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How a Group of "un-hip" Student Activists Changed the Constitution

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The NEA Student Program and student activists continue the tradition of advocating for change:


by Rebeca Logan

It was 1968. Aretha Franklin was the top-selling female artist in the nation, Night of the Living Dead was a teenage cult hit, and the Apollo 8 astronauts made history with the first U.S. mission to orbit the Moon.

It was also the year Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. And 16,592 American soldiers lost their lives in Vietnam, the deadliest year for U.S. troops in the 19-year conflict. 

It was a time of turmoil, dissent, and unrest, and even though young people were protagonists of the upheaval transforming their nation, those under 21 did not have a voice in the political system that ruled their fate and sent them to war.

More than 25,000 U.S soldiers killed in Vietnam were under the age of 20.


Old enough to fight—and die—for their country, but not old enough to vote.

For many activists the time had come to lower the voting age. It was now urgent to extend the full rights of citizenship to a new generation of young people who were working, paying taxes, and anxious to shape the world around them.

Their teachers agreed, and when thousands of NEA members met in Texas for their annual Representative Assembly in 1968, they overwhelmingly approved a resolution that directed the Association to organize a national drive to give political voice to millions of young people.

The next year, half a dozen NEA staffers and student members gathered in Washington as part of Project 18, NEA’s campaign to lower the voting age.

Tommie Leaders, Student Program leader from Nebraska with Charles Gonzales to the 2011 NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago, Il. (Calvin Knight/RA Today).

“If you were an activist in the ’60s, you were concerned about student rights, you were concerned about civil rights, you were concerned about the war, and you wanted to make a difference,” explains Les Francis, an activist from the Student California Teachers Association, who was hired in 1969 to direct Project 18.

“The place to do it was either in the streets, or it was in politics. We chose the political route.” But the task was daunting: It required changing established law at the federal level and in every state of the union. It ultimately required changing the U.S. Constitution. And, they were young, politically inexperienced, and according to the Washington Post, looked decidedly “un-hip” in their earnest “gray-flannel suits.”

The Christian Science Monitor reported that “seasoned observers” wrote them off as “another children’s crusade enlisting volunteers.”

“We had to get politicians, members of Congress, state legislators, most of whom were much older than us, to give up power,” adds Francis. “We were asking them to include people in the electorate who might vote against them.”


The NEA: A Network Like No Other


If there was any organization that could mobilize nationwide and convincingly advocate at all levels of government on behalf of extending the rights of students and young people, it was NEA. “We had a network across the country, in every state, and in many cases in every local school district.

No other organization in this country had that kind of a network,” recalls Mel Myler, NEA student president in 1966.

Educators were uniquely motivated supporters of this cause, Myler points out. They saw the dreams and the enthusiasm of young people in their classrooms. They believed that the education they were providing gave their pupils the intellectual tools and social awareness needed to make informed decisions about their future. 

The expansion of public education had prepared a new generation for an era of civic engagement.

 By 1969, close to 79 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds had graduated from high school, a stark contrast to 50 years earlier (1920) when less than 20 percent of them had completed their secondary education. 

“Good teachers love to see young children motivated, passionate, beyond doing their homework....When teachers are organized around a common purpose, change happens. Teachers were critically important,” explains prominent civil rights activist Richard Cohen, who was part of the broad network of civil rights, union, youth, faith, and community organizations that came together as part of the Youth Franchise Coalition.

“Part of the forgotten story of the civil rights movement is that children participated in the efforts in Birmingham, Montgomery, Mississippi. These children were becoming civically engaged....Now they were ready to vote and you could see that.”

 “It was a very exciting time for the Student NEA, for NEA, and all the other organizations that worked with us,” recounts Rosalyn Baker, who became chair of the Youth Franchise Coalition.  “I was one of those young people who really felt like you could make a difference, and one vote could make a difference.”

“NEA was the anchor of the 18-year-old-vote effort....We were going to organize young people; we were going to organize the adults around us to help with that effort,” observes Baker, who went on to elected office, and is now a Hawaii state senator. 


From Congress to the Supreme Court


One of the first objectives of the Youth Franchise Coalition, according to Ian MacGowan—who at 29 years of age was considered the “old geezer” in the group—was to get politicos at the local and federal level to take them and their organizing efforts seriously.

After all, prominent and experienced legislators had been introducing legislation to lower the voting age for decades without success. Senator Jennings Randolph, a Democrat from West Virginia, had been trying since World War II.

