Student activists are uniting to lead the fight for social justice at CMU
This will be the first Black History Month in the post-Barack Obama era. It will mark the first February celebration of Black History with President Donald Trump in office, a man who by his own admission used race and class divisions as cornerstones to his rise in political power.
Fears of racism, domestic terrorism and political upheaval in both white and non-white communities are spelling out an uncertain future. Most of all, the persistence of race issues and threats against minorities has spurred many of those same young people into action.
It’s also made them take a closer look at their own chaotic history in America.
“A few years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Leslie junior and Central Michigan Action organizer Ty Bugbee. “We’ve already seen voter suppression tactics become more popular in Southern states. If we are focused more on understanding pieces of history like that, instead of focusing solely on movements and the struggle for freedom, it becomes (harder) to fall back into a cycle of oppression.
“We won’t lose sight of what we’re working for.”
As protests rage in cities and on university campuses across the U.S., student activists like Bugbee, a budding Central Michigan University Black Lives Matter chapter, and their mentors have had an awakening. They are doing their part to bolster statewide and national activist groups that focus on bettering their communities.
They aren’t just organizing protests — they’re organizing politically to create local organizations they believe make up a new student movement driven by social justice reform. They are aggressive. They want change now, and refuse to keep quiet about what they see as the state of inequality.
No matter how these activists choose to speak out, each of them say student organizers are paying attention to the lessons taught by their elders throughout Black History Month, and are ready to make a difference “by any means necessary.”
Who needs Black History Month?
Detroit junior Jazmyn Williams said she tries to celebrate Black History Month 365 days a year. It’s an attitude shared among many young black activists who recognize that their battles should not be relegated to a single month.
“You can’t forget about those who have come before you,” Williams said. “Things today are not as progressive as they may seem. (We deal with) the same struggles that the old civil rights movement was worried about. We have to think about the past as it correlates to the present and see what we can change.”
She didn’t always view it that way. The new chapter president of CMU Black Lives Matter said growing up, the meaning behind Black History Month was lost on her.
“I didn’t really understand the importance of it,” Williams said. “We watched all the PBS documentaries. It was just something I was used to. I didn’t get the meaning behind it.”
Like Williams, Bugbee grew up thinking about Black History Month in muted abstracts. Bugbee is mixed-race and doesn’t have a relationship with his biological father, who is black. His white mother remarried some years ago.
As a result, Bugbee grew up in an all-white community with little attention paid to his roots and the history of his people — even during Black History Month.
“My connection with Black History Month was something that we talked about in school, but it wasn’t until later and in college that it became something really inspiring,” he said. “When I got out of my all-white community, I had more pride in my race. I was owning being a person of color.”
Within a few years at CMU, Bugbee said Black History Month became a treatise on the struggle against inequality. It is a story of perseverance and a road map for the challenges ahead.
Both he and Williams credit their education at CMU as the catalyst that called them to become modern activists. Jon Arlt, a white CMU professor of sociology, said he isn’t surprised.
“I think most people have an attitude about Black History Month that can be described as somewhat removed,” said Arlt, who is also a faculty mentor for CM Action.
When he teaches classes on how society perceives history, and particularly black history in February, Arlt said it’s easy to pick out those who care and those who may not. He attributes that split to a fundamental misunderstanding of Black History Month and the civil rights movement as a whole.
“The people who care about the issues Black History Month speaks to, they’re already busy working on those issues,” he said. “They’re thinking about these issues. There is, however, a consistent notion that Black History Month is this calm and gentle thing.”
Think of the way society perceives Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. versus someone like Malcolm X, Arlt said. Malcolm X is still viewed by many black and white conservatives as a “dangerous radical,” whereas King is portrayed as “a saint.”
“It’s a misrepresentation of (King’s) legacy,” he said. “This is a man who motivated people to shut down entire cities. This is a man who moved people for political purposes. There’s a sense that because he’s on a stamp, or because he has a federal holiday, that he did this in a calm, serene way that settles the fears of white America.”
When Obama was elected eight years ago, Arlt said pundits pushed the idea that we were living in a post-racial society. Now, in 2017, with the old wounds of segregation and voter suppression being pried back open, Arlt said he believes celebrating Black History Month is all the more necessary.
“The narrative we’ve heard in the last decade is that because we had a black president, why do we need a Black History Month?” Arlt said. “The nature of history and the nature of learning is to prevent bad things from happening again. In this regard, Black History Month is important. The significance of our time is that it highlights how crucial this is to teach lessons on the struggle against oppression.”
Those lessons are not lost on Williams and Bugbee. Both activists cite Malcolm X, Black Power founder Stokely Carmichael and political prisoner Angela Davis as their leading influences.
Williams said the self-determination movements espoused by all three activists are more attractive to Black Lives Matter and the new student movement than King’s non-violence. Self-determination, in her eyes, continues to be the most effective way to advocate for civil rights.
“They were all about doing instead of saying,” she said. “It’s a tactic we need to get back to. We have to get out in these streets and make noise so people know that we’re around and we’re not going away.”
Wherever injustice and hate rears its ugly head, the new student movement is there to counter it with equal force. When Breitbart editor and noted supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak at the University of California – Berkeley, he was met with fierce opposition from student protesters.
By all accounts, the Black Lives Matter movement started as a Black Power-style force encouraging black people to become outraged over police killing large numbers of unarmed black men and women. With close to two years of activism under its belt, Williams said Black Lives Matter is making a shift in the way it thinks about itself and its allies.
The movement is adopting a strategy of aggressive non-violence — a mixture of King’s coalition building and Carmichael’s penchant for forging black unity. Bugbee said CM Action has the same idea.
