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Black Teens Who Made Civil Rights History

Drawing Inspiration from Black Teens from Civil Rights Era

By now your teen's probably grumbling about his "black history" report that's due in a few days. Don't tell him to suck it up and just get it done. Try turning it into a little inspirational learning for him. Instead of letting him do the same old Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr. report that over half his class will turn in, suggest he up the ante by doing a report on a teen who played an important role during the civil rights movement. He's bound to shock his teacher, get a good grade and may even be inspired to create a little history himself.

Huh? A Teen?

When we suggested a teen, you probably thought, "Yeah right, what teen is known for his role in black history?" That's exactly the point. Contrary to popular belief – and what's being taught in history classes – Martin Luther King Jr. and other "well-knowns" weren't the only ones involved in the civil rights movement. Quite a few activists were just like your child – a teen.

For instance, we all know the story of Rosa Parks and how her refusal to move to the back of the bus for a white passenger sparked the famous bus boycott that ended bus segregation. However, what most people don't know is that Rosa Parks wasn't the first to take that stance. A 15-year-old teen was! On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin, a girl from Montgomery, Ala., boarded the bus on her way home from school and got comfortable in the middle section of the bus. When she was told to move to the back to allow white passengers to have the middle seat, she refused and was handcuffed and dragged off the bus by police.

Though the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other activists were waiting for an incident like that so they could use it to challenge segregated seating on buses, the fact that Colvin was a pregnant and unwed teen caused them to decide to wait for another test case. That case came nine months later, when Rosa Parks, then 42 years old, took the same actions Colvin had and was consequentially arrested as well. Now Parks gets all the recognition and is written throughout history books as a heroine, while Claudette Colvin, the teen who started it all, is practically forgotten.

Other Unmentionables

While the reasoning behind the dismissal of Colvin's case is understandable (people were concerned with how her illegitimate pregnancy would reflect on the African-American community), that's not so in the cases of other teens who are barely mentioned.

No matter what your race, it's very likely you know a little something about Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ended segregated schooling. You probably can even name a few people who were involved. Are any of the names that pop into your mind those of someone who was 17 or younger? Probably not. While there were more than 117 students involved in the launch of the case, most people only credit adults, like Thurgood Marshall, for the role they played.

Maybe the most-deserving party in the case was not Marshall, but Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old junior at Moton High School in Farmville, Va. In 1951, after constantly comparing Moton to the white schools and watching as parents and other activists tried to obtain funding for a better black school while making no progress, Johns decided it would be up to her and her fellow classmates to do something about it.

On April 23, 1951, Johns took over her school by having someone tell the principal that two of the students were at the downtown bus station being arrested. After the principal left the building, Johns sent notices with the principal's forged signature to all classes arranging a student assembly. Once the students arrived, Johns had her friends escort the teachers and other staff from the building. Together, the students agreed to form a strike and refuse to return to school until they got the funding that was needed to repair and rebuild it.

After being contacted by Johns for help, the NAACP suggested to her that they file a lawsuit to get not just a school that was simply comparable to those the white students attended, but an integrated school where both black and white kids could go. Johns and her peers agreed it was a good idea, and shortly thereafter, their case, along with five others, formed what would become known as Brown vs. Board of Education. For whatever reason, Johns receives little credit for organizing the student strike that kicked open the door to the end of segregated schools, while her adult counterparts continue to be praised for their roles.

Teen Discrimination?

Next time you hear your teen mouthing off about how just because she's a teen she's ignored and not taken seriously by adults, don't just consider it adolescent babble; it may be true. But be sure to let her know that while the rights and opinions of teens are often overlooked, there are some things she can do to assure she's getting her equal rights. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get active. Suggest your teen get active in the community by joining a group that fights for equality. Organizations like the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and other groups usually have local chapters for youth looking to get actively involved in community issues and learn more about their rights and protecting them.
  • Get proactive. Even if your teen doesn't get involved in a specific organization, he can still educate himself and others on the meaning of equal rights and how important they are. He can do this by reading up on the movement, discussing it with his peers and helping raise awareness about violations and what can be done.
  • Be really equal. Sometimes people mistakenly think of civil rights as "black rights," which is far from the truth. Civil rights were meant to protect everyone, regardless of race. So make sure your teen knows that even if she isn't a minority, her rights can be violated. People face civil rights violations for a multitude of reasons, including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and probably the one teens see most – age. Make sure that your teen isn't basing her thoughts about civil rights on race issues. In order for her to be a really good activist, she must be in it to secure equal rights for everyone.
  • Stand up. Probably the most important thing your teen can do in regards to his civil rights is to stand up for himself if he feels his rights are being violated. If that means coming to you and letting you know what's going on, that's what he should do. Even if he has to take it as far as the court system, it's well worth the fight. Because if he lies down and takes one rights violation, many are bound to follow.

As you've seen, the actions and progress teens make are sometimes disregarded. This February, during Black History Month, try to get your teen to bring some of the things other teens before him have done to light. While your teen is educating himself and others and getting active in the fight for equal rights, make sure you do the same.

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