The Story of Trayvon Martin and Resurgent Social Justice Among HBCU College-Goers

Originally published by on April 17, 2012

Dream Defenders on 40-mile March

At this point, the story of 17-year old Trayvon Martin’s senseless death at the hand of a recently arrested and charged neighborhood watch captain is known the world over. Calls-to-action have ranged from small-scale appeals to web-based petitions and large-scale rallies to bring George Zimmerman, the self-confessed gunman, to justice after being immediately released by the Sanford (FL) Police Department over a month ago. In solidarity with the public outcry for justice, recent news coveragehas highlighted a group of college students known as theDream Defenders. From the period of April 4-9, 2012, the Dream Defenders, under the leadership of Gabriel Pendas – a Florida State University graduate and president of the United States Student Association (USSA), organized an activist bootcamp, embarked on a forty-mile march from Daytona Beach to Sanford, Florida culminating in community rally on Easter Sunday, and coordinated acts of civil disobedience as occupiers of the public spaces. This movement and the organization college students are significant for postsecondary institutions for several reasons, historically Black colleges and universities in particular.

First, both as a group of the avant-garde generation-Yers as well as college students, this group provides a valuable counter-narrative to popular characterizations as unengaged, socially dys-conscious, and virtual bumper sticker activists. While social-media was certainly a part of their movement, members of the Dream Defenders like Justin Campbell have been adamant that uses of mediums such Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were supplements to their on-the-ground organizing. For example, during the Easter rally, supporters with substantive social media influence were asked to live tweet – provide real-time play-by-play coverage via twitter – as the event was streamed over the web (similar tactics were employed by community organizers of the ‘Million Hoodies’ rallies held in New York and elsewhere late last month). What’s more, activism around race-related civil rights issues given the increasingly encroaching construct of ‘post-racial’ America is a direct challenge to such claims from arguably the most racially integrated generation to date, especially on college campuses hemorrhaging diversity rhetoric. Given this, I could not help but remember organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which began in the early 1960s at Shaw University, an HBCU in Raleigh, North Carolina, that staged sit-ins at restaurants in college-towns in the south. Given the retrospective magnitude of the broader civil rights movement, one could argue that student activism around civil rights issues, Berkeley withstanding, has decreased greatly since the 1960s. More particularly, activism related to students at HBCUs has all but disappeared in public and national discourses over time.

In the aforementioned regard, the second point of significance is the many students who participated in the call-to-action were, in fact, current students or recent graduates of historically Black colleges and universities. Represented within a larger group of over forty students, including those who were non-Black and/or from predominantly White institutions, undergraduate students from Morehouse College, a Claflin University graduate – now a law student at Stetson University, and a large constituency of students and recent graduates from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University were represented. Some of the principal organizers, namely Phillip Agnew and James Bland, were Florida A & M graduates and past student body presidents.  Acknowledging HBCU participants is not to diminish the organizing of students at predominantly White institutions, most notably those who have responded to acts of vandalism and protested the controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws related to this case. Nor are these particular students suggested to discount efforts of fellow HBCUers standing in solidarity from afar. It is, however, to highlight but one example of students of varying levels and locales, with the support of a national student activist organization such as the USSA, have collaboratively reignited images of grassroots organizing often drowning in nostalgia. It should also be noted that for some of these very students, taking a stand for civil rights causes is not new. In 2006, led by the Student Coalition for Justice, students from the Tallahassee university committee descended on the state capital, myself included, in protest of the death of Martin Lee Anderson, a fourteen your old African American boy who was killed in a Florida bootcamp one day after being beaten by camp guards. Among those who helped organize the 2006 protest was Vanessa Baden, another the leader of and spokesperson for the Dream Defenders movement.

Finally, the most notable difference in the case of these students is their having galvanized support across multiple institutions, and leaving respective campuses to make their presence known at ground zero. While this is in part due to proximity of the institutions to Sanford, these students certainly had the option to remain local and have their voices heard or not participate at all. Instead, students took time away from coursework, loaded into buses traveling the length of the state, and collectively marched forty miles over two days only to then hold a rally and be early to rise for a day of protesting in silence outside the Sanford police station. Often, organizing among collegians is a local, either within a specific institution or surrounding community, and affinity-based by a particular student organization or student union around an issue with local, national, or international implications. In the case of the Dream Defenders, their efforts were certainly cosmopolitan including manifold stakeholders virtually unbound by time, institution, geography, or affinity group.

All in all, the Dream Defenders movement and Student Coalition for Justice are beacons of light in an increasing time of presumed apathy among young people. They have not only proven to be anything but apathetic, but that the concept Sankofa – bringing the past forward into the future – is central to their hybrid approach to organizing on the ground and on the web. In addition, their efforts reaffirm notions of service and community engagement as valuable educational outcomes in the postsecondary experience, at HBCUs in particular. Given these insights, however, new questions arise regarding why such occurrences are less frequent and less visible in terms of academic and public discourses; surely no shortage of issues for which organizing on college campuses exists. If not that, then what? Perhaps this is our charge to learn more and encourage students on all campuses to take a stand, literally, against the contemporary social issues at hand.