'If They Could Change the World' : Children,Childhood, and African-American Civil Rights Politics

de Schweinitz, Rebecca Lyn, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia
Aron, Millicent (Cindy), Department of History, University of Virginia
Nock, Steven, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the role of young people in the civil rights movement and the ways that changing ideas about childhood have influenced the place of blacks in American society and the struggle for racial equality. Chapter 1 explores how ideas about childhood helped legitimize American slavery, influenced the movements to defend and eradicate it, and limited Reconstruction efforts. Chapter 2 examines how race leaders used ideas about childhood to prove the respectability of the race and how ideas about the ""rights of childhood" and greater attention to "'youth problems'' during the decade or the Great Depression led civic and education leaders, reformers. and race leaders to focus on discrepancies between childhood ideals and the plight of young blacks. and to argue for a system of universal and equal education. Chapter 3 argues that in the 1940s and 50s ideas about education, children. the rights of childhood. and national security concerns converged with ideas about African-American civil rights to influence the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case. Chapter 4 explores how the ideas about children and the rights of childhood that influenced, Brown also influenced the way the struggle for racial equality was presented to the American public in the years following Brown and the way it was perceived by the American public. Linking African-American civil rights to ideas about childhood both shaped and limited the movement. Chapter 5 argues that young people who participated in the sit-ins and other protests of the early 1960s were building on a militant youth organizing tradition that began as early as the 1930s when the NAACP developed a strong youth program that officially encouraged the use or direct action. Well before Greensboro young people pushed the movement in more militant directions. And Chapter 6 examines the reasons for the proliferation of youth protest in the late fifties and early sixties. This dissertation provides a new framework for understanding slavery, abolitionism, Brown, the civil rights movement and the NAACP. It expands our understanding of shifting notions of childhood and encourages scholars to recognize young people as significant historical and political actors.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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