Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


Reading and Discussion Questions
Rebecca de Schweinitz, If We Could Change the World

1. The book’s introduction describes several ways in which children, and ideas about childhood, influenced the history of the African-American civil rights movement. List two of them.

2. De Schweinitz writes that “childhood and youth have never been fixed categories” (6). What does she mean?

Chapter 1
1. What was the Scottsboro case about? What difference did it make if the accused were described as “men” or “boys”?

2. What kind of social and legal reforms were in place by 1930 that significantly shaped the experiences of young Americans?

3. What similarity does de Schweinitz see between the role of childhood in 19th-century antislavery activism and its role in 20th-century movements for civil rights?

4. Civil rights strategies based on respectability placed particular emphasis on children. Explain. What disadvantages did these strategies have?

5. What was the U.S. Children’s Bureau? When its officials championed the “rights of childhood,” what did they mean?

6. What was the AYC and why was it important? De Schweinitz writes that the AYC was characterized by “racial liberalism.” What does she mean?

7. What was the Children’s Charter?

8. How and why did secondary education become a focus of AYC studies during the 1930s? What approach did the AYC recommend to address educational deficiencies? What were the consequences for African-American children and youth?

Chapter 2
1. What was the Children’s Crusade for Children?

2. What major point does de Schweinitz make about the Crusade’s effort to publicize the gap between the ideals and the realities of childhood?

3. In the aftermath of World War II and during the early Cold War era, what were the political consequences of a campaign that identified children with the future of democracy both in the United States and in the world?

4. What point does the author make when describing Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son?

5. What influential ideas about human development shaped the debate about racial segregation in schools in the years before the Brown decision? How did this work?

6. Brown declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional in the United States. The author also suggests that the Supreme Court justices “also extended the rights of childhood to all young Americans” in 1954 (87). What exactly does she mean?

Chapter 3
1. De Schweinitz narrates the story of Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi in 1955 as a referendum on childhood. Explain.

2. Sympathetic media reports and images of the civil rights movement in the South required African-American children to embody childhood ideals in order to prove that they had legitimate claims to rights. Explain.

3. How did many media reports of school desegregation campaigns interpret both sympathetic and antagonistic responses among Southern white students?

4. De Schweinitz suggests that many observers believed that young people had significantly different positions on school desegregation than adults. Why? Does her evidence persuade you?

5. Did the defenders of school segregation also champion the rights of childhood? If so, how?

6. Explain the kind of domestic ideology that helped generate greater sympathy for the civil rights movement in the 1950s?

Chapter 4
1. What kind of youth organizing tradition did the NAACP establish? What earlier precedents existed in U.S. history? Why does this chronology matter for the history of the civil rights movement?

2. How did the activities and goals of the NAACP youth councils change over time?

3. How does the author describe the relationship between young NAACP activists and the adults in the organization?

4. What role did the YMCA and YWCA play in relation to the NAACP and the civil rights movement?

Chapter 5
1. What generational shift took place in the 1950-1965 period, according to de Schweinitz? What explanations does she offer for it?

2. Does it seem plausible that there was more of a “generation gap” in the civil rights movement of the 1960s than there had been in earlier decades? Why or why not?

3. One of the cases consolidated in Brown v. Board of Education originated in a student strike. What was it about, what relationship did students have to their parents and teachers in the case, and why does any of this matter?

4. Who was Ella Baker?

5. De Schweinitz argues that striving for middle-class respectability gave way to personal sacrifice in the lives of many young civil rights activists. Explain.

6. What impact did the growing numbers of Americans attending high schools and colleges have on young people’s responses to Jim Crow?

7. Does it really matter whether children were “used” by the media and adults as powerful symbols of racial injustice or whether children themselves were historical agents in their own right? Explain.

1. What is the difference between the “politics of childhood” and the “politics of children”? Which does de Schweinitz prefer? Which do you prefer? Why?