When thinking about the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, we tend to imagine figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. Yet there is an entire dimension of activism that is often overlooked in studying this time period: the role that young girls played in fighting for more equitable rights.
Girls were crucial to this fight for freedom. From Claudette Colvin to Sheyanne Webb, girls were actively involved in nearly every aspect of the Civil Rights movement. Acknowledging the various roles that they played is critical to fully understanding this important aspect of American history.
Girls across the United States were involved in the practice of sit-ins and refusals to leave certain areas. One of the most famous examples of this is Claudette Colvin, the precursor to Rosa Parks. She was fifteen years old when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, and her actions and arrests helped spur similar actions throughout the South (for more information about Colvin, see this amazing article.
Colvin was not an anomaly. Hundreds of girls were involved in sit-ins, many of which involved making local changes to their home cities. A prime example of this was the sit-in at the lunch counter of the Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma, which was suggested by eight-year-old Marilyn Luper Hildreth. The action taken by both boys and girls to non-violently protest encouraged the drug store to remove their segregation rules, freeing up the space for more inclusive spaces (“Youth in the Civil Rights Movement”).
Another aspect of the fight for equal rights that young girls found power in was through the pushes for integration of schools. Arguably the most potent example of this can be found in Ruby Bridges. At the age of 6, Bridges became the only black girl in a previously all-white school in New Orleans. This article provides a wonderful retrospective interview with Bridges about this period of her life and the impact that it had on the community.
Marches were yet another Civil Rights activity that girls of all ages actively engaged in. At both the local and national levels, young girls were among the crowds of protesters, marching with signs over vast distances to advocate for their rights and their futures. A great example of this is Sheyann Webb. At eight years old, Webb made the decision to attend Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and to be involved in many of his demonstrations. She encouraged her parents to get registered to vote (which they did as a birthday present to her), and she and several other young girls participated on the march from Selma to Montgomery (though they were sent back before the return walk).
Just because they were children did not mean that girls like Webb were safe during these marches. Webb and several others were initially prevented from crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge due to tear gas that was thrown into the crowds. Another young girl, Audrey Faye Hendricks, who was 9 years old, was arrested along with hundreds of other children marching in the peaceful Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 2, 1963. Many of the children spent multiple days in jail before finally being released.
Perhaps one of the most powerful ways girls found the ability to protest for greater rights was through organizations designed specifically to support actions taken by the youth. Two of the most powerful organizations that girls participated in were the Youth NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). Girls involved in these organizations participated in mass sit-ins, actively campaigned for more widespread voter registration, and organized community actions to make their local areas more equitable. Through these organizations, designed specifically to support young people, many girls found a more secure place from which to protest.
The American Civil Rights movement was a dynamic and powerful time in US history. Crucial to telling this story is to acknowledge the complexity of people involved in the process of securing equal rights for all black Americans. Girls, from ages six to eighteen, found community and ability to contribute to that struggle through sit-ins, marches, desegregation of schools, and youth-driven organizations. There was no one experience for girls during the Civil Rights movement, but as these specific cases show, there was no shortage of roles for girls to fulfill, and every action they took propelled the US towards a more equal and equitable society. As the fight continues, it is in figures like Sheyann Webb and Claudette Colvin that people can turn to and reaffirm that everyone, no matter their age, can make a difference.
Girl Museum, Inc.
Brugar, Kristy. “Children as Civic Agents during the Civil Rights Movement.” Social Studies and the Young Learner 27, no. 4 (2015): 5-10.
Cobb, Charlie. “Inside SNCC.” Digital SNCC Gateway, SNCC. Accessed January 27, 2023.
Donovan, Maggie Nolan. “Sheyann Webb: A Story for First Grade.” Civil Rights Teaching. Accessed January 27, 2023.
“Our History.” NAACP, NAACP. Accessed January 27, 2023.
Westfield, Carla Vincent. “This Little Light of Mine: Children and Young People of the Civil Rights Movement 1954-1965.” Powerpoint presentation presented at the American History Teacher’s Collaborative Summer Institute, 2010.
“Youth in the Civil Rights Movement.” Library of Congress, Library of Congress. Accessed January 27, 2023.