“MLK did so much for the civil rights movement, but I don’t think we would have been able to make the strides we have without that militant sense of leadership,” he said. “After a while, peaceful protests only went so far. It’s easy to ignore a peaceful protest. I’m not advocating for violence, but sometimes you have to take a more aggressive approach.
“You have to be persistent.”
The moral argument for civil rights
Building bridges with disparate groups can help spread the student movement’s message to a wider audience — especially as some political actors have called for “Kent State” style crackdowns to reinforce order at otherwise peaceful protests.
With more people on your side, Bugbee said, the more effective you’ll be at achieving your goals.
“People are power,” he said. “Even if it’s not a protest or an organization, having thousands of people calling their representatives and senators is going to have an impact. It forces them to act.”
Creating coalitions is a key focus for CM Action and Black Lives Matter as both prepare to make stronger statements in the coming year. Both groups understand the need for white and other minority allies and don’t view the coalition model as watering down their message.
A major roadblock, however, is a sense that each activist group — white and non-white alike — has opposing views on things like women’s reproductive rights and liberty for members of the LGBTQ community. Much of that opposition can be found in the Christian church.
When faced with the reality that people other than African Americans now fight for civil rights, it’s easy to question whether the Southern preachers of old would have linked their arms with feminist protesters and gay rights activists.
At the Women’s March on Washington, Black Lives Matter rallied against pro-life, anti-gay protesters along with their feminist and LGBTQ counterparts. The question facing some activists is whether or not the Christian church, which spearheaded civil rights activism, has a place in the new activism.
A few progressive Christian civil rights groups believe the answer is yes; it just needs to adapt. An organization called Repairers of the Breach — which was co-founded by the Rev. Erica Williams, a Saginaw native — is focusing on framing civil rights as a moral imperative. Leaders of that movement host sermons and panel discussions called “Moral Mondays,” focusing on economic, environmental and social justice issues without the trappings of black versus white, or republican versus democrat.
Bugbee, who attends a Universalist Unitarian church, said religion still has a place in the new civil rights agenda.
“We have to try and change minds,” he said. “Everyone should take care of each other. You have to break it down to being human and rights everyone deserves to have. In general, I think you can be pro-woman and pro-life at the same time, even if there’s a muddy grey area there.”
It’s not just about having allies either — allies have to know their place and how to be respectful. With the advent of social media, black, feminist and gay movements are much more prone to being hijacked by overzealous social justice warriors, Bugbee said.
“It is a lot easier to put on the appearance that you’re an activist and share articles about the things you care about,” he said. “I think people are really quick to react to things. For example, at Standing Rock, even as a non-native person, it can be easy for me to get upset and go on this really long rant, but I don’t always think about what it’s like to be a Native American.”
The key is being respectful and listening before giving advice, Arlt said. An example: CM Action assisted the Muslim Students Association with its protest against Trump’s immigration ban. The group helped organize the protest, strengthened MSA’s message, but stepped aside when the protest began.
“The core of CM Action is pushing the Gender and Sexuality Center,” Arlt said. “We didn’t ask for permission to get our petitions signed at the MSA rally because this was their day. It was their thing. It can’t be coopted. Standing Rock had to be led by native people. The gay rights movement had to be led by gay people.”
Building a framework for freedom
As Carolyn Dunn helps plan programming for Black History Month at CMU, she remains ever cognizant of the intersecting struggles of black activists and other groups on campus.
Dunn is the associate vice president for the Office of Institutional Diversity. She is also a Native American. Her race and her job both make her acutely aware of race relations in America and the changing tide of civil rights activism.
“It’s a bit more difficult to get up in the morning,” Dunn said. “And I mean that in the sense that it’s always difficult for me to get up in the morning (and be positive), but at the same time there’s more uncertainty now. Before the election and during the campaign, the rhetoric got scary. I always knew as a person of color that the world was like this, but people wouldn’t always say it out loud.
“Now people have more of an opportunity to express an opinion of people based on their lived experiences.”
While CMU’s student activists learn from leaders of the past, Dunn is taking an active role in teaching the history of oppression in America through activities, speakers, and events on campus.
“In terms of programming, we are doing things that are based on our mission, which has always been about education and educating young people,” she said. “Institutions of higher learning have always been those places where being different and holding different views were expressed. You learn how to be a critical thinker, see opposing arguments, learn logic and see how logic dictates issues.”
Dunn believes those conversations are best conducted on college campuses. What concerns her now is how to have those conversations in a constructive way.
“Activism is about education,” she said. “That’s what activism is really all about. Teaching and learning. The non-violent movement — it teaches us to be activists, but it also teaches us how to be members of the community. That’s why we embrace that social justice methodology.”
For Williams, educating the masses about the mission of Black Lives Matter is crucial to its survival. The group, which has been labeled as “thugs” and “rioters” by some members of the media, must emphasize its focus on peace and inclusivity.
“Black Lives Matter isn’t just for black people,” she said. “It’s for brown people, Muslims, LGBTQ. Anyone who is a minority. That’s the same with other social activists. It’s not about your race and your gender, it’s about including anyone that’s going through what you’re going through.”
It’s not just about the protests either. Williams, Bugbee, Arlt and Dunn all agree that political organizing and action can achieve what the Southern Poverty Law Center did for Civil Rights in the courts. CM Action was born out of the student movement to elect U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) in the democratic primaries.
Sanders won handily in Michigan because of student activism. Those minority and student groups that helped him win are using the same tactics.
“When all the marches are done, you have to find organizations to get involved in,” Bugbee said. “And if you’re not getting yourself involved, it can be difficult to make the necessary change that can happen when people get to work. If we can fix one thing, it can lead to fixing something else.”