A Call to Action: Our Generation and the Evolution of the Civil Rights Movement

The horrific death of Michael Brown that occurred on August 9th was not just an “incident,” not just an “accident,” and not just “an unfortunate situation.” The reaction from communities of color across the nation, and the protests against police brutality that have followed are also not, as Fox Contributor Linda Chavez put it, attempts to “enhance” racial fears and animosity by employing the “mantra of the black unarmed teenager shot by a white cop.” Instead, the tragic murder of Michael Brown and of countless other unarmed victims of color over the past few months are violations of the highest order. Incidents of police brutality, harassment, and even murder are not only violations of our civil rights, but also a violation of our basic human rights. Situations like that which resulted in the death of Michael Brown are not only “Black problems.” Rather, any injustices that plague the people of our country, regardless of their identities or backgrounds, are American problems.

As citizens and humans, we should be able to gather in peaceful assembly without police harassment and intimidation. We should be able to expect that the police will strive to protect and serve us, and not to murder or intimidate us. We should expect timely and equal justice in our court systems. We should expect to be free from discrimination based on gender, race, class, or any other distinction. The events in Ferguson highlight that we are not guaranteed the protection of our civil rights. This fact is an American tragedy. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Police simply serve as the vessel by which societies’ larger injustices involving race become evident. It is time for Americans to realize that police brutality and intimidation, an unjust “justice” system, and general identity discrimination are the problems of more than a single subset of the population.

The police actions in Ferguson have prompted protests from activists across the world. When we look to connect these movements with past efforts to ensure equality, we can see the continued relevance of college activism. The success of the Civil Rights Movement was made all the more possible as a result of collegiate advocacy and leadership. One of the major civil rights organizations of the period, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), trained its interracial activist base of students to protest nonviolently in an effective manner. SNCC formed in April 1960, in the aftermath of the successful Greensboro sit­ins. The Greensboro Four, four young Black men who attended North Carolina A&T, inspired countless sit­ins across the South with their refusal to give up their seats at a “Whites only” kitchen counter.

These moments in the Civil Rights Movement were not a mere supplement to the contributions of older leaders. They were not just an afterthought following such courageous actions as Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat. They did not simply augment the actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. as he helped to lead various movements across the South. Movements led by college students were a product of the true and genuine leadership students provided as they worked alongside King, Marshall, Randolph, and other leaders and key figures of the era. Our generation can no longer idly sit and allow only our veteran leaders to come to bat for us each time a tragedy like this happens. We can no longer expect for Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or even President Barack Obama to articulate exactly what our next plans should be as young Black people in 21st­century America. It is time to revive the leadership that arose from college­aged Black students just like us. It is now time to pass the baton to our generation to lead the movement against the dehumanization of Black and Brown people in this country.

While the media may report the recent Michael Brown protests as a mere moment of outrage, what we are viewing is the beginning of a movement. We can no longer wait for the day that this country will be willing to extend the right to a fair justice system that it has promised to all Americans. We must demand it. As seen before in the courageousness of activists during the Civil Rights Movement, there is great power in the voices and convictions of young people. In Ferguson, it was the youth of the city who rose to the front lines of protests and community organizing to rally in support of justice for Michael Brown. Across the nation’s colleges, students have also taken up this charge through school walkouts, town halls, fundraisers, and more to bring support to this issue. What we are asking of our peers today, people of color and beyond, is that you will join us.

The dehumanization of people of color in our justice system is a complex issue to tackle alone. Though there is no clear path to a solution, each one of us is equipped with our talents and experiences. Do not become caught up in superficial ideas of leadership or feel that your background does not qualify you to act. Whether grand or small, what matters most is that you do something. Today, our generation is standing on the great legacy of Civil Rights activists. We must all extend our hands in carrying the torch and finishing what they started. The time to act is now.

We are not the first to participate in this movement. We will not be the last. Until the day comes when it will not matter whether or not Michael Brown stole a pack of cigarettes or if Eric Garner sold them illegally—until the day Renisha McBride’s drunk driving is not as big of a story as her death and Trayvon Martin’s character is not on the defense stand, it is our fear that there will be no change. Our desire to fight for human life can best be described by the Nguni Bantu term “Ubuntu,” which roughly means “humanity toward every and all human beings”.

Ubuntu. We stand together because we believe that the effects of these injustices are color­blind—fear runs both ways. Ubuntu. We stand together because between the articles and the riots we see our house dividing. Ubuntu. We stand because in a country that prides itself on its freedoms, no matter how light or dark our skin, we are all marked by the blood of our ancestors. No matter how much we block out the “I can’t breathes” and screams for help, we cannot wash this stain away because, Ubuntu, we are because they are.

Ubuntu. We stand because we have no choice. Because we are Trayvon Martin. We are Renisha McBride and Eric Garner and Victor White, Ezell Ford, Kimani Gray, Jonathan Ferrell, Darius Simmons, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Orlando Barlow, Amadou Diallo... We are Michael Brown. And we are afraid that you cannot see past the color of our skin to the humanity within us. Please, prove us wrong.

 

This statement was written and signed by a council of 16 black student leaders, representing all eight ivy league universities. The signees of the statement include:

Dashaya Foreman­, Princeton University C’16, Black Student Union President

Zenaida Enchill­, Princeton University C‘16, Black Student Union Vice President

Denzel Cummings,­ University of Pennsylvania C’15, UMOJA Co­Chair

Nikki Hardison,­ University of Pennsylvania C’15, UMOJA Political Chair

Sarah Cole,­ Harvard University C’ 16, Black Students Association President

Miles Malbrough,­ Harvard University C’16, Black Students Association Vice President

Reine Ibala,­ Yale University C’16, Yale All Ivy Coordinator

Isaiah Genece­, Yale University C’17, Yale Black Men’s Union

Jordan Ferguson,­ Brown University C’17, Black Student Union President

Armani Madison­, Brown University C’16, President, Brown NAACP

Antoine Saint­Victor,­ Cornell University C’16, Black Students United Co­President

Daneille Scott­, Cornell University C’16, Black Students United Co­Publicity Chair

Bennie Niles, IV­ Dartmouth College C'15, Afro­American Society President

Kevin L. Gillespie, Jr., Dartmouth College C'15, President, Dartmouth NAACP

Alexis Yeboah­Kodie, ­Columbia University C’16, Black Students’ Organization President

Diarra White, ­Columbia University C’15, President, Columbia NAACP