10/20/2020 | By Terri L. Jones

Over the past several months, our country’s streets have been teeming with activists. But these protests – and protests in general – typically consist of younger activists, out there flexing their youthful muscle. But it hasn’t always been that way!

Exactly half a century ago, the Presbyterian Church forced a woman named Maggie Kuhn to retire from her job at 65. (Sound familiar?) Angered, she founded an organization called the Gray Panthers; they took their name from the Black Panthers, and the militant, rather than docile image it evoked. The group’s mission aimed to actively protest ageism and other social injustices affecting older citizens.

During one such protest in 1971, Kuhn and a group of 1,000 protesters circled the White House to demand access to a presidential conference on aging. A team of mounted police tried to push back the protesters; they rode their horses into the crowd, and Kuhn was knocked to the ground in the chaos. However, the diminutive, white-haired radical got right back on her feet again and continued her fight.

Age and Youth in Action

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Gray Panthers joined forces with their younger counterparts. (Their motto was “age and youth in action.”)

They hit the streets and the halls of government across the U.S. to protest for many causes; these included affordable housing, increased accessibility in mass transportation, and government-subsidized universal health care. They also rallied against causes including the Vietnam War; budget cuts to Social Security and Medicare; and abuses in nursing homes.

But the Panthers’ greatest achievement came in 1986 when the cause that initially lit the fire for Kuhn made its way to Congress. A law finally went through, banning mandatory retirement ages for most jobs.

Kuhn was all over the media until her death in 1995. She was outraged by the negative stereotypes that same media propagated about her peers. In testimony before Congress, she said, “TV images perpetuate the myth that old age is mindless, sexless, powerless, useless, and diseased.”

The Panthers reproached networks for their demeaning portrayals of seniors; they even succeeded when some of these derogatory depictions taken off the air.

We may not all be Gray Panther-style activists, willing to walk long distances wielding picket signs and risking life and limb in the process. However, bad knees and the need for frequent bathroom breaks shouldn’t keep us on the sidelines either. In whatever way we feel comfortable, we need to stand up; we need to passionately advocate for the causes and values we hold dear. No one else is going to do it for us!

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones