Since the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it has become apparent that our young people have a far greater sense of moral outrage and social responsibility than most of the adults who write our laws. They also have the courage to stand up for what they believe. Today’s high school youth are leading the way. Fifty years ago, students of the late ’60s and early ’70s rebelled against the Vietnam War and the dishonesty and deceitfulness of the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
I started at the City College of New York in September 1968—taking full advantage of the GI Bill—and rented an apartment nearby. Martin Luther King had been assassinated five months earlier and Harlem, where the school was located, was still seething. At the time of his murder, King was in Memphis planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign. Disastrous riots, with loss of life and wanton destruction, were occurring in many major cities, and the reasons were an immoral war, poverty and race disparity.
In November 1968, the largest mass arrest of students in history was prompted by fiery campus-wide demonstrations at CCNY to protest the military draft, which included the commandeering of the student center ballroom to provide sanctuary for AWOL soldiers.
Over the next 18 months, opposition to the Vietnam War simmered in American cities and exploded on college campuses. On May 2, 1970, students at Kent State University rioted on campus, burning down the ROTC building. On May 4, Ohio National Guardsmen shot into crowds of demonstrating students, killing four and injuring scores of others. As news of the massacre spread, universities, colleges and high schools across the country were shut down by student strikes and both violent and non-violent protests, with upwards of 4 million students involved.
Though public turmoil and political unrest continued, Americans elected a corrupt president—Richard Nixon—for a second term in 1972. However, as news of the Watergate cover-up began to surface, Nixon was impeached by Congress and resigned in disgrace from office in July 1974.
Today, a renewed spirit of righteousness and justice is alive in our schools. High school and college students, reacting to an explosion of gun violence and driven by government ineptitude and sleaze, are leading the way. Just as the rebels of the late ’60s and early ’70s forced America to face its profound failings, so has today’s youth, taking up the mantle of constructive change.
Tired of the status quo, students have taken it upon themselves to shake up the system and prod the consciences of adult politicos who have been too weak, self-serving or indifferent to safeguard our children’s future. Yes, these students are marching to protect Americans from gun violence, but the change they demand will significantly influence other critical issues as well, including health care availability; environmental protection; access to clean, renewable energy; rebuilding our infrastructure; earning a living wage; free public education. It’s all on their agenda.
These young people know, intrinsically, that if we are to continue to live harmoniously in a free and democratic nation, these problems must be addressed. The future belongs to them, and they are demanding a voice. Not since the 1960s have we seen such passion. They support DACA recipients; they embrace multiculturalism; and they see the role of government to support and enable, not constrict.
In the not-so-distant future, scholars will look back on the Trump era, an era filled with chaos and confusion, trade wars, dramatic debt increases, tax cuts for the rich, dangerous ideologues positioned as presidential advisers, the president himself in bed with a hostile foreign power bent on disrupting our democracy, a bully of a president turning Americans against one another by race, gender and religion, and will condemn those who supported the rise of an authoritarian tyrant.
Bravo to those students who, for 17 minutes, walked out of their schools on March 14.