“We had to convince people this was serious, and [that] there was a chance to do something now. They looked at the politics and the political history, and since nothing had happened said: “Why is something going to happen now?” adds MacGowan. “With the coalition we had and the support of the NEA we started gaining credibility.” 

Senator Mike Mansfield from Montana, the longest serving majority leader in the history of the Senate, took these “novices” seriously and personally lobbied his colleagues on their behalf.

Congressman Norm Dicks and Ian MacGowan share their thoughts on the 26th Amendment on Capitol Hill

Eventually, Sen. Mansfield and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts sponsored an amendment to the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, which required lowering the voting age to 18 in all local, state, and federal elections.

The support was bipartisan, positive, overwhelming, even surprising.

The House also approved the measure and on June 22, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed it into law. 


The support was bipartisan, positive, overwhelming, even surprising.

Almost as soon as it was signed, the new provision faced formidable legal challenges, as Idaho and Arizona refused to comply, and Oregon and Texas claimed it was unconstitutional.

Oregon appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and won: In Oregon vs. Mitchell the Court ruled that 18-year-olds could vote in federal elections, but that Congress cannot set these requirements for state and local elections. So, effectively and ironically, now 18-year-olds could vote for president but not for dogcatcher. 

As one young activist put it: “The decision created a bipolar voting system.”

More immediately, the ruling promised a bureaucratic nightmare for local officials, who would have to maintain two sets of voting lists, duplicate registration processes, and print differentiated ballots in time for the 1972 presidential election.

A constitutional amendment could no longer wait. Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), a college student at the time, made his first trip to Washington to speak before the subcommittee charged with debating the amendment.

He was active in the efforts to lower the voting age in Oregon, where the Oregon Education Association was a key player. He prepared for his testimony at NEA’s Washington, DC, office.

Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Ian MacGowan reunite 40 years after organizing to lower the voting age.

“We were earnest young people who were out there trying to get inside the system and advocate on behalf of democratic ideals. We were building on the momentum of the civil rights movement…We did person to person lobbying, we got signed pledges....Some were supporters, some were cranky, some were opaque, [but] we had a network of young people and a cause that we believed in fervently. The ability to involve that power and voting was almost magic, it was transformational,” recounts Blumenauer. 

“There is a lot of evidence that the system doesn't work as smoothly as it should, there is a lot of evidence that special interests, substantial money, can drown out democratic voices. But I have seen repeatedly [that] people who have passion, a dream and commitment; who are willing to engage, organize, and move forward, they literally can move mountains.”

And move mountains they did. On March 10, 1971, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously in favor of the constitutional amendment. A few days later the House voted 400-19 to approve the measure.

Within hours Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Washington ratified the amendment. In subsequent weeks, dozens of states followed.

In record time, the required three-fourths of state legislatures approved the legislation, and the 26th Amendment became the law of the land.

It was the fastest constitutional ratification process in U.S. history, enacted faster than the Bill of Rights. By July 4th of 1971, 11 million young people had obtained the right to vote.

“It happened very, very quickly; at lightning speed.” recalls Charles Gonzales, former NEA Student President from New Mexico. “We knew it was going to happen. You know how young people are, we’re very confident. In one grand swoop [we] brought in a whole multimillion group of people who could now vote.” 


It was the fastest constitutional ratification process in U.S. history, enacted faster than the Bill of Rights.


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th amendment, and for the first time these activists are sharing their experience with a new generation. NEA partnered with Rock the Vote to bring this story of student engagement to schools across the nation by celebrating Democracy Day on March 23rd.

With a multimedia lesson plan that includes messages from celebrities, music, and civic activities, students can learn about the political system, and are encouraged to register to vote.

 

March for the right for 18-year-olds to vote, Seattle 1969.

Post-Intelligencer Collection, Musium of History & Industry

More than 10,000 educators signed up to participate in the first year of the program. 

Through Rock the Vote more than 5 million young people have registered to vote, over 2.5 million in the 2008 election that put Barack Obama in the White House. And even though they changed the Constitution back in the era of rotary phones, tube television, and Ford Pintos, the former members of Project 18 hope that the Facebook and Twitter generation will continue to engage in transforming the world around them.

“You know after 40 years you begin to see the legacy in a new generation,” reflects Mel Myler, now retired from the NEA. “I think they made a big difference in this last election, and I hope that with this celebration, we might be able to provide a new spirit of engagement in the political process.”  


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