At certain points in history, when institutions and established leaders have failed to step up and take action, it falls to the youngest among us to take charge. That is happening again these two weeks as a 16-year-old girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, takes center stage to mobilize the world against climate change.
Those of us who are older are reminded how young Americans rose up more than 50 years ago in the Civil Rights era. In May 1963, more than 1,000 young people in Birmingham, Alabama, marched through the city to call attention to racial injustice.
When many of the children marched again the next day, the notoriously racist sheriff Bull Connor set vicious police dogs on them. The children were under attack — by the dogs, clubs, fire hoses, and whatever means deemed necessary by the police. The television pictures that night sickened the nation.
The violence continued until the Department of Justice stepped in and the marches came to an end. But even as the marches stopped, the impact of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade continued to be felt.
The crusade offered moral clarity to the nation and proved pivotal in swaying President John F. Kennedy and Americans everywhere to urgently confront the need for racial justice.
We are at yet another moment in which the voice and efforts of the young are needed. The Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in power have proven unable to take action on a multitude of issues recently.
But nowhere is their inaction more glaring than on the issues that threaten the safety of people everywhere and especially millennials and members of Generation Z: first guns and now climate change.
David Gergen is a CNN senior political analyst and professor of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership. James Piltch is Gergen’s chief research assistant. His writing on civic life and education has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read more of their opinion piece here.