When my sister Emily and I started researching our children’s book Protest!, the intention was to explore some examples of how children had been involved in protest throughout the ages. Although the book doesn’t focus solely on children’s protest, we wanted to give children access to the inspiring history of active political participation. Children are often excluded from this story, but they have always been key agents of the historical process of political change (as #schoolstrikeforclimate illustrates).
It was easy to see how stories of protest might appeal to children: people saying no, refusing to cooperate, dressing up, playing, taking over the streets and behaving in ways that don’t match societal norms – like the Māori resisters who packed away European settlers’ camping equipment while they were off prospecting, or the ACT UP activists who dressed up in their most boring suits to infiltrate TV stations and corporate offices to take their messages about the AIDS crisis directly to the people who were making it worse.
Some protests involved children in a broader movement: like the Native American Ghost Dancers who brought their children home from brutal settler boarding schools but used their children’s ability to write in both English and Lakota to transcribe and spread messages between reservations. In her book Women, Resistance and Revolution, Sheila Rowbotham sees children as a help rather than a hindrance to women activists, offering the example of the infant children of the Vietnamese Committee of Women, whose unbearable crying outside jails would persuade prison guards to release arrested friends inside. Disobedience seems to be something children are naturally good at; we become rule-abiders as we get older and the stakes for refusal are raised.
Children have also protested as workers: The 1888 match-girls’ strike against dangerous working conditions, low pay and unfair dismissal in the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, East London, involved factory-workers as young as twelve and led to the banning of white phosphorous in matches. The newsboys’ strike in New York a decade later, led by children from predominantly migrant backgrounds selling papers after school, responded to a suddenly shrinking profit margin, and negotiated a compromise within two weeks.
In 1901, children in the Polish district of Wreśnia began striking not from school but from just one particular class. Under the partition of Poland, Prussian schools had undergone ‘Germanisation’, with all but two subjects taught in the German language since 1878. When religious instruction began to be taught in German in the spring of 1901, pupils at the Katolicka Szkoła Ludowa (Catholic People’s School) refused to speak or sing in German during these classes. Despite severe punishment, more children began to resist, and parents and other adults came out in solidarity. Twenty-five adults and children were arrested and imprisoned, and the strike became an issue of national importance. The refusal lasted, in one case at least, until 1904.
Dave Marson’s 1973 History Workshop pamphlet documents the dozens of towns and cities across the UK in which children’s school strikes took place in September 1911. That summer was one of widespread struggle, with dockers, sailors, factory workers and other industries on strike. Marson suggests it was the brotherly ‘spirit of the Union’ that inspired pupils to collectively demand worker-style rights at school: shorter hours, limits on homework and pay for attendance or for work performed by class monitors, as well as abolishing corporal punishment. Mothers, teachers and police officers brought the children back to school, with some strikes lasting less than an hour. Other districts adopted an evangelical approach, with ‘flying pickets’ collecting strikers from nearby schools to form processions of hundreds of children and gather for impromptu mass meetings. The strikes were mostly short-lived, but their spirit took hold like a fever, setting alight a profusion of alternative school-day activities, from street-theatre, to swimming, to picnicking on the beach. “These children,” Marson writes, “despite their stifling schooling showed their minds had not been overwhelmed by the grey monotonies of the class-room. They still retained imagination with ideas like the colours in a paint-box.”
Children’s involvement in protest movements has not been without considerable risk or controversy. The largest school walkouts we researched were in South Africa during the struggles against apartheid and in the US Civil Rights movement. The 1976 Soweto Uprising, inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement, began, like the Wrzesnia strikes, when the government decided that all schoolchildren would be taught not in their native languages but, in this case, in Afrikaans. The day of the uprising began with children singing the African hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika at school, instead of the usual Lord’s Prayer in Afrikaans. Up to 20,000 school children marched and were met with brutal violence by police. In the uprising that followed, hundreds of protesters were killed by the police, including children. The killing of twelve-year-old marcher Hector Pieterson when police opened fire on the first day of the strike sparked outrage around the world who killed hundreds of protesters.
In Alabama in the US, the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade was marked by attacks on child protesters with dogs and fire hoses. Thousands of striking children were arrested and then many kept in jail for days. Children’s involvement was to some extent courted by the wider Civil Rights movement, with training in nonviolence offered to high school children in the spring of 1963, but their role in civil disobedience was argued over by civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King Jr was at first opposed to children putting themselves at risk of arrest, but sit-in veteran and Children’s Crusade organiser James Bevel convinced him, arguing that children both had less to lose than adult protesters, and would benefit from feeling empowered to stand up to a racist society. Gwen Webb, a 14-year-old participant and arrestee, put it like this in Oscar-winning documentary The Children’s March: “We were born black in Alabama, and we were going to get hurt if we didn’t do something.” By ‘parading without a permit’ several days in a row and visiting white Downtown businesses to argue against segregation, striking school students overwhelmed the police, and Americans responded to photographs of the police brutality with horror — a shift in opinion which hadn’t happened when adult protesters had been attacked. Just over a week after they first walked out of school, the city agreed to desegregate businesses and the Commissioner of Public Safety resigned. By June, President Kennedy made a public address on TV, setting out his plan to end segregation in the US.