On Feb. 1, 1960, Franklin McCain and three teenage friends from the historically black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, went to the whites-only counter at Woolworths in Greensboro and took a seat.
They were not part of an organization and had never been politically active before.
“I don’t think the [established civil rights groups] really understood what the driving force was for this movement,” McCain says. “We had four kids here trying to address an unequal system. Just four kids who were somewhat introspective.”
The night before they had stayed up until the small hours goading each other into action. They didn’t warn anyone because they thought adults would try to talk them out of it. Their attempts, the next day, to get a few people to join them failed.
“We just thought it was useless waiting for them to catch up. We didn’t have the time to convince people ... People needed to believe in it enough to die, they had to walk on the picket lines until their shoes wore out. We wanted to go beyond what our parents had done. And we had nothing to lose,” McCain says.
McCain describes the feeling of sitting at the counter — confronting the oppression of ages as a cop brandished a stick he could not bring himself to use — as one of zen-like serenity.
“I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration. I felt that in this life nothing else mattered. Nothing else has even come close. Not the birth of my first son nor my marriage. I had no tensions and no concerns. If there is a heaven, I got there for a few minutes,” McCain says.
And so, from a moment of tranquility began a turbulent decade of student-led activism, both locally and globally, that produced some of the transformative movements of the last century. The 1960s did not invent student radicalism. However, it did witness a spike in a centuries-long tradition that has ebbed and flowed from 19th century Russia to Soweto and is surging once again across Europe.
Last week alone saw a wave of occupations and demonstrations in Britain, widespread disruption in Italy as train lines and motorways were blocked, and clashes between Greek students and police outside parliament in Athens.
PRODUCTS OF THEIR TIME
As these protests intensify — as they are bound to — we can expect them to be routinely disparaged on the right as either privileged kids acting out or innocents led astray by revolutionaries. However, there is also a risk that, either through nostalgia or wishful thinking, they might be misunderstood by the left.
There is nothing intrinsic to being a student that makes them radical. Like everyone else, their politics are shaped by time and place. During the 1926 General Strike in Britain, students were used as scab labor. In Venezuela, they are as likely to be against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as for him. I entered university four months after then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s third victory and graduated three months after Labour’s fourth defeat. It is not surprising students were, if anything, quite conservative.
That students and youth in Europe have erupted at this moment, however, should come as no surprise. More than one in five people under the age of 25 in the EU is unemployed. In Spain, the figure is 43 percent; in Greece, 30 percent; in Italy, 26 percent. Meanwhile the principle that education is a public good, to which all are entitled, all contribute and all benefit through a more competitive economy, is in its death throes.