By Cendi Tena
We just passed the 65th anniversary of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott. Though less well known than its contemporary counterpart, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Tallahassee action lasted from May through December 1956, ending when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on city buses was unconstitutional. On May 26, 1956, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, two Black university students, boarded a local bus in Tallahassee. The pair took the only two available seats, in the whites-only section at the front of the bus.
When asked to stand or leave, the women refused. Three police cars arrived and the young women were arrested for “placing themselves in a position to incite a riot” and found burning crosses on their lawns the next morning. Their actions – and the targeted hate that followed – spurred a movement.
The student body decided to boycott the local buses for the entirety of their semester, beginning on May 29. That night, Reverend C.K. Steele, a representative of the NAACP, called a meeting for the wider African American community in Tallahassee, who voted unanimously to join the boycott. Over the next seven months, the Black community in Tallahassee came together to carpool and support each other through the boycott.
The courage of Jakes and Patterson inspired their community to rally around them and mobilize in defense of and in solidarity with their young people. Today, this nation’s youth of color are still on the frontlines of change, building movements to combat ongoing systems of oppression across a range of intersecting issues that affect our lives every single day. Adults must align to the leadership of young people, because young people have the clarity of purpose and courage to take the risks we need to achieve transformative change.
Young people have long been the actors pushing the boundaries of what we believe to be possible. Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson’s brave actions are just a snapshot of the calculated risks that young people – particularly young people of color – have taken to demand faster, bigger, better changes from their society. And that change is amplified and made stronger when the wider community – neighbors, teachers, families and friends – rally around and stand alongside young people in their fights. When young people’s leadership is celebrated, entire movements are fortified with the energy and undaunted passion that youth bring to organizing. The faith and trust demonstrated by the Tallahassee community is a clear example to follow today. We need that same faith from our community right here in Milwaukee, so our young leaders can thrive and our communities can benefit from the unique strengths of youth.
We cannot continue to underestimate the work of youth organizers. Young people have a history of leading change in this country. It is time to honor the Native youth who stood against the Dakota Access Pipeline that threatened their drinking water on The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land; appreciate the countless high school activists who created March for Our Lives to fight for gun control; admire the youth continuing to fight for racial justice during today’s revolutionary movement in response to the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black people. It’s time for anyone who cares about justice to look past their own biases about what age a leader is, and trust the youth who know where we need to go next.
Our organization, Leaders Igniting Transformation, has been working to create justice for the Milwaukee community (and now Wisconsin) since 2018. Through issue-based organizing, leadership development and civic engagement, we organize Black and brown young people to build independent political power for social, racial and economic justice.
The tireless efforts of our members have earned us significant victories such as a $600,000 divestment from the school policing budget (2019), the blocking of a $217,000 contract for school X-Ray machines (2019), the end of remaining contracts between the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee Public Schools (2020) and a resolution to end suspensions for students in 5th grade and below (2020).
Today, we are asking you, our neighbor, for your allyship and faith, just as Jakes and Patterson’s neighbors offered theirs 65 years ago. In our organization, we’re working to divest from the criminalization of Black and brown youth by calling for an end to suspensions, expulsions, invasive technology, safety assistants and more. Additionally, we are calling for investment in the success of BIPOC youth by providing them with a high-quality education, appropriate amounts of licensed professionals, a culturally relevant curriculum, robust restorative justice practices and more. By doing so, we create communities in which Black and brown youth can thrive. Sign our Youth Power Agenda pledge today.
Young people – particularly young people of color – are proving to be indomitable leaders and visionary changemakers who are pushing policymakers to go further and go faster in the direction of justice, not only here in Milwaukee, but across the United States. From the Sunrise Movement mobilizing for meaningful climate action, to the young Black and Latinx organizers in Georgia, Texas and Arizona registering thousands in their communities to vote, to the students fighting to get police out of their schools, one thing is clear: when young people lead, we all win.
Cynics will say that young people don’t have the experience necessary to do the work of transformation, or will urge young people to take their time, to wait for their turn. But the issues we are fighting for are too urgent for that. For some of you, it may simply be that you don’t know where to look: I hope, too, that you can start with learning more about the amazing youth from Leaders Igniting Transformation that are driving change right here in Milwaukee.
Our work is far from over and we want to partner with as many people as possible to bring about our vision for the world. As our communities continue to face the collective trauma wrought by police brutality and the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, we know that it is more critical than ever to dream big and demand urgent change today, to take big risks and hold authorities to account for the ways they have failed us and our communities. We hope that you can stand with us in this work.