The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Parkland students can transform the gun-control movement. Here’s how.

An infusion of youthful optimism and perspective can transform a social movement.

Senior Tyra Hemans stands on a hillside outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed on Feb. 14.  (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

One of the most important developments from the horrific high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., has been the emergence of students as leaders in the gun-control movement. “Young people have helped lead all our great movements,” former president Barack Obama tweeted. “How inspiring to see it again in so many smart, fearless students standing up for their right to be safe; marching and organizing to remake the world as it should be.” Tragedy has given birth to a new generation of student activists.

In searching for historical parallels to this inspiring new chapter in social movement activism, many have looked to the “children’s crusade” in Birmingham, Ala., in the spring of 1963, when hundreds of marching African American children confronted police dogs and fire hoses before being carted off to jail. The shocking images in newspapers and on television news helped turn the tide of public opinion and led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But another historical episode from the civil rights era better explains the power and potential of young people as social movement leaders: the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.

When African American college students in the South launched the lunch counter sit-in movement in the winter of 1960, the larger civil rights effort was stalled. The Supreme Court had ordered public schools desegregated six years earlier, but schools in the South remained segregated. Congress had passed a civil rights law and was about to pass another, but Southern segregationists had ensured that they would be minimally effective. The Montgomery bus boycott had been an inspiring success, but boycotts didn’t work against segregated schools and disfranchisement, which civil rights leaders deemed the most pressing issues.

But then, in a matter of weeks, lunch counter sit-in protests erupted in cities across the South, and the struggle for racial equality was remade. Segregated eating facilities, previously a secondary issue for civil rights activists, now joined segregated schools and securing the vote atop their reform agenda. The sit-ins and other “direct-action protests” became indispensable tools of the civil rights struggle. The sit-ins pushed the civil rights movement from the courtrooms and legislative halls to the streets and put a new, younger generation of activists on the front lines.

Student activists spoke out against not only the whites who created and defended Jim Crow, but also the older generation of African Americans. “Many of our adults have been complacent and fearful,” a protest leader explained, “and it is time for someone to wake up and change the situation and we decided to start here.”

Such critiques may have been shortsighted and unfair. They were also powerful. They served to unite the students in a shared cause while emphasizing the independence of their campaign, largely immunizing the student movement from accusations that they were acting as puppets of professional “agitators.”

These college students were not simply joining a battle that older generations of civil rights activists were already waging. They were striking out on their own, finding new points of vulnerability in the edifice of Jim Crow, locating new targets that resonated with their particular concerns and that aligned with their particular sources of strength.

Their dramatic protests attracted nationwide television and newspaper coverage. By the simple act of taking a seat at a lunch counter, young African Americans were able to convey to a wide audience the fundamental wrongness of racial segregation, the depth of their commitment to challenging racial injustice and their impatience with established modes of seeking civil rights reform.

Their actions aroused outpourings of support from across the nation. They forced businesses to shut down. And they persuaded lunch counter operators to end their discriminatory practices. In the process, they created a template for many of the civil rights efforts to come.

A potent blend of frustration and hope fueled these students. Optimism that there was a better world in the offing and that they had it in their power to bring it about, allowed them to turn frustration into mobilization.

We’re hearing the same chords now. “This matters to me more than anything else in my entire life,” Parkland student Alfonso Calderon declared at a Tallahassee rally. “I’m prepared to drop out of school. I am prepared to not worry about anything else besides this because change might not come today. It might not come tomorrow. It might not even come March 24, when we march for our lives down in Washington. But it’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen before my lifetime because I will fight every single day.”

Today’s students, like the African American college students in 1960, aren’t burdened by the pessimism and fatalism of older generations. They are also open to rethinking strategies and tactics — rather than simply echoing familiar pro-gun-regulation talking points, they are reframing the terms of discussion and have openly criticized liberal gun-control advocates who have long failed to advance their agenda.

They have injected a new passion and urgency into the gun debate. They are defiant. They are sure they will win. And they are pioneering different approaches to advancing gun control, organizing marches and walkouts, calling out political leaders and harnessing the power of social media.

Sometimes it takes the idealism and short memory of youth to expose the vulnerability of something that looks unmovable. By their words and actions, these young people are doing something different. We can only hope they will be able to transform the struggle for gun control the way students in 1960 transformed the struggle for racial equality.