It wasn”t the shouts for equality and desegregation that attracted attention to the rally for affirmative action Friday, but the music of Destiny”s Child”s “Survivor” coming from the Cass Technical High School Marching Band that stopped traffic on the Diag and lead the march toward Rackham Auditorium.
The rally and march, attended by several hundred high school and college students, were part of the weekend”s civil rights and affirmative action conference, hosted by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary.
The rally and march were delayed an hour and a half to allow visiting students time to consider various petitions discussed earlier that morning.
Wayne State Law School student Shanta Driver, who mediated the conference, said it was designed to bring together leaders from across the country and “pull together a national leadership for the new movement.”
Speculation that the Rev. Jesse Jackson would come and speak on the Diag ended during the rally when Gary Flowers, a spokesman for the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, announced Jackson was sick and unable to attend. Jackson instead made a call to the conference Saturday afternoon.
Flowers offered some words of advice during the rally. “Each generation must define for itself the critical issues of the day.”
“Nothing lasts forever,” he added, commenting on the University of California Board of Regents” May 16 decision to reverse their ban on affirmative action.
Student activist leaders from around the country spoke, including Harvard student Stephen Smith, one of the organizers of a recent 21-day sit-in for workers” rights. Ronald Cruz, an openly gay Asian student from the University of California at Berkeley, and Hoku Jeffrey, a founding member of BAMN”s chapter at Berkeley, also spoke.
On Saturday, students reported about recent events on their campuses.
“When you tell a story, you learn from that,” said Pennsylvania State University alum Ryan Rzepecki. “We”re all coming from different angles but it”s all part of a collective story.”
Cruz and Jeffrey had encouraging words for the conference.
“We even got Ward Connerly to vote for the demise of his own proposal,” said Cruz, referring to the University of California regent who lead the campaign to ban affirmative action and two weeks ago joined the 21 other regents in the unanimous vote to reverse the ban. Attacking the Regents” decision to ban affirmative action through petitioning and classroom presentations was just one step they took, Cruz added. The repeal of the University system”s ban is the first step in removing Proposition 209, the state-wide ban on affirmative action.
Students from Penn State talked about the flood of death threats students say they have been receiving since 1999. “Basically what happened was for the first time in 20 years, Penn State had its first losing (football) season,” said Penn State student Chenits Pettigrew, comparing the school”s athletic tradition to Michigan”s. “Football is the only thing that kept the Penn State community together.”
“Football players getting death threats hurts recruitment,” added Penn State student Brian Favors.
The students said after they began receiving the threats, they asked their administration to help them build up the university”s diversity curriculum. “We realized that they didn”t know anything about us,” said Lakisha Wolf, a student who said she personally received several death threats.
The students said they wanted the new curriculum to ease the racial tensions at Penn State.
“We realized that the University had fallen short on its diversity initiatives,” said Penn State student Charleen Morris. “There wasn”t a shared and conclusive understanding of diversity.”
The group said although they successfully created a new diversity program at Penn State, they are still fearful of the climate at the school. “We created a multi-million dollar diversity plan, but we are struggling,” Favors said.
At one point, Helen Halyrad, a member of the audience, spoke out against affirmative action, saying that class, and not race, is the leading factor that contributes to inequality.
Halyrad said she is a member of the Socialist Equality Party, which, according to a written statement, believes that “affirmative action is based on the premise that some sections of the population must be denied access to higher education, and argues that this deprivation should be rationed out differently than at present excluding white youth from a college, in order to include more minority youth, cannot be reconciled with fairness.”
Although Halyrad spoke against affirmative action, participants of the conference received her comments with applause. “There”s a lot of strong points that are being made, even hers,” said Heather Brewer, who will be a freshman at Oakland University in the fall. “I didn”t understand quite what was going on and that”s the main reason I wanted to come.”
On Sunday, the lawsuit challenging the University of Michigan”s Law School”s admissions policies was discussed and several resolutions were passed, including the conference declaration and a resolution to establish a coordinating committee from those who attended the conference and have a second conference in November.