Youth in the Movement: High School Student Activism in Postwar America

Solicited by the History of Education Society

Friday, March 31, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Education; Politics; Race

Papers Presented

Barbara Johns and Beyond: Black Male Youth, the American High School, and Civil Rights Activism in Virginia, 1951–1970

The master narrative of high school student activism in Virginia focuses on Barbara Johns, her classmates, and the school strike in Farmville, Virginia. And with good reason. The strike eventually culminated in the Prince Edward County case becoming one of the five court cases consolidated and argued at the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. However, Johns and her classmates were not alone in seeking justice in and around their high schools in Virginia. This paper examines Black high school student activism in other parts of Virginia during the post-World War II era. It focuses mainly on Black male students in two cities in the Commonwealth of Virginia: Charlottesville and Lynchburg. It draws upon archival materials, newspaper articles, and oral history interviews with Charles Alexander and Owen Cardwell to illuminate how young people within and beyond high schools navigated and thrived amidst the Commonwealth's particular form of white supremacy: the Virginia Way. By focusing on Black male youth protest, this article enables us to see similarities and differences in how young people fought for equity and justice within and beyond their schools.

Presented By
Alexander Hyres, University of Utah

’The Question of Puerto Rican Independence is Hot Among Youth Right Now’: Colonial-Transnational High School Activism in Postwar New York City, 1948–1975

This paper examines the linkage between empire and domestic racialized inequality by focusing on the colonial-transnational history of Puerto Rican high school student activism. The first section will place this activism in historical context, providing an overview of the history of Puerto Rico and its colonial relationship with the United States and detailing the socio-structural forces that shaped life in the diaspora. The next section will concentrate on high school student activism between 1948-1965, when young Puerto Ricans New Yorkers organized largely through adult-created school clubs and community-based organizations to fight stereotypes and assert their place as American citizens with equal rights during a burgeoning civil rights movement. The third section will then concentrate on the effervescent years between 1965 and 1975, when Puerto Rican high school student activism reached a fever pitch, and young Boricuas engaged in everything from education-specific work around community control, bilingual-bicultural education, student rights, and ending police brutality, to broader movements for peace and racial, class, and health justice through groups like the Young Lords, El Comité, and anti-war organizations. This research draws upon organizational papers, news articles, memoirs, student writing, photographs, and oral histories. Although Puerto Rican high school activism mirrors many of the trends and developments of other communities, like young Black, Chicano, Asian, indigenous, and white New Left activists, the specificity of their experience as colonial citizens living in a diasporic social world between one of the U.S.’s last remaining colonies and the nation’s largest urban center render their story unique and central to our understanding of “youth in the movement.”

Presented By
Lauren Lefty, Northern Arizona University

We Feel No Discrimination Exists in Our School’: High School Student Activism in Salt Lake City, Utah, 1970–2019

We situate this paper within the historiographies of school desegregation and the school-to- prison nexus. Our paper spotlights a city where school desegregation occurred not because of litigation and busing, but rather as a result of demographic changes in Salt Lake City during the mid-to-late twentieth century. Similar to other intermountain and western cities, the rise and fall narrative fails to adequately describe the city or the schools. By focusing on high school students with various and intersecting identities, we reveal the nuances in how activists are treated by schools and the state, particularly the police, depending on how and why they are protesting. This paper draws upon archival materials, newspaper articles, reports, and oral history interviews to illuminate the contours of high school activism from the perspectives of Black and Latinx students, white students, and LGBTQ+ students. Our paper examines of the origins and development of the American high school in Salt Lake City, before turning towards specific cases of student activism at the city’s high schools: West and East. Overall, we argue that high school students at West and East High School in Salt Lake City in the 1970s and throughout the remaining decades of the twentieth century were not just proxies for the views of their parents and communities; they were social and political beings making sense of their world and envisioning the future in the shadow of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Presented By
Nicole C. Wilson Steffes, University of UtahSonny Partola, University of UtahMaeve Wall, University of Utah

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Bryant Partida, University of California, Los Angeles

Presenter: Alexander Hyres, University of Utah

Presenter: Lauren Lefty, Northern Arizona University

Presenter: Sonny Partola, University of Utah

Presenter: Maeve Wall, University of Utah

Presenter: Nicole C. Wilson Steffes, University of Utah