Let No One Despise Your Youth – By AnneMarie Mingo

AnneMarie Mingo on Rufus Burrow Jr.’s A Child Shall Lead Them

Rufus Burrow Jr., A Child Shall Lead Them: Martin Luther King Jr., Young People, and the Movement, Fortress Press, 2014, 318pp., $19
Rufus Burrow Jr., A Child Shall Lead Them: Martin Luther King Jr., Young People, and the Movement, Fortress Press, 2014, 318pp., $19
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Recent social movements from DREAM Activists to the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter echo history as the bold action and leadership of young people who are determined to live in a better world passionately take up the fight for justice. Their willingness to step forward and take the risks required for change have helped to inspire older persons to get involved. When Carolyn Daniels’ teenaged son, Roy Patterson, was beaten outside of the courthouse in 1961 by a sheriff in Terrell County, Georgia for waiting on a woman whom he had driven there to register to vote, she says that her anger at the injustice towards her son spurred her to become active in the Civil Rights Movement. Daniels’ son’s bold commitment to social justice and freedom challenged her stance and inspired her to join the fight.

Carolyn Daniels described the time period as one where she, like others, had not been involved in any of the activities within the Movement. Unlike many others, however, she was open when her son asked if Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer Charles Sherrod could stay in their home for a couple of days. As a business woman who owned both her beauty shop and home, she was able to leverage the freedom that both of these facts provided her and open her home not only to Sherrod but to countless other SNCC workers in southwest Georgia. Despite being too young to drive or vote, Roy was committed to doing whatever he could to ensure the rights of others. After his beating, he was not deterred from these efforts, but continued to work with Sherrod and others to increase the number of Black voters in Terrell County.

As a result of Daniels’ teenaged son’s passion and commitment combined with her anger as a tax-paying citizen, she felt she had no choice but to become active in the Civil Rights Movement with her son, Charles Sherrod, Prathia Hall, and many other young leaders. She opened her home for young civil rights activists to stay; she taught classes on the Constitution and other areas that were common questions within southern voter registration applications; her business suffered as she lost clients because of some women’s fear of losing their jobs for associating with her, and more. Carolyn Daniels’ son Roy’s activism led her to get involved and to risk her life, livelihood, and lodging to help others gain the right to vote and to become empowered to vote for persons who had a stronger commitment to the communities that they were elected to represent.

Although the timeliness of Rufus Burrow Jr.’s A Child Shall Lead Them: Martin Luther King, Jr., Young People, and the Movement is great, considering the number of young people who are actively leading protests in the wake of the deaths of young men and women across the nation, it is unfortunate that the book does not provide new insights into the past or solid suggestions for the present for young people to take away from civil rights activists who walked similar paths fifty years ago. Burrow missed a critically important opportunity to bring original research from young leaders during the Civil Rights Movement into conversation with young leaders in the current Black Freedom Movements that have arisen in the past few years. In a time when many of the civil rights giants are dying, and many other local leaders have never been approached to ascertain their perspectives on the impact of their activism in the 1950s and 1960s, it is disappointing that Burrow did not conduct new interviews for his book. Movement leaders today fall largely within the same broad scope of young people who are primarily in their twenties, and many are intentional about their desire to build on the legacies of Freedom Fighters who have gone before them. These young people are avid students of the Civil Rights Movement; many have openly embraced the knowledge of a group of civil rights leaders, known as The Council of Elders, who have shared with them at various protests and organizing meetings over the past four years from New York to California. These previous young leaders, who are now elders, are willing and feel called to share freely from their experiences and offer a broader perspective on challenges today. A Child Shall Lead Them should have been a strong resource as young people continue to carry the struggle for freedom forward in the twenty-first century. The book should have been a reminder to older leaders that their work and sacrifices as young people mattered, and led to specific changes in our nation and world. Burrow should have offered new insights about young activists, beyond what we can gather through books that were published decades ago. The current racial climate in this nation, and the struggles to assert dignity in the quest for freedom makes this the time to equip and empower young people who have the courage to continue to fight. Unfortunately, A Child Shall Lead Them does not quite deliver.

In A Child Shall Lead Them, Burrow recounts the stories of many young people during the traditional Civil Rights Movement era, ranging from as young as eight years old through the late twenties. Although Roy Patterson’s leadership of his mother Carolyn Daniels is not mentioned, other stories of young people are. One of the most compelling narratives is that of a then eight-year-old girl, who took Martin Luther King Jr. seriously when he said that she and her friend were welcome to come to meetings and discussions in Selma, Alabama because the efforts there also concerned the children. Drawn to the strange sight of Blacks and Whites talking casually together in the segregated south, Sheyann Webb began attending mass meetings in Selma initially without her parent’s knowledge, and then once they became aware of her activities, she continued to participate in both meetings and marches without their consent. Webb, along with her friend, Rachel West, regularly attended mass meetings at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church at the edge of the public housing apartments where she and her family lived, and the two girls were the youngest participants in the infamous Bloody Sunday in 1965. The brutality of that failed march and the direct impact that it had on Sheyann Webb, who fled home with her eyes and nose burning from tear gas, and horrific images of police brutality towards peaceful marchers burned into her memory, prompted her parents, who had been afraid of the potential economic retaliation for their participation, to become active in the Movement.

There was something within Sheyann that prompted her to become active in the Movement at such a young age, without the initial knowledge of friends or family. She brought her friend Rachel along, and the two of them gained direct access to King and others when he was in Selma. She was a young leader whose fearless commitment to justice ultimately inspired her parents and other adults to join in the fight. King’s warm welcome and encouragement during their first and subsequent meetings were important aspects of Webb’s activism, although in general King was apprehensive about involving young people in the often dangerous work of non-violent direct action.

