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Young people have led the way before in changing America

School students from Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington, rally in solidarity on Feb. 21, 2018, with those affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, at the Capitol in Washington. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP photo

The National Rifle Association didn’t see it coming.

It could have predicted yet another school shooting, of course. What the NRA did not predict was the immediate and unrelenting response of the student survivors.

OPINION

The students channeled their rage and sorrow over the killing of 17 of their classmates and teachers against the gun lobby and the politicians in their pocket. Pushed by this new momentum for change, President Donald Trump held a bipartisan meeting of congressional lawmakers Wednesday afternoon. The senators and representatives took turns laying out their policy prescriptions while heaping praise on Trump, who took credit in advance for what he said will be a “beautiful” bill that will pass the Senate with so many votes over the required 60 that it will be “unbelievable.”

Whether any of this happens remains to be seen. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, including the $54 million the NRA spent on presidential and congressional races during the 2016 election cycle.

But Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat from Connecticut, offered one undeniable truth at the meeting: “We’re at a tipping point, because of the students.”

The student survivors of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are the heart of the movement for gun control. They are embracing one of the strongest currents in United States history: the tradition of youth activism.

By now, many of the Parkland, Florida, survivors are nationally recognized. There is Emma Gonzalez, whose fiery speech days after the shooting ignited the movement. And there is David Hogg, director of the school’s student-run TV station, whose impactful media appearances contributed to a disgraceful right-wing conspiracy theory that he and others were actually trained “crisis actors.” There is also Sam Zeif, who at a White House “listening session” told the president, “These are not weapons of defense; these are weapons of war. … I still can’t fathom that I, myself, am able to purchase one.”

Other students helped organize a trip of more than 100 survivors from Parkland to Tallahassee, Florida, to push the state legislature for an assault-weapons ban. While the effort failed, the students emerged more determined than ever.

Youth activism goes back a long way in the United States. In 1903, Mary Harris Jones, the legendary Irish labor organizer known popularly as “Mother Jones,” led a march of hundreds of striking child laborers and their parents from Philadelphia to New York City. They were fighting against the scourge of child labor.

The civil-rights movement was propelled by youth activists. Claudette Colvin was just 15 when she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama — nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing.

Colvin told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour: “I could not move, because history had me glued to the seat. … Because it felt like Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder … and I yelled out, ‘It’s my constitutional rights!’”

One of the principal architects of the nonviolent strategy used by Martin Luther King Jr. was James Lawson, who received his ministry license in high school in 1947. He in turn trained countless activists, including John Lewis. Lewis was a leader of the Nashville Movement to desegregate lunch counters in the South, and was one of the original Freedom Riders, who braved beatings, arrests, angry mobs and death threats as they rode buses to force the desegregation of the interstate bus system.

John Lewis was just 23 when he addressed the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In deference to suggestions made by King and fellow march organizer A. Philip Randolph, Lewis edited his speech. He took out the lines: “To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we must say that ‘patience’ is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient. We do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now.”

The Parkland students have called for a national March for Our Lives on March 24 in Washington, with sister marches around the country. They have raised more than $3 million to support the organizing effort.

Emma Gonzalez wrote in Harper’s Bazaar: “March with us on March 24. Register to vote. Actually show up to the polls. Because we need to relieve the NRA of its talking points, once and for all.”

There are also calls for nationwide high school student walkouts to demand gun control on March 14, as well as April 20 — the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She and Denis Moynihan, special projects coordinator for “Democracy Now!” are co-authors of “The Silenced Majority.”

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