Date Awarded

Spring 2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Leisa Meyer

Committee Member

Frederick Corney

Committee Member

Hannah Rosen

Committee Member

Charles McGovern

Committee Member

Marcia Chatelain


Thousands of children throughout the United States participated in debates over race-based civil rights that occurred from the late 1940s through the early 1990s. One of the ways in which young Americans contributed to racial conflicts was by offering their opinions in letters and other writings. Children defended particular positions in the midst of national battles over integration, racial violence, desegregation, busing, urban uprisings, racial representation, poverty, and drugs. By communicating their interpretations of race and rights over the course of fifty years, children contributed to the development of American racial discourses. Children composed arguments both for and against racial equality by incorporating evidence in circulation around them. They reproduced contemporary interpretations of race and civil rights and introduced their lived experiences as “testimony.” Many children repeated historically rooted, racist arguments. Children also used their status as children to amplify their demands for political action on racial matters. This dissertation draws on a source base of children’s letters and writings to presidents and other public figures, including first ladies, members of Congress, children’s authors, activists, and athletes. By deconstructing these written defenses of racial equality or inequality, I trace Americans’ justifications for their positions in several postwar civil rights disputes. These sources give historians access to children’s thoughts while also offering clues as to the origin of children’s information—whether parents, educators, or the media. This multi-layered material provides the opportunity to interrogate the results of children’s socialization and excavate children’s influence on racial discourses.



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