How to Spark Kids’ Interest in Civil Rights: FHSS Professor Rebecca de Schweinitz

You may not think that your seven-year-old would understand the concept of civil rights, much less care about it, but they can. Not only that, children can and have been agents of civil rights change in our nation’s past. So, who’s to say that they can’t be our change agents of the future? That’s a question that FHSS History professor Rebecca de Schweinitz answered in her book If We Could Change The World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality, recently mentioned in an article in Time Magazine.

“Everyday people, including children and youth, changed the course of history,” she said, in reference to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. In her book, she offers these tips to help parents spark their kids’ interest in Civil Rights:

Tell Stories

Elementary aged kids love stories, de Schweinitz told Time. Tell them stories about children like them who showed courage during the Civil Rights Movement, or others who’ve made a difference. There are plenty of stories to choose from, including:


Parents can tell the stories of the brave children who integrated into white classrooms after desegregation. That was a time that put kids “at the center of the nation’s struggle for racial equality,” said de Schweinitz.

Parents can also tell the stories of young activists like Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who spoke on campus recently. She told the students in attendance that she recognized the harmful effects of segregation when she was just 10-years-old. At this young age, she promised herself that she would do something to help make things better when she got the chance. By the time she was 19-years-old Mulholland had participated in over three dozen sit ins and protests, including one of the most famous and violent sit-ins of the movement at the Jackson Woolworth lunch counter. She also participated in the March on Washington and rode with the Freedom Riders. Countless other children and young people were involved in the movement in one way or another.

Ask Questions

According to de Schweinitz, as kids get older, parents can start asking them questions that get them thinking about their role in society. They can ask their children about what they would change in the world today. This could also be a time of reflection. Parents can encourage their kids to think about what they have learned from stories about young people in history who have worked for change. How they can apply those lessons to their lives today?

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Have Conversations

Parents and children can start having conversations about the personal cost of fighting for change by the time kids reach high school.  They can discuss possible reasons that people are willing to sacrifice for a cause they believe in, particularly why young people might be even more willing to work for change. “One of the truly striking aspects of youth activism in movement history was how much young people were consciously willing to give up,”de Schweinitz says.


Dig Deeper

The names of key figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman likely come to mind first when thinking about the Civil Rights Movement. Though it may take a deeper look, de Schweinitz says it is clear that kids have never just been pawns or followers in the long fight for civil rights. Kids, she said, have always felt their “own determination to fight for racial equality. This was their movement, too.” Parents can help their kids look more closely at the role of children and young people in the movement and how their courage and participation made a big difference.

Have you done any of these things with your kids? How did they react?

Civil Rights Book Photo courtesy of Flickr

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