Children’s Crusades and Adult Enablers —by Jinny Batterson
Early in the 13th century, during the summer of 1212, a pilgrimage known as the “Childrens’ Crusade” headed for the Holy Land. Many details about the crusade are disputed. It seems likely that few, if any, of the participants reached Jerusalem or anywhere close. According to information in the lead paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article:
“The traditional narrative is likely conflated from some factual and mythical events which include the visions by a French boy and a German boy, an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity, bands of children marching to Italy, and children being sold into slavery. Many children were tricked by merchants and sailed over to what they thought were the holy lands but, in reality, were slave markets.”
(reference the year 1212 to clarify your search at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children%27s_Crusade)
Estimates of the number of participants are in the tens of thousands. It’s not clear what roles adults at the time may have played in assisting the young crusaders.
A more recent “childrens’ crusade” took place in Birmingham, Alabama during May, 1963, when over a thousand students trained in non-violent protest techniques left their schools and marched toward downtown Birmingham to protest Jim Crow laws and ongoing racial discrimination. Their actions and the vicious responses of Birmingham’s law enforcement officials “went viral” over 1960’s-era media, prompting outrage that helped prepare the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In the past year or so, we’ve seen the birth of two modern youth crusades: one concerning the U.S. epidemic of gun violence, the other spreading awareness of the need for concerted action in the face of the worsening global impacts of climate change.
After a mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018, survivors and their families held a candlelight vigil. Several students then sat up for most of the night hatching a social media campaign to help reduce gun violence. Their efforts coalesced around the hashtag #NeverAgain, which has morphed into a national movement advocating for changes in gun laws to help reduce the American gun violence epidemic. In March, 2018, over a million people showed up at events nationwide during a “March for Our Lives.” Lobbying and activism continue. Though legislation at the national level remains stalled, since the Parkland shooting over twenty states and the District of Columbia have strengthened gun violence prevention measures: “red flag laws” to temporarily remove guns from the hands of individuals in crisis, enhanced background checks, waiting periods for gun purchases.
In August, 2018, teenager Greta Thunberg began sitting outside the Swedish Parliament building holding a sign that said “Skolstrejk för climate” (“School strike for climate”). Over time, her actions drew attention and followers. On March 15, 2019, school strikes, urging adults to take responsibility and reduce climate change, took place in over 2,000 cities worldwide. An estimated 1.4 million pupils from around the world participated. On September 20, 2019, the school strike again went global, with an estimated 4 million children and adults participating in events just before the start of a U.N. Climate Summit in New York City.
In my youth, crusades centered around bringing an end to a war in Vietnam that caused huge human and environmental devastation. Controversy also surrounded the investigation into the actions of a sitting U.S. President who had attempted to “stack the deck” in the 1972 presidential election. Both issues were polarizing and sparked big protests. Afterwards, many of us got off the streets, took jobs, raised families, and left national and global issues mostly to those in positions of putative power. Yet we did not abandon our ideals or our activism, though its form may have changed. We passed on a sense of fairness, of respect for the planet, to our children and grandchildren. We continued to lobby our elected representatives on issues of concern. We changed our personal habits to be more responsible global citizens.
Those of us who are elders now can take heart from examples of elders and adults who were not the visible images of youth crusades, but who nonetheless furthered efforts toward human rights and planetary citizenship. One elder I hold up is Juanita Abernathy, a civil rights pioneer. Along with other brave African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, Ms. Abernathy played a behind-the-scenes role in organizing and furthering a 1955-56 bus boycott to get respectful treatment for the black ridership that provided most of the profits to the then-segregated bus system. She used a typewriter and carbon copies to spread initial word about the boycott in a pre-internet age. As the boycott continued, she helped organize carpools and alternative transportation to get workers to their jobs and householders to needed shopping. For decades, she worked quietly to advance civil rights. She recently died at age 88. Another (s)hero is Rachel Carson, who died much too soon—a little shy of her 57th birthday. She battled the pesticide establishment of her day along with metastatic cancer to produce her signature work, environmental blockbuster Silent Spring, published on this day in 1962.