WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of students, union members and civil rights activists rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court on April 1 to demand that the court uphold affirmative action to overcome racist discrimination.
The crowd came on hundreds of buses as the justices heard arguments on two lawsuits seeking to overturn affirmative action admissions guidelines at the University of Michigan (U-M). The case poses the gravest threat to equal rights since the Supreme Court’s 1978 ruling in Bakke v. University of California, which outlawed quotas but permitted race-conscious measures in college admissions, hiring and promotion.
Protesters held signs reading: “By Any Means Necessary: Defend Affirmative Action,” and “Bush got ‘Daddy Preference.’ We got nothing.” At least 4,000 came from Ann Arbor and Detroit, Mich., including U-M students, members of the Detroit NAACP and hundreds of union members.
A cheer went up as 200 students from Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio, marched into the crowd chanting, “We say no re-segregation, we want quality education.”
Ty Lane, an OSU engineering major, told the World, “If the Supreme Court kills affirmative action, they kill Dr. King’s dream.”
A few steps away stood the Rev. Martin Luther King III. “True, my father spoke of a day when people would not be judged by the color of their skin,” he told the World. “But that day is not here yet. The people who run corporate America are 97 percent white males. Today we need affirmative action as one of many tools to achieve equality.”
Claude Praytor, a leader of the Laborers Union said, “We need fair distribution of work in the labor market. Affirmative action levels the playing field.”
U-M graduate student, Dave Dobbie, warned, “If the court overturns affirmative action, we will see fewer people of color getting into U-M. We must make up for 500 years of racist oppression, but we must also eradicate the present inequality that exists in our society today.”
Yael Harlat said her U-M classmates are also mobilizing against the Iraq war. “People have been able to make the link,” she said. “The military is recruiting heavily among people of color and poor folks for ROTC but they are not being recruited for other careers.”
Craig Nothnagel, president of United Auto Workers Local 22 was here with 55 members of his local. “The message we are sending is that without affirmative action there will be no equal opportunity,” he said, adding, “With George W. Bush in office, we lose on every front when it comes to the needs of working men and women in this country.”
In his speech to the rally, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said, “We have a grievance and sure as hell, we don’t want re-segregation of our colleges and universities.”
Mfume was seconded by Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, who told the crowd “All people of color have benefited tremendously from affirmative action not only in academia but in corporate America and in government.”
Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania drew cheers when he said, “We have a president who is so arrogant that on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday he called for rolling back affirmative action. We must stand against racism and we must stand against war. As Dr. King said about the war in Vietnam, ‘There comes a time when silence is betrayal.’”
Patricia Ford, vice president of the Service Employees International Union, pointed to the statue of freedom at the top of the U.S. Capitol. “I look at that statue of freedom but we don’t have freedom here,” she thundered.
Following the rally, protesters marched in a mile-long procession to the Lincoln Memorial chanting, “Get out of the way, Bush. Get out of the way!”
In his argument before the court defending the U-M admissions policy, Attorney John Payton said a “critical mass” of African American, Latino and other minority students is needed to create a multicultural, multiracial mix on college campuses.
The Michigan admissions process allocates points for high school grades, test scores and other factors, including coming from an underrepresented minority group.
The Bush administration stood virtually alone in filing a friend of the court brief opposing U-M’s diversity-building policy. The breadth of support for affirmative action policies is reflected in the array of legal briefs filed in support of the university’s admissions policies. Twenty-four states and territories, about 70 Fortune 500 companies and virtually all of the nation’s 3,900 accredited colleges and universities filed friend of the court briefs on behalf of U-M.
Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “I sat in the United States Supreme Court chambers, four days before the 35th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, hearing arguments led by the president, attorney general and their allies to remove the fundamental under-pinnings of race remedy, after 40 years of racial injustice in America.”
Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said, “Last December, Sen. Trent Lott, that born-again civil rights supporter, said ‘I’m for affirmative action,’ in an interview with BET. But where is he now? Where is Sen. Bill Frist? Where are the conservatives who talk about opportunity but only offer excuses?”
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