Skip to content Skip to navigation

Part Four: Rethinking the Role of Youth in the Children's Crusade


Following is a brief overview of several of the youth-centered events that helped shape the modern African American Freedom Struggle. Teachers may use these to expand on the Children’s Crusade unit, or they may wish to develop one of them further as a separate lesson. We have provided a list of suggested readings, links, and possible activities to help get you started.

I. Barbara Johns and the Brown v. Board of Education Case (1954)

On 23 April 1951, sixteen year old Barbara Rose Johns, a student at Moton High School in Virginia, organized an assembly at her school and encouraged her fellow students to participate in an attendance strike to protest the inequities between their school and the local white school. She told them that if they acted in solidarity the town jail could not hold them all. Johns stated, “We knew we had to do it ourselves and that if we had asked for adult help before taking the first step, we would have been turned down.”

Johns wrote a letter to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asking for their help. The lawyers, who had planned to tell the children to go back to school, recalled, “These kids turned out to be so well organized and their morale was so high. We just didn’t have the heart to tell ‘em to break it up.” The case became one of the five school desegregation cases under Brown v. Board of Education.

Have students write a response journal to Barbara Johns’ quote, “It [suing for the end of segregation] seemed like reaching for the moon.”

Suggested Reading: 

Isaac, Katherine. Civics for Democracy: A Journey for Teachers and Students. Washington DC: Essential Books, 1992.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education. Vintage Books: New York, 1975.

Irons, Peter. Jim Crows Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New York: Viking, 2002.

II. Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, Montgomery Bus Boycott

Following the arrest of Rosa Parks, attorney Fred Gray and Jo Ann Robinson, leader of the Women’s Political Council, wrote a handbill calling for a boycott of the buses. The document mentions that there were previous arrests for the same action. Have students read the handbill and then ask if anything stands out about the hand bill. Given the history that most students have learned about the Montgomery bus boycott, are they surprised to learn that Rosa Parks was not the first person arrested for refusing to give up her seat?

Ask students to find information on Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith in their textbooks. Why aren’t they included in the history of the Montgomery bus boycott? How does this change the way they think about the teaching of history and the information in their textbooks?

Suggested Readings: 

Ellen Levine, Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own StoriesG.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York: 1993

III. The Little Rock Nine

Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ had no place in the field of public education, the Little Rock School Board developed a plan for the gradual desegregation at Central High School. However, on 2 September, the night before school was to begin, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called on the state's National Guard to surround Little Rock Central High School and prevent the black students from entering.

On 4 September, eight of the nine students met Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, to face the violent mob they knew would be waiting for them. The ninth student, Elizabeth Eckford— who was only 15 years old—was unaware of the meeting and went alone. Eckford was greeted by an angry crowd shouting racial epitaphs and threatening physical violence. A group of whites screamed, “Lynch her! Lynch her!” and one woman spat on her. Finally, a white woman helped her board a bus away from the mob.

Mobs continued to attack any black person who approached the school, and the conflict made international news. The battle between state and federal power forced President Eisenhower to take action. He federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard and sent soldiers to Little Rock to ensure the students’ safety.

On 25 September 1957, the “Little Rock Nine” entered Central High under the protection of federal troops. While the battle had ended in the eyes of the media and the nation, the daily battles for the nine students continued.

  1. Show the first film in the Eyes on the Prize series, “Fighting Back.”(ca. 58 min)
  2. Letter from the Editor 
    On 19 September 1957 Jane Emery, co-editor of the Central High School’s student newspaper, The Tiger, wrote a letter to her fellow students entitled "Can you Meet the Challenge."  Bring a letter from the editor or an editorial from a current newspaper to class and introduce students to the basics of writing an editorial. (You can find plenty of “How to write an editorial” sites on the Internet.) Have students put themselves in the place of the editor of The Tiger and write a letter addressed to his or her fellow students. The letter may be addressed to just the white students, the “Little Rock Nine,” or both; and should reflect a familiarity with the events surrounding Little Rock’s integration.

Discussion: Share reactions and thoughts about the role youth played in the Birmingham movement. Were students familiar with the Children’s Crusade, or had they only learned a King-centered version of Birmingham? How does this change their perception of King, the movement, and the role of youth? Ask students where they would place themselves on the “dividing line,” after learning about the Children’s Crusade.

While all of the above examples involve youth action, there were a number of different motivations and tactics used by the participants. While Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith acted alone, without any organizational support, Barbara Johns enlisted the help of her fellow students. In contrast, it was adults who primarily organized the Children’s Crusade, and their efforts were part of a larger campaign.

Have students compare and contrast the differences between the campaigns and events covered in this unit. Some questions to consider:

  1. What similarities do you see between the various campaigns?
  2. What differences do you see?
  3. Which example did you find most interesting or inspiring? Why?
  4. Could you see yourself participating in any of the campaigns or events above? Which ones? Why?
  5. In what ways were specific campaigns a success? Where did they fall short?
  6. Consider the various tactics used in the campaigns listed above. Which do you consider to be the most effective? Why?


Arrest of Rosa Parks (Arrest Record For Rosa Parks, December 1, 1955)
Boycott of the buses (Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson, Don't Ride the Bus, December 2, 1955)
Eyes on the Prize series, “Fighting Back.”(ca. 58 min)
 "Can you Meet the Challenge" (Jane Emery, September 19, 1957)