NEW YORK – Children have periodically played leading roles in social and political movements. With the Never Again movement, some of the students who survived the February shooting in Parkland, Florida, have organized effective social media campaigns in favor of greater gun control. So far the American public is paying attention. A look back at the broader history of child activism indicates that some major social change might actually be upon us.
In the early 20th century, the union organizer Mother Jones led a strike and then organized a few hundred child laborers on a march from Philadelphia to New York. Historians have considered the “children’s crusade of 1903” a milestone in the fight to abolish child labor. As soon as a year later, Pennsylvania toughened its child labor laws. Federal action came later, during the New Deal.
Children are effective messengers because they are difficult to convincingly attack. It’s easier to forgive their excesses and their mistakes, and they are not constrained by having full-time jobs. The very fact that children are doing something attracts news coverage. If even a child sees the need to speak out, we all should be listening; they of course have the greatest stake in America’s future.
Today, U.S. President Donald Trump dominates media cycles in an unprecedented manner. It’s thus not surprising that two of the social movements that seem to be breaking through — #NeverAgain and the immigration reform pleas from the “Dreamers” — have children in prominent roles. Young people, like our president, are somewhat fresh and unfiltered, albeit with different content. They are harder to mock than, say, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. Emma Gonzalez, an attack survivor, only joined Twitter in February — @Emma4Change — and she already has more followers than does the National Rifle Association.
The involvement of children also indicates that their elders see the situation as somewhat desperate. Adults are willing to take some chances by allowing their children to be so publicly exposed and so vulnerable to criticism, and even death threats. That too is a sign that the social movement is ready to succeed. The United States is coming off a phase of “helicopter parenting,” in which parents try to remove their children from as much risk as possible, even if it’s only the risk of getting a B plus in a class and damaging one’s chances of going to a top college. The rise of a children’s movement during such a time is a sign that social momentum is shifting.
Some critics are charging that parents or external activists are “putting up” the children to acts of protest and social media activism. I don’t know how much that is true, but because parents are usually more risk-averse than their children, a coordinated parent-child campaign is not a possibility the NRA should take much comfort in.
During the 1960s civil rights marches in and near Birmingham, Alabama, many children were involved, some younger than 10. By no means did all of these children have their parents’ permission, even though they faced fire hoses, vicious dogs and armed police. Some of the activists convinced Martin Luther King Jr. to allow such participation. It turned out to be politically effective, and the children sustained only a minimum of harm. At first some of the child protesters were taken to jail in school buses, but that tactic proved too difficult to sustain as the number of marching children kept on increasing. When the Birmingham police did turn the dogs and fire hoses on the children, this led to very bad national publicity.
Suddenly, the civil rights movement seemed less dangerous and threatening, and it was harder for the Alabama police to entertain a strategy of direct violent attack on the protests.
Perhaps the most famous example of a child activist is Malala Yousafzai, who started a blog and protested how the Taliban were denying education to young girls. She has hardly turned around Pakistan, but she was the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, at 17. She has had significant global impact.
So why might Never Again win this time around?
As I understand the issue, many people on the right, including gun owners, are willing to countenance greater restrictions on firearms. What they don’t want to do is indicate that they are also willing to let left-wing forces control more of their lives. If it is guns today, what might be next tomorrow? A lot of the left is pretty sneering and contemptuous in its view that Republicans and conservatives are simply bad people.
But giving a victory to some victimized high school students? That’s something you might consider. And so the new children’s crusade is upon us.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”