Editor’s Note: 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. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
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, is stepping onto center stage to mobilize the world against climate change.
Those of us who are older are well reminded of how the young of this country rose up some 50 years ago in the Civil Rights era. In May of 1963, more than one thousand 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.
Fortunately, those younger generations are now stepping forward, changing politics and providing a model for budding leaders everywhere. A year ago, after another mass shooting at a high school, this one in Florida, politicians and the NRA performed yet another tap dance, counting on the horror to be soon forgotten. But the surviving students would not allow such avoidance to take place again.
Within 24 hours, one of them, Cameron Kasky, brought his classmates together to form a movement. Cameron chose the name “Never Again,” and recruited fellow students, like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. Together they quickly mobilized hundreds of thousands of Americans to hit the streets and use social media to take on the NRA and change our politics.
The Parkland students were successful beyond what any other gun control campaign has achieved: not only did Florida pass tougher legislation, but in the 2018 off-year elections, Democratic candidates took up the fight against guns and their party won back the House of Representatives.
The Parkland students visited the Harvard Kennedy School that year, and in conversations, we found that they were hugely impressive. Contradicting critics who lambaste their generation as complacent and ignorant, they proved to be mature, passionate and capable. Notably, they attributed their strength not only to their families, but also to their school’s strong emphasis on civics and performing arts. There is surely a lesson there for other high schools.
The success and inspiration of these young activists has spread well beyond the world of guns. In what may turn out to be a modern (and international) equivalent of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the straight-talking sensation, Greta Thunberg, led children at a protest at the White House last week and will lead one at the United Nations this week. She and her followers will be calling on leaders to stop giving mere lip service to fighting climate change – and to get real results. Many worldwide will join in solidarity, it appears.
Strikingly, Greta herself cites America’s Parkland students as her inspiration. What stands out about both of these young groups of leaders and, in particular, Greta, is the sense of urgency and purpose they bring to public life.
Talking to the adults in power today, Greta has warned, “You’ve run out of excuses and we’re running out of time. We’ve come here to let you know that change is coming whether you like it or not.” Or again, “We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue. … We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.”
Greta’s belief that “no one is too small to make a difference” is clearly spreading throughout this generation, and we are all better for it. While one might disagree with particulars of the Green New Deal, it’s hard not to credit a close ally of Greta’s, The Sunrise Movement, a group of young people committed to making climate change a defining political issue, with showing the ability to push the climate debate in the US further than almost any other entity.
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Some might criticize Greta and her fellow climate crusaders as zealots or as short sighted, just as many said that about the Parkland students. But even if one disagrees with their proposed solutions, don’t dismiss the power of children in the streets – calling for change – to create an impetus for action.
At least once before, a children’s movement was a core inspiration for our country to address its greatest injustices. Today, the young speak with moral clarity again.