Discontentment with life in a segregated society gave impetus to youth activism in Jackson during the civil rights era. In response to the perceived need for social change, African American children between the ages of seven and eighteen combined forces with community leaders and civil rights workers to challenge Jim Crow in Mississippi’s capital city.
Organized political engagement for social change was evident among Jackson youth as early as 1957, when one of two Mississippi chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council was established in Jackson. The West Jackson Youth Council sought primarily to educate young people on voter rights. By 1960 the city also had a North Jackson Youth Council as well as collegiate chapters of the NAACP.
The Jackson Youth Councils became a powerful force in mobilizing the city’s African American community for social change. The children encouraged African Americans in Jackson to vote; to apply for respectable jobs, especially in white-owned establishments; and to boycott segregated events and public facilities. As the Youth Councils’ involvement increased, so did their membership. The Jackson movement intensified, with members of the Youth Councils conducting freedom workshops and surveys, distributing leaflets, and recruiting more members.
Between 1960 and 1962, youth activists encouraged blacks to boycott downtown Jackson businesses, particularly during the Easter and Christmas holidays, and to stay off Capitol Street. As part of this effort, college and high school students conducted house-to-house canvasses of the sixty-one thousand blacks in the Jackson area.
Jackson’s Youth Councils continued their efforts to dismantle the capital city’s system of segregation by attempting to integrate city parks and pools. Young people also tested the city bus lines by sitting on seats reserved for whites only. The Jackson Zoo and the Mississippi State Fair also became targets for civil rights protests.
Children’s participation in the Jackson movement reached its height in the spring of 1963. In late April, Mayor Allen C. Thompson met with African American leaders and acquiesced to most of their demands, but he later denied having made any agreement. In response to officials’ refusal to negotiate, youth orchestrated Jackson’s first mass demonstration of the freedom struggle in late May. Demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins took place in the downtown area, and youth activism influenced other civil rights organizations to take a more active role in the Jackson movement.
On 30 May 1963 Jackson youth organized a crusade for equality. Many participants were students from Lanier, Jim Hill, Brinkley, and Holy Ghost Catholic High Schools. As they marched, the children carried American flags, chanted “We want freedom!” and sang freedom songs. Jackson city police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and state highway patrolmen were on hand to arrest the young demonstrators—more than a thousand over a two-week period. The vast number of children arrested forced the conversion of the state fairgrounds into a temporary jail, which many activists referred to as a concentration camp.
In the fall of 1965 the Jackson Youth Council of the NAACP organized the Jackson Youth Movement, which continued boycotting and demonstrating. Jackson’s young people remained significant agents of change in the civil rights movement until 1967.
- Daphne Rochelle Chamberlain, “‘And a Child Shall Lead the Way’: Children’s Participation in the Jackson, Mississippi, Black Freedom Struggle, 1946–1970” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2009)
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1995)
- Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable, eds., The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches (2005)
- John R. Salter, Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism (1979)