Last night I had the distinct pleasure of participating in a march and “Die-In”, organized and sponsored by some African American students and their allies at my university. In less than a week the students had used social media and their various networks to get the word out and prepare for the event. At 4:45 pm a group of Christian students gathered at the foot of the campus hill to pray for the success and safety of the event, while at the top of the hill the event organizers were setting up lights, coordinating with campus security, and preparing for what they hoped would be a large crowd. By 5:00 pm at least 300 students were present at the top of the hill. As minutes ticked by you could see students coming from all directions to join them. Soon, the crowd that had gathered in prayer began their trek up the hill. By the time the rally aspect of the event began there were about 700 gathered around the campus iconic statue of our 16th president. Once the brief speeches were completed the group was 1,000 people strong. I looked around to see who I recognized. I saw a number of undergraduate students who have taken courses with me including many of the organizers. I also saw a number of my graduate students. What I did not see were many faculty and academic staff. I saw one other African American male faculty member from my school and 2 African American female academic staff members.
By the time I had taken note of the participants it was time to begin marching. We were 1,000 strong marching down the campus hill chanting things like, “Black lives matter,” “Hands up…Don’t Shoot,” and “No Justice…No Peace.” Students were carrying signs expressing their outrage at the way the justice system has so failed Black people. I noticed the students standing in the windows of the Law Library and saw at least one Black woman who seemed a little stunned to be “in the wrong place” when a movement was happening in her midst. We marched boldly across main streets with police officers holding back the traffic. We headed across a campus mall on our way to the undergraduate library and it occurred to me that my African American male colleague and I were literally “bringing up the rear.” We were so far back in the procession that the police vehicle was right behind us. While I laughed at how far back we were, I thought, “This is how it should be.” This is a movement of and by our youth. My role is not to be in front. It is to be a supporter not a leader.
I remember what it felt like when I was in the center of a movement. I remember demonstrations in Baltimore, the formation of SNCC and the Black Panther Party. I remember the “Poor People’s Campaign” which went on despite Dr. King’s assassination. This was MY movement and I certainly didn’t need my mother or any other elders telling me how to lead or participate in it. When the 1963 March on Washington almost came apart because the youth were relegated to the sidelines, they approached Ella Baker for help. Ella explained to the young people that they had to assert themselves in their own way. And, they should not, indeed could not, expect her to lead them. It was their movement…their moment within that movement.
Of course I am not saying that I am Ella Baker…far from it. Instead I am saying it is time to pass the baton. However the baton I am talking about is not the baton that is passed in a race because I do not think my generation and the subsequent one continued to run. Many of us stepped out of the race and sat on the sidelines. We got comfortable with a few little affirmative action crumbs that let us earn college degrees, get stable careers, purchase homes and buy cars. Far too many of us just stopped running. So the baton I am referring to is the one that band or orchestra conductors hold to demonstrate that they are in charge, directing, leading, and running the show. Our youth are ready and willing to lead and I for one am ready to take direction!
Stay Black & Smart!