists, and ethicists. When young people awaken to a cause, many ordinarily passive and apathetic people get roused. Precedent for all this is the Birmingham Campaign for civil rights of April-May 1963. James Bevel, a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, faced a decline in the number of adults who would participate in demonstrations to effect change. So he looked to a new front: those in high schools, colleges, and even elementary schools, teaching them the meaning of nonviolence and nonviolent actions. Arrests followed, but these first steps brought the “Children’s Crusade” and its cause to national attention. The rest, of course, is history.

Did the patently nonviolent protests and expressions on March 14 “make history,” and, if so, what kind of “making” lies ahead? Wyatt Tee Walker, a well-remembered civil rights leader with credentials, properly noted that the Birmingham student protests became a “legend,” and were the “most important chapter” in the entire civil rights movement. Is a new legend in the offing? Racism and racial tensions remain strong; they demand and deserve attention. Pro-gun and anti-gun forces are as polarized today as were the white citizens in Birmingham in the Sixties. While religion is a great motivator on all sides of these “legendary” changes, and while African American churches are prominent in the ongoing struggle for social justice, other formal religious institutions seemed to be less engaged in the recent Florida-and-then-national protests. Why they were not more engaged—if, indeed, such was the case—is a topic for a different day.

Back to the Saul-Hartocollis story, which takes us to Case Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, where a fifth-grade class drew focus for the dedicated way it mobilized. As students drew posters and walked out to march or stand in silence, protests against the protesting increased. Principal Danjile Henderson said that her “fifth-grade students were very aware of the details of the events and wanted to have their own peaceful protest.” She and her teachers treated those events in age-appropriate ways. The Times writers then admirably turn to many other schools, and give due attention to the many ethical and child-developmental issues that emerge.

Naïve indeed would be anyone who thought the legend of March 14 would match that of Birmingham in 1963. Why? Among other factors, the National Rifle Association mobilized and charted ways to oppose the nonviolent protest moves and movements. The Gun Owners of America, an NRA-type organization, urged its supporters to act: “We could win or lose the gun control battle in the next 96 hours,” read the group’s Twitter page. Things don’t happen that fast. But voices from the right have only begun to fight against the new efforts of the demonstrators following March 14, and they are well funded and fiercely motivated. Still, for one day, and perhaps one season, American citizens are at last hearing more voices than just the pro-gun ones, including those of the long-silent young.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


Click here to post a comment

  • Those with wealth have power. And often those with power try to make obscure the voices of all others. What is needed here if for the voices of the kids be persistent and peaceful. And perhaps what else is needed is for others with power to join the kids while letting the kids lead.

  • Predictably, this article doesn’t mention what the walkout-kids did at the Wal-Mart in Chicago and the Antioch High School in Tennessee.

    But that’s okay: the local adults, school admins, and police will remember.

  • More teens are killed in auto accidents per year by the cars they drive and yet we see no protests for that.

  • OK, Floyd, which kids from Antioch High are you talking about? Wednesday, 10 students among the protesters were charged with rioting and doing between $500-1,000 damage. Most towns have seen worse after a Friday night high school or college football game.
    Thursday, “More than 100 students gathered on Thursday to raise the flag as the band played the national anthem in an attempt to make amends for Wednesday’s disruption. Students that participated in Thursday’s display said they were disappointed by what had happened.”–Tennessean (USA Today)

  • Yet mandatory driver’s education, mandatory insurance, and traffic laws/rules from DOT…and successful influence from decades of MADD lobbyists control the use of said vehicles.

  • If guns were regulated like cars, both gun deaths and the illegal gun trade would drop dramatically.

    In fact I wholly support regulation on such lines with mandatory liability insurance. The NRA even encourages ita members to have it.

  • Perhaps because there is a difference between dying because of an automobile accident and dying because someone pointed a gun at you and 500 other people and started firing.

    Oh, wait. I forgot. You’re not into moral nuance.

  • Remember the riots in Watts, Detroit, Atlanta, Omaha, Chicago?

    That,s ok. White supremacists, adults. And police will remember.

  • Yes. If you do a buncha rioting, fighting, assaulting, and jumping on police cars on Wednesday, and then the media tells the whole city what you did, you can bet you’ll be begging the school admins for some flag-waving, national-anthem Damage Control on Thursday.

    Only problem is, nobody pays quite as much attention to the Damage Control, as they do to the Damage. Especially if you’re supposed to be helping people reduce the violence level.

  • Protesting is not the public opinion swayer it used to be. It has lost its value in most cases. As we can see little to nothing changes with protests. However, these kids should explore different avenues to get their concerns heard.

  • Actually there is no real difference. How the 3000 babies that are murdered everyday in this country?

    “Oh, wait. I forgot. You’re not into moral nuance.”

  • Murder and dying is the subject. Abortions count as do car accidents by teens. Just tryin to help you get your head out of the sand.

  • Maybe there is a conspiracy that paranoid people can latch on to.

    Or maybe, just maybe, if kids can be shot at by a reprobate with a gun and a grudge, they might just have an opinion on it.

  • Shot by whom? No one could even identify this Cruz kid. Teachers saw a man dressed in SWAT gear wearing a mask. It’s called “Patsy”.

  • There you again. Why do you ignore the witness statements? For all to hear.
    Do you just hope people are lazy and stupid enough not to “dig” beyond the mainstream media? I mean I get it…………….you are mostly right — the average American is lazy and stupid. But people are waking up. Does that scare you?

  • Only in fundelibangelist-and-paranoid land does “waking up” mean giving in to ancient prejudices.