While Burrow attempts to focus on Martin Luther King Jr., his descriptions about the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Mississippi, and Selma, reveal that the leaders most influential in the inclusion of young people within the Movement actually fell within Burrow’s broad category of young people themselves. The leadership and vision of James Bevel, Diane Nash (Bevel), Bob Moses, and others initiated, trained, and sustained the involvement of young people during the Civil Rights Movement. Most often it was Bevel, Nash, and Moses who had to convince King to include young people in direct actions that had the potential to invite a violent response from White segregationists. The fluidity of Burrow’s broad categorizations of young people creates a few challenges with King, especially when we keep in mind that he was only thirty-nine years old when he was murdered, after committing thirteen years of his life as the Movement’s public voice and figure. Although King carried a significant portion of the burden of responsibility for choices made within various aspects of the Movement, he too was young; in general he was only about six to ten years older than many of the leaders that Burrow categorizes as young.

In Birmingham, one of the places with the largest and most effective children’s crusade, local leader Fred Shuttlesworth’s children were actively involved in the protests in various forms. We do not see similar narratives for Martin Luther King Jr., however. It is unfortunate that Burrow does not critique King’s sheltering of his own children from active participation, while encouraging and supporting other children as young as Sheyann Webb, who was about the same age as King’s daughter Yolanda, even when the children’s families were not aware of their actions.

Burrow relies predominantly on secondary sources — primarily Ellen Levine’s Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories and David Halberstam’s The Children. It is lamentable that Burrow does not interview many of the young people about whom he writes to understand their motivation or the impact of their activism on others. This reliance also limits the opportunity to learn the stories of other young people like Charles Avery from Jefferson County, Alabama who as the class president led 800 students on a ten-mile walk to Birmingham City where on arrival numbers had risen to over 3,000 young people by the time they began to be arrested. We miss the opportunity to learn about relatively unknown young leaders like Gwen Gamble, who had been jailed for participating in a sit-in. Upon her release, she and her sisters who were trained as recruiters for Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade went from school to school giving students the cue to leave and gather at the 16th Street Baptist Church. In Selma, Burrow notes several hundred students who were marching while carrying signs written in crayon. Locating some of those young people and determining if their parents or other adults became involved as a result of their boldness would have provided helpful insights for both historic civil rights scholarship and broader contemporary freedom struggles. In another section, Burrow briefly mentions a portion of a back-story about the Summer Community Organization and Political Education Project (SCOPE), which was inspired by the 1964 Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, a project that does not get much attention within civil rights literature. A Child Shall Lead Them would have been a great place to expand on the information about this project and particularly its relation to the more than 600 college students who volunteered throughout six southern states in the summer of 1965.

Generally organized by location, within A Child Shall Lead Them we read about the broad and specific experiences of young people in Montgomery, Greensboro, Nashville, Birmingham, the Mississippi Delta, and Selma. In the chapter on Selma, Burrow singles out admirable qualities of Bernard Lafayette. A similar approach could have been helpful for each of the other locations and the young leaders associated with them. Burrow notes in a few areas that work remains to be done and important stories still need to be told regarding Black and White youth activists during and beyond the traditional years of the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately we are left waiting for that work to be completed by other scholars. Future research that works directly with some of the lesser-known leaders from the past and builds upon the framework that Burrow begins to outline in his final chapter can provide good constructive applications for young people involved in current social movements.

With many of the once-young activists now in their sixties, the recent fiftieth anniversaries of many of the significant campaigns where young people were very active in the Movement including the Birmingham, Freedom Summer, and Selma campaigns, have marked great opportunities to gather new insights from these younger participants who are still living. As one example, four of the five “youthful freedom riders” that Burrow mentions — Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and James Lawson — are still alive and could have likely provided different insights based on specific questions related to their youthfulness in the Movement. These anniversary celebrations have also often included many contemporary young activists who have organized in the wake of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, and so many others, to challenge the injustices they face with police and state violence against Black and Brown bodies, a school prison pipeline, economic disparities, and more. In response to the tragedies being faced daily, young people have formed new organizations that fight for justice under banners such as Dream Defenders, the Ohio Student Association, Black Lives Matter, Hands Up United, and Campaign Zero. It is important that ways are found to bridge the generations so that previously successful strategies of the 1950s and 1960s might be updated for application within contemporary social structures.

Leadership from young people in social justice movements takes various forms. During the Civil Rights Movement, it may have involved quietly organizing a signal to leave and then having the boldness to be one of the first ones to climb out of high school windows in defiance of the school administrators’ directives not to participate in marches. Today, leadership may look like using social media as a tool for both organizing and socio-political messaging. We are not able to determine from this book if youthful activism shapes long-term activist engagement as adults. Today, like in the past, there are many young people who have a desire to do the work to help ensure their own freedom. The “leader-full” movements today do not organize around a single national leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. but instead focus on a number of issues that fall under banners such as #BlackLivesMatter, #NotOneDime, or #SayHerName. One of the challenges of the social media activism today is the ease with which one can join a protest from the safety of one’s smart phone in a way that may be considered a fad versus the physical commitment that young people made in the past. While there are some similarities with core organizing and activist principles from the 1960s, there are also some significant differences that should be explored today.

The Civil Rights Movement would not have been the same without the impact of young people in Birmingham, Selma, the Mississippi Delta, and many other areas. A Child Shall Lead Them identifies important civil rights campaigns where young people’s participation was important. While it does not explore narratives such as that of Carolyn Daniels who was led into civil rights activism by her teenaged son, it does open the possibility for additional research to determine young people’s influence in the Movement. Similar to other critical times in the history of humanity, today we have an ongoing need to have young people boldly leading and working to create a more just world in which we can all live — may they be inspired by the activism of those who have come before them, and leave a strong legacy for those who will come after them.