My soul has been deeply touched by the passionate, thoughtful teenage student leaders in Parkland, Fla. They remind me of the young black and white high school and college students who provided clear voices and courageous leadership during the civil rights movement from 1951 through 1965.
The student leaders from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Lizzie Eaton, and Alfonso Calderon, remind me of a young woman from my home community of Prince Edward County, Virginia, named Barbara Johns, who led an early protest that helped trigger Brown v. Board and contribute to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Like Johns, these students are possessed of wisdom, a quality of presence, a sense of purpose, and a measure of courage not ordinarily seen in those so young. They have no recorded stance on issues, have not previously voted for either party, and do not appear to belong to any defined political or action group. They are speaking from their youthful hearts to conditions or circumstances that impact their lives.
In April 1951, Barbara Johns — the niece of Vernon Johns, the preacher who preceded Martin Luther Jing Jr. at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama — was only 16 when she and a small group of handpicked student leaders led 460 students on a walkout of the all-black Robert Russa Moton High School to protest the poorly funded, inadequate physical facilities. They were no longer willing to attend school in three makeshift shacks that resembled chicken coops. They wanted the county school board to build a new brick school building, putting, as they said, “the equal” in the prevailing policy of “separate but equal.”
The students sought the help of my father, the Rev. L. Francis Griffin Sr., known for his more progressive views. He allowed the use of his church and agreed to be their adviser. He also called Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, NAACP lawyers from Richmond. The lawyers told the students their new strategy was to seek an end to segregation. If the students could get their parents to agree to join the effort to end segregation, they would take the case. Sensing the moment, the students took up the challenge.
That night, parents, inspired by Johns and her thoughtful, fearless, and articulate co-leaders, and my father’s urging to support the children’s desire for improvement, consented to be a part of a class action suit that became Davis v. Prince Edward County, one of the five cases consolidated in Brown v. Board. Those parents and students actually represented 70 percent of the plaintiffs in the Brown case. The students walked out of their history classes in order to make history.
On May 2, 1951, there was a standing room only mass rally at my father’s church to decide on a course of action. Using a text from the book of Isaiah, my father preached on “The Prophecy of Equality.” He ended by saying, “I would sacrifice my job, money, and any property for the principles of right. I’m willing to die rather than let these children down. No one is going to scare me from my convictions by threatening my job.”
Johns was way ahead of her time. In 1951, leaders who wanted to impact public policy were not supposed to be black — and they were certainly not supposed to be young and female. The action taken by the Prince Edward County students occurred in the early phases of the civil rights era, over four years before the world had heard of Martin Luther King Jr. Johns and her fellow students forged their course of action out of their own sense of righteous indignation and resolve to fight against the inhuman system of segregation. Their idealism awakened the entire community and inspired youth throughout the South to act.
Just as they are doing now, politicians from the local county supervisors to the governor, right up to Senator Harry Byrd, refused to believe that students were acting on their own, in response to conditions they no longer found tolerable. They accused the students of being troublemakers who were unwitting dupes of Communist Party, controlled by the NAACP, or misled by some puppet-master adult who was really pulling the strings. They could not accept they were simply a new bred of “Negro” who wanted to be fully human, fully American. Later, in the 1960s, members of SNCC, the group formed to give students a greater role in the Civil Rights Movement, were also labeled as communists and professional agitators.
The state’s leading journalists, including the estimable James J. Kilpatrick, said the students were too young to understand speak on complicated issues. They should just go back to school, study, and leave the resolution of the situation to the adults.
These same tactics are being used on the students in Florida. The old segregationist playbook has been dusted off and is being used. It’s no longer the Communist Party or the NAACP, it’s “the left.”
Politicians, journalists, and establishment leaders refuse now, as they did in 1951, to believe that teenagers are capable of formulating, out of their own experiences, possibilities that are radically different from the prevailing views. Like the segregationists of the 1950s, these leaders cannot believe students are speaking a truth that emerged from their experience and the meaning they themselves have made of that shared experience.
The students in Florida are speaking, just as young African American activists spoke, a truth that has been forged out of shared experience they find threatening to their “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Authorities and interest groups threatened by this truth would rather destroy the messengers than reflect on their message.
We owe it to these children to back them. We need more leaders like my father who are willing “to have these young peoples’ back.” We cannot let the voices of the status quo destroy the reputations and demean the character of these principled youth. Their voices should be added to the national discourse on guns and the kind of America we will have.Skip Griffin is a former member of the Globe staff.