"To Participate in Their Own Destinies": Detroit's Community Control Movement and the Struggle to Redefine the Black High School Student as Citizen

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Dara Walker, Penn State University
This paper explores the ways in which civic organizations, educational institutions, and black high school students in Detroit sought to construct youth citizenship during the Black Power movement. It argues that the postwar struggle for community control of schools constituted a site of struggle over the meanings and possibilities of African American student citizenship. Although public schools organized student councils and youth governments during the rise of the New Deal coalition, black students experienced exclusion from these democratic organizations until the 1970s. For public educational institutions, student councils constituted the means through which youth learned the functions of American democracy and gained opportunities to develop leadership skills through civic engagement. Through these councils, educational institutions sought to craft a vision of youth as future citizens who could navigate local politics. However, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional in 1954, it did not account for the ways in which white schools would exclude black students from these democratic bodies. The rise of Black Power and demands for culturally and politically relevant curriculum, however, enlarged the possibilities of black youth citizenship. Through student walkouts and community organizing, black high school students created student-parent-faculty councils and demanded black history courses that could teach them to how to solve global issues. As black communities across the country fought for community control of schools and the right to determine the nature of the high school curriculum, black students gained access to the levers of educational power at the local level. While local civic groups aimed to help students understand local politics, black high school youth fought for a vision of themselves as world citizens who studied world events to understand local conditions as well as their place in global struggles for independence.
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