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Fourth of July Celebration Marks 40th Anniversary of Student Voting Rights

Members of Project 18 Honored at 2011 RA


Celebrating their historic right to vote, students drop voter registration forms into a voter box.

July 04, 2011
By Cindy Long

The 2011 RA Fourth of July celebration was all about engagement this year –  it started with the engagement of two RA delegates to be married, and moved on to celebrate a historic moment in the political engagement of young people in America.

Forty years ago, educators and students stood together and fought to give young adults the right to vote. In doing so, they amended the Constitution and empowered millions of American citizens to have a say in our democracy.

This Independence Day marks the 40th anniversary of the 26th Amendment which lowered the legal voting age from 21 to 18 (it was signed into law July 5, 1971), and was the result of a grassroots effort – known as Project 18 – led by a dedicated group of NEA student members. Those members – Rosalyn Hester Baker, Ian MacGowan, Les Francis, Mel Myler, and Charles Gonzales, were honored today at the Fourth of July celebration.

It was the result of their efforts, said Executive Director John Wilson, that “allowed millions of young people to participate actively in the democratic process.”

The first rumblings to lower the voting age emerged in the midst of the Vietnam War, when young people were demonstrating in the streets and students were holding rallies on campuses all over the county demanding that those being sent to war were able to have a voice in the political system sending them there.

Wilson was a student at Western Carolina University, where he served as president of the NEA student chapter, and he said he remembers well his fellow students being drafted into war. He said he and students across the country were energized by the rallying cry, “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!”

That energy exploded into action among the student members of the California Teachers Association (CTA), who decided to change the system from within.

"It was all done with the spirit of what was right," said Mel Myler, president of the CTA Student Association at the time. "How do we provide access to people in a way that they've never had access before?"

In 1967, the group passed a resolution supporting an 18-year-old voting age, mustering the support of the NEA-Student Program and the NEA Representative Assembly's thousands of nationwide members. Then, in 1969, the NEA initiated its campaign for the measure, called Project 18, teaming with organizations like YMCA, AFL-CIO and NAACP and creating the Youth Franchise Coalition to lobby for a Constitutional amendment.

“Don’t let anybody tell you about the power of an NBI,” Wilson told the delegates. When the measure finally made it to Congress, it passed faster than any other amendment in history.

Last Friday, President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation and said, “We remember the commitment of all those who fought for the right to vote and celebrate the contributions of young adults to our nation.”

To celebrate the anniversary a parade of young people, including Wilson’s niece Marlee Shoemaker Yeates, waved their voter registration forms high over their heads and dropped them into a voter registration box set up in front of the stage as the thousands of delegates cheered them on.

“NEA made this happen,” Wilson said. “And we need to make sure in 2012 we have the highest percentage ever of young voter turnout. Let us commit to make that hope come true.”

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