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Personhood, Rebellion and the Drive of Youth Activism

Teens and young adults have always taken a formidable place in the fight for human and civil rights in America. Whether the fearless grassroots-led teens who walked away from fields and classrooms to integrate interstate bus lines and lunch counters, or the 1980s protests calling for divestment in Apartheid South Africa, youth figured prominently bringing about change. Only in recent years have historians moved to formally document the fierce activism of young women in the fight — including Claudette Colvin, who was recently featured in a Teen Vogue edition.

Colvin, was a mere 11th-grader, listening to lectures from history teachers celebrating 1955’s Negro History Week, when she refused to give her Montgomery bus seat up to a white woman. In an era of socially-enforced public brutality against those seeking equal rights, the 15-year-old would beat the odds — surviving and making history.

“When the bus driver asked for the four seats and three of the students got up. I remained seated. History had me glued to the seat. Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hand were pushing down on the other shoulder. I was paralyzed between these two women, I couldn’t move. We were still on our best behavior taking all of the insults from the white passengers.”

Claudette Colvin, then 15, was among a nation of young activists defying segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a city bus in March 1955. She faced a felony charge and indefinite probation for resisting arrest. (Courtesy photo)
Claudette Colvin, then 15, was among a nation of young activists defying segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a city bus in March 1955. She faced a felony charge and indefinite probation for resisting arrest. (Courtesy photo)

Colvin was subsequently manhandled off the bus, placed in a squad car and taken to the city jail — rather than the juvenile detention center. Charged with disorderly conduct and violating segregation law, Colvin was also charged with assault and battery of a police officer — a felony for causing the police officer to scratch his arm while forcing her into the car. Colvin was convicted of the felony charge (which carried an indefinite probation); ironically, the segregation and disorderly conduct indictments, were dismissed. There were, however, immediate and lasting repercussions to Colvin’s activism, she said.

“That arrest changed my whole life. I was ostracized by people in my community and professional people also. Some people, the students, were sympathetic at first. They knew my mindset and what I was thinking, but their parents persuaded them not to be involved with me because I was a troublemaker and ‘this wasn’t the right thing to do. They already thought I was crazy,” Colvin told Teen Vogue. “I lost a lot of friends because of that. Because their mothers and fathers, the only work they had was working for white people, and they didn’t want to lose their jobs. That’s the main thing.”

That same fighting spirit seems to rest on Chanice Lee, a 16-year-old activist, speaker, and blogger, who recently penned the book “Young Revolutionary: A Teen’s Guide to Activism.” Lee said she wants to create a global platform for social justice, history, politics, and more, written entirely from the Black teen’s perspective through her blog Melanin Diary.

“Being politically involved wasn’t activism to me, it was just me doing what I felt was right and what I was passionate about. I always like to say that instead of demanding a seat at any table, I just decided to build my own, which is the message I want to give other teenagers,” Lee said. “If I spent my time demanding for popular media companies to display a positive and accurate representation of Black youth, then The Melanin Diary would have never been created. If I waited for someone else to publish an activism guide for teens, ‘Young Revolutionary’ would have never been written. I’ve learned not to spend my time demanding others to do things. If you want to create change, don’t spend your time demanding things of others when you can just do it yourself.”

In addition to taking to the streets for marches, protests, and calls to action, in the past year, 34 percent of Americans have taken part in a group on social media that shares an interest in an issue or cause, while a similar share (32 percent) says they have encouraged others to take action on an issue that is important to them. The vast majority of these numbers are teens and young adults, making the work of activism among young, Black teen females, a generational power imperative.

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