Yesterday and today, high school students all over Maine are leaving class to participate in a nationwide protest over the dismal state of America’s firearms regulation, leaving us the only country in the developed world where kids go to school fearing they may be gunned down.

The response to the Newtown shootings in 2012, where 20 second-graders and six adults lost their lives, was appalling. The U.S. Senate couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to open debate on a background check bill, and that was that — although Connecticut did enact several laws, which have reduced gun violence.

There are signs that after the Feb. 14 shootings in Lakeland, Florida, high school, things may be different. If they are, it will be through the efforts of students mostly too young to vote, but not too young to bring their case to the American people.

Unlike 50 years ago, at the height of student protests over the Vietnam War, school authorities are generally cooperating in this exercise of the First Amendment right, as the Constitution states, “of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Waterville was among the first school districts with a creative response, announcing permission to leave class, and holding an assembly afterward. School Administrative Distric 13 in Moscow and Bingham, after initially saying students who left class would be disciplined, decided to take a similar approach.

If today’s students finally achieve a voice equivalent to their numbers, the nation could change in ways unimagined since, two generations ago, Vietnam created a gulf that has yet to be bridged.

It’s worth remembering both the power of the youth movement of the 1960s, which helped achieve equal legal standing for all races and probably shortened the war, but also its failure to gain key political objectives.

By decade’s end, the Machiavellian Richard Nixon was president, and the political energy of protest went into women’s rights, gay rights, consumerism, environmentalism, and a host of other worthy causes which, nonetheless, neglected the importance of selecting, and electing, the best candidates for public office.

Many of these causes have flourished. The successful same-sex marriage movement, and victories for gender rights overall, would have been unimaginable to 1968’s protesters. Broad awareness of global warming is testimony to the skill and persistence of environmental groups.

Yet there’s been little effective action by governments to deal with the existential threat global warming represents. This, too, is part of the legacy of the 1960s.

An important moment in Maine student protests came not during 1968, but early in the 1972 campaign. Student leaders chose Colby College’s campus for a statewide rally against the war, which Nixon continued throughout six years in office.

Organizers wanted Maine’s two U.S. senators, Ed Muskie and Margaret Chase Smith, to speak.

Muskie, then running for president, agreed, and his fiery denunciation of the war was well-received. Ironically, he was viewed nationally as too slow to move from support to opposition, and this was a factor in his eventual loss of the nomination to George McGovern.

Smith, however, insisted on a different speaking slot, so when she stood before the assembled students, she was alone except for her longtime aide, William Lewis, a former general in the Air Force Reserves.

Though it’s little remembered today, Smith might have been the Senate’s most hawkish member, insisting that North Vietnam had to be utterly defeated, no matter how many bombs were dropped or how many lives were lost. The students were not impressed.

Finally, in answer to a question about U.S. soldiers stationed in Laos and Cambodia, in violation of Nixon’s stated policy, Smith categorically denied any were there. An organizer then brought forward Brownie Carson and asked how, if there were no American soldiers there, could Carson have been wounded in Laos?

Carson, then a young Marine Corps officer, had been on a special forces assignment. Much later, he became director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and today is a state senator.

Sen. Smith then turned to Lewis, who had no answer. A year later, she lost her Senate seat to William Hathaway, an upset equaled in Maine political history perhaps only by Muskie’s victory in the 1954 governor’s race.

The lesson, then and now, is clear. In a representative democracy such as ours, government can function effectively only if it truly represents the people’s will, as it plainly does not now on issues as varied as guns and taxes, and the public needs represented by our health care and educational systems.

As long as students — and everyone else — remember that political action must be first and foremost among their objectives, they can succeed where their predecessors did not.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 33 years. His new book, “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” will be published next month. He lives in West Gardiner, and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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