The fourth paramount aim is to combat hatred, bias, and prejudice. We express our anguish at the heart of our national anthem: “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Throughout much of its history, however, many minorities have striven to attain full acceptance in a nation that claims freedom and equality for all. Young people, like other groups who had suffered unfair or undignified treatment, realized that to be heard they might need to raise their voices.
In the 1960s, during the American Civil Rights Movement, children as young as six years old were part of protests and marches to end segregation in schools. They faced fire hoses, police dogs, and jail cells—all because they wanted to be treated equally. Through their courage and sacrifice, they helped bring about change that is still felt today.
Since then, children around the world have continued to speak out and take action against injustice. In South Africa, children protested against the system of apartheid, which kept people of color from enjoying the same rights as white citizens. In Cambodia, kids orphaned by war built a new future by starting a cooperative farm. And in Brazil, poor adolescents created a successful recycling program in their community.
In each of these cases, and many others, children have shown that they are powerful agents of change. By working together and speaking up for what’s right, they can create a more just and peaceful world for all.
In New York City, during the “newsies” strike of 1899, one example of children raising their voices in the name of their rights occurred. Newsies were youngsters who sold papers on the streets of major cities. In 1897, there were about 2,500 newsies in New York City, most between the ages of six and sixteen years old. The cries of these youngsters shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” became a common sound to hear on city streets. Newspapers were the primary source of news at that time before computers (although not everyone had access), smartphones (only for advanced users), television (for some people) and even radio (for a small number).
The newsies’ strike began when the newspaper publishers, who were already making large profits, decided to raise the price of newspapers from 50 cents per 100 papers to 60 cents per 100. The newsies would have to sell 20% more papers just to make the same amount of money.
The newsies refused to pay the new price and went on strike. They marched through the streets chanting, “We won’t do it! We won’t do it! Up with the union now! No reduction! No reduction!”
At first, the police tried to break up the strike, but eventually they realized that these kids were serious. The mayor even got involved, meeting with a group of newsies to try to reach a compromise. In the end, the publishers agreed to lower the price back to 50 cents and the strike ended.
The newsies’ strike was one of the first times that children had organized and fought for their rights. It showed that even kids could make a difference.
The newsies had a lot of difficulties. While some stayed with their families, many others were orphans or homeless. Workplace safety was not a concern in the early twentieth century, and the newsies were victims of irresponsibility on the part of employers. They frequently worked 10- or 12-hour days. Most paid any money they earned back to their families or used it to pay for food and shelter for one night. Newsies did not attend school.
They were often illiterate. The newsies also had to contend with police brutality and harassment. They were constantly being chased by “beats,” or groups of policemen who would club them and take their papers. Many newsies were arrested on trumped-up charges, such as loitering or vagrancy.
The newsboys’ strike of 1899 was a turning point in the history of child labor. It brought national attention to the plight of child workers and helped spur the passage of laws protecting them. The newsies’ story has been told in a number of books and movies, most notably the 1992 film Newsies, starring Christian Bale.
Today, children around the world are still working in hazardous conditions and being denied their basic rights. But thanks to the efforts of organizations like Human Rights Watch, they now have a powerful advocate on their side.
The newsies’ situation worsened even more during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The public’s appetite for news of the war helped to increase newspaper sales. Newsies purchased papers from publishers and then sold them to consumers. During the conflict, the price newsies paid for a bundle of 100 papers rose from 50 to 60 cents. Readership fell after the war ended.
The practice of buying back unsold papers was discontinued by the owners of some newspapers, who responded by raising the price of a bundle to $1.50. The two largest publishers—Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal—refused to decrease their rates. Both Pulitzer and Hearst also abandoned the strategy of reimbursing investors for unsold papers. They required newsies to shoulder the losses instead.
The newsies’ response was immediate and organized. They went on strike, demanding that the price of a bundle be lowered to 50 cents and that the publishers resume buying back unsold papers. The strikers also set up their own system of newspaper distribution, in which they would only sell newspapers from those publishers who met their demands.
The strike lasted nearly two weeks, during which time the newsies faced brutal conditions. Many were arrested and beaten by police. They also had to contend with freezing weather and little food. In the end, however, the newsies’ persistence paid off—Pulitzer and Hearst agreed to all of their demands.
The newsies’ story is just one example of how children have fought for their rights throughout history. In many ways, they have been at the forefront of the struggle for human rights.
Children have always been among the most vulnerable members of society. They are often powerless in the face of abuse and exploitation. Yet, time and again, they have shown themselves to be powerful agents of change. From the newsies’ strike to the fight against child labor today, children have played a vital role in the struggle for human rights.