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An Abbreviated History of Youth Movements

While March for Our Lives is at the forefront of contemporary conversations, it’s far from the first time young people have stepped up to fight for causes they deem dear. In fact, the world’s youth boast a rich legacy of activism. Here’s a closer look at six youth-led movements throughout history.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Education
An Abbreviated History of Youth Movements

Thousands of students, teachers, parents and allies are expected to converge on Washington, DC this March 24th to “march for their lives” in support of gun control and school safety. At the same time, more than 800 “sibling marches” will be held globally aimed at ending gun violence in schools and communities. Leading the movement? The students of Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people died earlier this year at the hands of an active shooter.

While March for Our Lives is at the forefront of contemporary conversations, it’s far from the first time young people have stepped up to fight for causes they deem dear. In fact, the world’s youth boast a rich legacy of activism. Here’s a closer look at six youth-led movements throughout history.

1. The Newsboys Strike of 1899

"Friens and feller workers. Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we'se got to stick together like glue.... We know wot we wants and we'll git it even if we is blind." While these may not be the most eloquent of words, they were galvanizing ones when used as a call to arms by newsboy Kid Blink to his fellow “newsies” more than a century ago.

Back when the only way to get news in New York was via two major newspapers, newsboys played a vital role in selling them. Yet, they were paid mere pennies for their efforts, and were penalized if they failed to sell them all. Mostly orphans and runaways, the newsboys organized a strike aimed at changing how they were being compensated. Their success ultimately inspired similar measures throughout the country and laid the foundation for the eventual introduction of urban child-welfare laws.

2. The Antiwar Movement in the 1960s

With roots in civil rights activism and protests over university restrictions to political speech and assembly, this massive student-led movement expanded to include the war in Vietnam as its focal point. Also gaining force at this time? The women’s liberation movement and calls for equal rights from the gay community. Says historian Neil A. Hamilton in his book, Rebels and Renegades: A Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States, “In the 1960s, dissidents shook the very foundation of U.S. civil society."

3. The Boy Scouts Movement, 1908

Student activism is hardly limited to the US. One movement in the UK centered around kids? The Boy Scouts. While the Boy Scouts may seem like they’ve been around forever, the concept of training boys in small groups in everything from various outdoor activities to good citizenship originated in 1908 in Great Britain. Lieutenant General Robert S.S. Baden-Powell first intended the idea to be put to use exclusively by Britain’s youth organizations, but the movement quickly spread to other countries as well.

The Boys Scouts phenomenon also shows that movements can even happen within movements, as evidenced by controversies over bans on gay troop leaders and gender equality.

4. The Edelweiss Pirates, 1936

Not all of Germany’s young people were swept up in the Hitler Youth movement. In fact, many young people committed themselves to opposing Nazi rule.

Says Messy Nessy of the movement, “A band of adolescent music-lovers, swing dancers and snappy dressers– not exactly the type you’d expect to take on the Nazi Hitler Youth. But in pre-WWII Germany, the Nazi regimentation of society inadvertently gave rise to massive teenage street gangs who beat up the Hitler Youth, tagged anti-Nazi graffiti at train stations– and listened to jazz….Aged 12 to 17, these non-conforming youths were usually referred to as Edelweiss Pirates by the Gestapo, an anti-authoritarian subculture of kids rebelling against the system– in this case, the Nazi regime.”

5. The French Social Revolution of 1968

“Forty years ago, millions of French workers joined protesting students in a general strike that paralyzed the country and nearly brought down the government. A few weeks later, the May 1968 protests fizzled out, but French society was radically changed,” says NPR of this tumultuous time. The best part? According to The Independent, “It all began with a demand by students for the right to sleep with each other.”

6. The Velvet Revolution, 1989

Nearly 30 years ago, thousands of college students gathered in Prague for a peaceful demonstration in honor of International Students’ Day.

“Little did they know that their seemingly innocuous protest would trigger the momentous events which would in effect end the rule of communism in the country a mere 10 days later….That peaceful student protest on 17 November, which ended with brutal violence in central Prague when riot police blocked off escape routes and severely beat students taking part in the demonstration, led to what would later become known as the Velvet Revolution, an avalanche of popular protests, held almost daily in Czech and Slovak cities,” reports

And these are only six of many other examples. Everywhere from Chile to China to Catalonia, young people have joined together to raise their voices and make a difference. Wondering how much these efforts really matter? Just ask Hong Kong pro-democracy youth activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, who were recently nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize “in recognition of their peaceful efforts to bring political reform and self-determination to Hong Kong.”

Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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