The 26th Amendment at 45: Bringing More Voters to the Fight for Reproductive Rights

Image of a button showing support for a lower voting age from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

When the question of same-sex marriage went before the Supreme Court in the summer of 2013, it was clear that millennials, the nation’s youngest adults, had already reached their verdict; 66 percent were in favor of recognizing it, putting them among the most supportive demographic groups in the U.S.

That same year, millennials were in the spotlight in another fight for social justice. Refusing to accept their university’s mishandling of sexual assault reports, two survivor activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill fought back with federal complaints. Their activism turned up the pressure on their institution and evolved into the founding of the organization End Rape on Campus, or EROC, a networked movement against sexual assault that linked survivor activists and other advocates for change on college campuses throughout the U.S. Following EROC’s founding, supportive faculty formed Faculty Against Rape, or FAR, bringing the movement to more stakeholders in campus communities.


Young voters have the power to shape political futures.


Jennings Randolph, a Democratic member of Congress from 1933 to 1947 (and later a senator from 1958 to 1985), said the nation’s youth “possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world and are anxious to rectify those ills.” With that faith in the collective power of young Americans, Randolph made it his mission, beginning in 1942, to introduce legislation that would lower the voting age to 18. Historically it had been 21. His hopes, though, would not be realized until decades later, in the 1970s.

The United States entered the 1970s bearing the toll of what became one of the longest and most unpopular wars in its history. By the time the Vietnam War ended in 1975, 2.5 million Americans had served in the conflict, a quarter of them because of the draft. More than 58,000 of them lost their lives. Continue reading

“I Didn’t Want to Believe It”: Lessons from Tuskegee 40 Years Later

Located among longleaf pine and hardwood trees, low ridges, and broad floodplains, Tuskegee, Alabama, is a small town that’s been a big part of American history. Despite a modest population of less than 10,000 people, Tuskegee has been able to boast many notable residents who have made names for themselves in everything from sports to the arts. Among them have been the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American Air Force unit, which served during World War II, and Rosa Parks, the icon of the civil rights movement, who sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.


The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, conducted from 1932 to 1972, examined the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural black men — without their informed consent.


Tuskegee, though, is also remembered for one of the worst chapters in the history of medical research. Forty years ago, in 1972, newspapers revealed the story of a syphilis study that was callous in its deception of research participants, and damaging, even today, in the distrust it sowed among black Americans. The study had started another 40 years prior, in 1932, when the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) needed to rescue a financially troubled syphilis intervention in Macon County, Alabama. The intervention was first established in partnership with a Chicago-based philanthropic organization, but its future was uncertain when the organization’s funds dried up during the Great Depression.

Syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, was the subject of conflicting scientific hypotheses at the time, including the hypothesis that the disease behaved differently in blacks and whites. Interested in testing those hypotheses and faced with disappearing funds for treatment, the USPHS turned its project into a study of untreated syphilis. Also influencing the decision was the fact that the USPHS was discouraged by the low cure rate of the treatments at the time, mercury and bismuth. But by the mid-1940s, penicillin was in use as a proven treatment for syphilis. In spite of that medical advance, the USPHS withheld treatment from a total of 399 infected patients by the time the study ended in 1972. Continue reading