“If our drive was to be successful (in Birmingham), we must involve the students of the community. Even though we realized that involving teenagers and high school students would bring down upon us a heavy fire of criticism, we felt that we needed this dramatic new dimension – But most of all we were inspired with the desire to give to our young a true sense of their own stake in freedom and justice.”
“(I)mmediately, of course, a cry of protest went up – many deplored our ‘using’ our children in this fashion. Where had these writers been, we wondered, during the centuries when our segregated social system had been misusing and abusing Negro children?”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as written in his autobiography
Just as Martin Luther King Jr. expected criticism for the youth participating in the last civil rights movement, we expect it now. Just as those criticisms in retrospect appear both prejudiced and irrelevant, so will those leveled at the youth of BAMN.
BAMN is an integrated organization dedicated to building the new civil rights movement to defend affirmative action and the other gains of the civil rights movement King led. We learn from the successes and failures of our predecessors. One lesson history teaches is that the only way to build a mass social movement for equality is to build and integrate the leadership of young people. BAMN is also a national organization that is majority youth in its composition.
Young black leaders play a leading role in the new civil rights movement. Detroit students organized themselves and their classmates to picket and fill the courtroom for every day of the federal district court trial of Grutter v. Bollinger, the University’s Law School affirmative action case. When the lawsuit went to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Dec. 6, 2001, young people from Detroit and Cincinnati again took the lead to mobilize students and youth from around the region to march and rally in defense of affirmative action. On April 1, 2003, more than 50,000 high school and college students from around the nation marched on Washington to demand that the U.S. Supreme Court uphold affirmative action. This march and the national political debate leading up to it ensured the biggest victory for civil rights in more than a generation – the Supreme Court’s June 23, 2003 decision to uphold the legal principle of affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger.
Black students lead the fight for equal, quality education. Last November, Detroit’s high school BAMN chapters took the lead in the campaign to defeat the state takeover of their public schools. These Detroit students worked closely with a number of other organizations, including the Detroit NAACP and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, throughout this campaign. High school and middle school students have also led the way in the fight against the anti-affirmative action Michigan “Civil Rights” Initiative thus far. On July 19, Detroit students mobilized over 500 of their peers to the state Board of Canvassers meeting to demand that the board prevent MCRI’s racially targeted fraud from going forward, which the board did.
The new civil rights movement is a young and developing one. Our base of support consists primarily of young people who had the misfortune of growing up at a time when the struggle for equality has been largely absent from American politics. Every day new young leaders step forward – inspired by BAMN’s message that they do not have to accept second-class citizenship – to join the new civil rights movement.
Youth are playing a leading role building the new civil rights movement, finding their voice and leading their peers. Young people come from situations of terrible abuse and mistreatment and rise to speak for their peers with elan, insight and power. Our successful defense of affirmative action so far is the result. We know we can do what needs to be done both to defend affirmative action and to move our society toward the long-deferred promise of justice and equality.
The letter writers are organizers for BAMN. Royal and Stenvig are graduate students in education. Smith is an LSA senior.