Teaching Social Justice: Teen Activism Throughout History

By The Choices Editors
May 3, 2018

The teen survivors of the tragic high school shooting on February 14 in Parkland, Florida have started a wave of social media- fueled activism as they campaign to make schools safer. Looking back through history, they aren’t the first teens to incite revolutions. After reading and teaching Teens Fight Back from the May 2018 issue of Choices, round out your activism lesson with a recap of some key student-led movements. 


 July 4, 1776 

You probably think of the American Revolution as something led by old men, but don’t let the white powdered wigs fool you. The majority of the men and women who led the American Revolution were actually teenagers or young adults! The day the Declaration of Independence was signed, French officer Marquis de Lafayette was 18, future president James Monroe was 18, and founding father Alexander Hamilton was 21. Deborah Sampson—a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War—was just 15. (Source: Journal of the American Revolution)


 March 2, 1955 

Claudette Colvin, 15, is arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. This led to the court decision that made bus segregation unconstitutional. (Source: NPR)

 September 1957 

Nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, are denied entry after being enrolled in an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas. After weeks of struggle, the National Guard was sent to escort them inside. (Source: History.com)


 May 2, 1963   

More than 1,000 children walk out to advocate for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama. Faced with violence, they keep marching, an action that eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Source: Smithsonian)


 October 22, 1963 

250,000 students in Chicago skip school to advocate for civil rights when segregation continues after Brown vs. the Board of Education. (Source: Good.is)


 March 1968 

22,000 students across Los Angeles, California walk out to protest equal education for Mexican-American students. (Source: LA Times)



Mary Beth Tinker, 13, wears a black armband to school to protest against the Vietnam War, leading to a federal decision that guarantees freedom of speech for public school students.(Source: Washington Post)


 2012 to present 

Many undocumented young immigrants used sit-ins and protests to influence Obama to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The program, which allows these individuals to live and work in the U.S., has been repealed under Trump administration, and young activists are fighting to stay in America. (Sources: NYTimes and NYTimes)


 2013 to present 

After the man who shot and killed teenage Trayvon Martin was acquitted, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter spread across social media. With young people on the front lines, marches were held to lead the movement against violence and racism towards black people—and the movement continues today. (Source: The Nation)

 2016 to present 

Native American teens lead protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a gas pipeline that could destroy their sacred land and harm their water supply. (Source: NYTimes and One Mind Youth Movement)



To complete your lesson, be sure to read Teens Fight Back in our May 2018 issue—and don’t miss the Activist Agenda activity, where students will pick an issue at school to fight for and then create a campaign to spread their message. 



► They Changed Their School. Could You?: The students in this story made their voices heard to increase inclusivity and kindness. Their stories will inspire students to take action!


► The Summer of Change: Taking time to volunteer in the summer is a great way to practice activism. This guide will help teens figure out a way to give back. Still stuck? Read over our 15 Ways to Give Back This Summer on the Ideabook.