Skip to main content Accessibility

Weekend Read: Teen activists aren't new. Celebrating them is.

This week began with the sixth anniversary of Trayvon Martin's death. It will end with a march commemorating the 53rd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day voting rights activists were beaten by lawmen on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.

By any measure, it’s a week steeped in not only the history of racial inequality in America but also in our rich history of activism.

Nowhere is that more evident than at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where students have riveted the country with their pleas for gun reform after the horrific Valentine’s Day shooting that left 17 students and teachers dead.

The students have relentlessly told their story, organized marches and pressured politicians. Their work “converting grief into power,” as Neeti Upadhye detailed for The New York Times, is part of a powerful legacy of American youth activism.

In 1960, for example, teenagers led the civil rights movement when they conducted at a Woolworth's lunch counter. A year later, young people enduring brutal beatings on the 1963 Children's Crusade to end racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Many in the last two weeks have hailed students in Parkland, Florida, as the descendants of those courageous civil rights activists.

But they are not the only — or even the first — teens working in the 21st century to end gun violence. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of a security guard in 2012, young people mobilized under the name Black Lives Matter to demand reforms very similar to those now being articulated by students in Parkland.

They did not receive the same support or recognition that the nation has given Parkland students in the last two weeks.

“The way people are responding to predominantly white communities is notable: Whose movement is more valuable to support?” Dante Barry, co-founder of the racial justice group Million Hoodies, asked Sarah Ruiz-Grossman for Huffington Post.

Writing for Teen Vogue, Lincoln Anthony Blades was more direct: “Black youth, who’ve been passionately advocating for gun control measures, have been demonized, obfuscated, and overlooked.”

Black young people are disproportionately affected by gun violence, and for years they have been organizing anti-violence rallies, meeting with presidential candidates, proposing policy ideas, and holding weeks-long sit-ins. They’ve taken on the NRA.

Parkland students themselves have credited Black Lives Matter for serving as a model for how to demand gun reform, as @lexforchange tweeted this week.

"Much of what I’ve done and wanted to do was inspired by Black Lives Matter,” she wrote. “We’re protesting the exact same way and being called heroes just because the majority of us are white. America needs to do better in so many ways.”

The fact that we have not given Black Lives Matter the same support that we have given to students in Parkland should give us pause.

In the wake of unimaginable tragedy, we should celebrate Parkland students’ success in calling for such urgently needed reform. At the same time, we have to own up to the nation’s blind spot when it comes to who gets empathy in America – and ask the question of whether it is race that makes the difference.  

The Editors

P.S. Here are more pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC’s Weekend Read is a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive the Weekend Read every Saturday morning.