Young people have always written the story of America, and they continue to today. The Youth Voting Rights Act, introduced this month by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Nikema Williams (D-GA), will help them take the pen.

Although we often see them portrayed as elder statesmen, key leaders of the American Revolution were in their teens and early twenties; several such as Alexander Hamilton went on to be among the Founding Fathers of the United States. Similarly, Frederick Douglass was only 23 years old when he first took the stage at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Having escaped slavery three years earlier, he became a national leader for abolition and championed the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War.

Alice Paul was 22 years old when she went to England and subsequently joined the women’s suffrage efforts there, returning home to lead successful congressional efforts for the 19th Amendment and to author the first Equal Rights Amendment of 1923.

The Greensboro Four were 17- and 18-year-old college students when they occupied a Woolworth’s lunch counter to manifest the Supreme Court’s promise of desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. They catalyzed a national movement engaging some 70,000 participants and HBCUs throughout the South and were joined by white college students and northerners.

Diane Nash, just recently honored with the Medal of Freedom, was only 21 while working as a leading cofounder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The following year, she faced a two-year sentence in Mississippi for organizing the Freedom Rides, which brought college students to the state to desegregate interstate buses. Nash was six months pregnant but ready to give birth in jail, if necessary, to birth a movement.

There are countless others, many of whose names are unwritten and unknown. The late, great congressman John Lewis was 25 when he was brutalized alongside others in what would be called Bloody Sunday as they marched from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. Andrew Goodman (age 20), James Chaney (age 21), and Mickey Schwerner (age 24) made the ultimate sacrifice when they joined Freedom Summer based on their faith in American Democracy. It’s no coincidence that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were finally passed as Americans bore witness to the violence that underpinned the Jim Crow era, broadcast into the nation’s living rooms.

Although hard to imagine today, not too long ago elected representatives from across the political spectrum came together nearly unanimously and at unprecedented speed to constitutionalize {TO RATIFY?} a new amendment. In doing so, they recognized the indispensable role that young people play in protecting democracy. By lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 and outlawing age discrimination in ballot access, the 26th Amendment ushered in the most significant expansion of the franchise in recent history, bringing 11 million new voters into the fold.



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