Youth Agency in the 20th Century (Student Leadership: Part 1)

Children Making Waves Outside the Classroom from 1900-2000

Whether it was on the farm or in the factory, children typically worked alongside their elders (source). Although there were longstanding pushes to abolish child labor, the children were typically not organized to participate in organized labor or community action- that is until the Newsboys Strike of the late 1800’s. This movement was captured by the hit Disney musical, Newsies, but it was actually based on real life events in which New York newspaper boys took on William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer for better pay (source).

As time passed, the youth continued to take on outsized roles in social movements and yet their influence in the classroom never quite took hold. While titans of education debated on how kids should be taught, the role was never in question- the child is a student, the adult is the teacher. Theories and practices abounded on how to teach children, but the premise was simple- the child was an empty vessel that the adult would pour information into. 

Regardless of their place in education, children continued participating in social movements and collective action  throughout the 1900s. The following list includes cases of students influencing society in profound ways:

  • In 1903, Marry “Mother” Jones led 100 children on a march from Philadelphia to New York City in the Children’s Crusade (source).
  • In 1912, during the Bread and Roses Strike, 13 year old immigrant Carmela Teoli testifies before Congress on how she was scalped in a work-related accident. After the testimony she was invited by President Taft and the first lady. The presidential family pledged $1,000 dollars to the movement  after meeting with Carmela (source).
  • In 1935, the American Youth Congress was formed and led to an introduction of the American Youth Bill of Rights (source).
  • In 1957, nine all Black students enrolled in an all-white school that was hostile to racial integration. This group went on to be known as the Little Rock Nine (source).
  • In 1965, Mary Beth Tinker was 13 years old when she wore an armband protesting the war in Vietnam. She was suspended from school and this triggered a series of events that led to a historic free speech ruling from the Supreme court with Tinker vs Des Moines in 1969 (source).
  • In 1968, East Los Angeles Blowouts included thousands of Chicano youth activists organizing for improved educational conditions and representation in the curriculum. (source)
  • In 1980, Oklahoma high school students beat a ban on dancing and held their first ever prom. The hit movie Footloose is based on these events (source).
  • In 1988 high school Gay Student Alliances were established at private and public high schools in Massachusetts. (source)
  • In 1996 LGBTQ clubs were banned in Salt Lake City Utah. A group of students sued the school (source).