The importance of changing the current makeup of this region — and on a more massive scale, this country — was put forth to students by President John F. Kennedy during his visit to the University in 1960. Ironically, the same request was made in similar style during my personal interview with Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., immediately following his “Rebuild America Campaign” message at the University’s Trotter Multicultural Center on Aug. 23.

During my phone interview with Jackson, he explained that the intent behind his campaign was to build a coalition of activists to help rebuild this country — and more specifically the Midwest region — through jobs, justice and peace. At some point during my interview with Jackson, I began to understand why he and the late President Kennedy communicated the power of student activism with so much vigor.

In both Kennedy’s trailblazing address to the University on Oct. 14, 1960, and Jackson’s Rebuild America Campaign Speech at the Trotter Multicultural Center, both men pushed the same idea: The values of this country as a free, democratic society rest on the shoulders of college students nationwide.

And, frankly, I agree.

When I think about the successes of the generation of activists before me, which led to the overturning of laws and groundbreaking cases in this nation’s highest courts, I must contextualize the times. The reason there was so much national cohesion among student activists was because they were able to see some of themselves in one another. The student activists of my time must do the same. We shouldn’t only work behind what Jackson terms the “ethnic walls” of our communities. When they are behind “ethnic walls,” activists are solely invested in the cause of the black or Indian race, instead of the holistic agenda of the human race.

Despite the criticism of Jackson being a racial divider or living in the past, his message of empathy shouldn’t get lost. This message is not racially limiting, nor is it racially polarizing. In fact, it is the same message that the University is celebrating during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps this fall.

As the University begins the 2010-2011 academic year and celebrates Kennedy’s historic speech on the steps of the Michigan Union that led to the announcement of the Peace Corps, it’s important to keep perspective. Don’t let the most important take-away of Kennedy’s message be his comparison of the University of Michigan to Harvard University, deeming the University of Michigan to be the “Harvard of the West.” Don’t let the prestige be distracting. Don’t let the distinction of the Peace Corps being introduced first at the University dissuade you from Kennedy’s message that was similarly expressed by Jackson at the University’s Trotter Multicultural Center.

As Jackson so eloquently stated during his speech last week, the message of the hour is to be “irrevocably bound” to each other, a point that was highlighted during Kennedy’s speech at the University 50 years ago. This country has transitioned into a new era of Civil Rights during which students are graduating “without a guaranteed job, but with guaranteed debt” as Jackson put it, the consequences of the War on Terror are continuously felt as more American soldiers’ lives are claimed, manufacturing jobs are decreasing and college tuition costs are rising. In this era, the human rights fight of our time is global, and indeed multicultural. Just as student activists of the generation before us acted with connectivity — creating a signal of social action that guided this country from restriction to toleration — perhaps the student activism of today must be just as interwoven to foster the social and economic growth of this country.

During his visit in 1960, Kennedy remarked that this University “…is not maintained by its alumni, by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle, there certainly is a greater purpose.” If my generation of student activists is to have a major impact in the form of job creation in this region and stronger bridges of understanding and acceptance between people of various creeds in this nation, a major change in student involvement in activism needs to happen.

Brittany Smith is an LSA junior.

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