Too Young to Vote, Old Enough to Act: A Brief History of Major Youth-Led Movements

Thousands of students around the Bay Area participated in school walkouts Wednesday to demand stricter gun laws, part of a nationwide string of student demonstrations spurred by last month's mass shooting at a Florida high school.

It's the latest and most widespread indication that a youth-led movement, initially started by the survivors of the shooting, has taken hold nationally.

Almost immediately after 17 students and faculty were shot to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 14, a group of student survivors turned horrific tragedy into a powerful call to action.

Students took to the streets and the airwaves, demanding local and national officials tighten notoriously loose state and national gun laws that allowed the troubled 19-year-old shooting suspect to so easily purchase a military-style assault rifle.

Within four days of the shooting, the students had come up with a name for their movement (Never Again), a policy demand (stricter background checks for gun buyers), and a date for a nationwide protest in Washington, D.C. (the March for Our Lives, scheduled for March 24th).

It’s an impressive feat of activism by a notably resilient group of high school students, most too young to vote.

In their coverage of the emerging movement, many news outlets conveyed a sense of surprise that young people would so strongly assert themselves and take leadership on an issue that directly affects them.  

But they shouldn’t be.

This is hardly the first time high school students have led the charge in pushing for nationwide reforms. In fact, the nascent Never Again movement follows in a long tradition of middle and high school students who, despite being too young to vote, have helped lead landmark social and political movements. Among the most recent (and often overlooked) examples include the young people on the frontline of the Black Lives Matter movement, Dreamers activists fighting for immigration reform, and the group of American Indian youth who helped spark the Standing Rock movement in South Dakota last winter.  

Scroll through this timeline to explore just a handful of the many movements led by young folks, 18 and under, that helped shape the society we live in today. Note that this is far from an exhaustive list, so if we’ve overlooked a major movement that you think deserves inclusion, please let us know!

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As University of Oklahoma professor Kathryn Schumaker noted in a recent Washington Post commentary, student protesters have long risked disciplinary action or worse to force the nation to have difficult conversations about the future they stand to inherit.

“Young people often have a greater sense of the possibilities for change than their elders do and less concern about the short-term consequences of seeking long-term reforms,” she writes.

WATCH: PBS Student Reporting Labs on youth reactions to the shooting

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