In 1968, students at Columbia University stormed the school president’s office to protest racism and involvement in the Vietnam War. Before the protest ended, they had held the university president for 24 hours and were successful in effecting change.
That same year, college students in North Carolina staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters that spread to 30 cities throughout the South.
Around the same time, students at Howard University — then called “Black Harvard” — staged sit-ins to call for the resignation of the school’s president for neglecting issues brought up by the student body.
Fifty years later, as the United States commemorates the events of that decade and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., student activists are again a major force in political change in America.
The anti-gun violence movement — including #March4OurLives, which was organized by students who survived a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — drew hundreds of thousands of people to the nation’s capital. At Howard, students have held a dayslong sit-in at the campus administration building to protest alleged corruption.
Jennia Taylor, a senior at Spelman College and a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said that, like youth activists in 1968, her generation has reached their “tipping point.” They are fed up with a lack of political action following school shootings, as well as other issues, she said.
“I think that what has happened is there’s peaks in our society — tipping points, as we like to call it — so, we came to that point for our generation,” she told VOA.
Taylor, who has started a social justice youth coalition in Georgia after having organized Atlanta’s #March4OurLives event last month, said she and her colleagues “absolutely” drew inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. and youth movements of the 1960s.
“Just to even have a basis of how they organized is so helpful,” she said.
“It’s not uncommon for high school students and even younger students and, of course, college students, to be involved in a movement,” Arwin Smallwood, professor and chair of the history department at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T), told VOA.
“In 1968, most of the students involved were college students,” he added, noting in particular the “A&T four” students who staged the first sit-ins to protest segregated lunch counters in the South.
While youths have frequently been involved in social and political movements, Smallwood noted that today’s activism, particularly arguing for gun control, resembles movements of 1968 because of the universal relatability, which crosses gender, race and class.
“Most people around the world knew who Martin Luther King was,” he said. “Most people felt the same despair, disappointment, hurt and, in some cases, anger.”
King’s granddaughter, 9-year-old Yolanda Renee King, spoke at the #March4OurLives event in Washington about a week before the anniversary of King’s death.
“My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” King told a crowd of hundreds of thousands, invoking her grandfather’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.
“I have a dream that enough is enough, and that this should be a gun-free world, period,” she added, going on to lead the crowd in a call-and-response, declaring that “we are going to be a great generation.”
Many student activists in the crowd said the elder King’s teachings inspired them to participate in the march.
Quintez Brown, a high school student who traveled from Kentucky, told VOA that though he had learned about King in elementary school, he only truly understood his principle of nonviolence after reading one of his books.
“Today’s march is an example of MLK’s nonviolence direct-action strategy. We are here creating tension in the nation’s capital,” he said.
“We are here creating conflict. We are creating a disturbance in the nation. We are here to raise awareness because we don’t have to be violent. All we had to do was raise our voices up and appeal to the morality of this nation, and we can make change. And MLK helped me realize that, and that’s why I am here.”
Dan Brown contributed to this report.