Today’s student activists: On fire against a gumbo of issues


Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement that targeted racism, is now in the sway of a nationwide wave of student activism that has so much in its bull’s-eye, some have termed it a “gumbo” movement.

And while observers see similarities in the demonstrations of then and now, students in the thick of things say there are differences to this new struggle that make it distinctly their own.

This new activism made its way to metro Atlanta a little more than a year ago. As America watched the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., students at Emory University, Morehouse College and Kennesaw State University seized the moment, joining the hundreds of people who converged on the streets of downtown Atlanta in protest after a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.

The student movement soon burgeoned, galvanized by a growing range of concerns — from Black Lives Matter and police brutality, to sexual assault and sexual orientation, to academic freedom and cultural diversity.

“It is … this gumbo of issues,” said Scott Schneider, head of the Higher Education Practice Group for Atlanta-based law firm Fisher & Phillips.

Students at seven local schools ultimately banded together as a coalition to bring equality and justice to their respective campuses and the city. Several of the schools also became part of TheDemands.org, whose website features a list of national and campus-level demands from 76 universities across the country, including Atlanta University Center Consortium, Kennesaw State, Emory and Georgia Southern.

Schneider, 43, said students today respond more to social activism than he and his college contemporaries did.

“When I went to college, my concern was singular — get out of college and get a job,” Schneider said. “This generation is growing up in the shadow of the Great Recession, and with a president who had his start in community activism.”

Yet, interestingly, that same president has expressed his own concerns about this new brand of student protest.

IT’S NOBODY’S ‘BABY’

In the 1950s and ’60s, Atlanta was the epicenter of the civil rights movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group headed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was based in Atlanta. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the student shock troops of the civil rights movement, operated out of Atlanta.

So it seems natural to many in metro Atlanta to draw comparisons between the present-day protests and those of decades past. But there are important distinctions, students say.

“A lot of times people talk about the Black Lives Matter movement as if it is a baby of the civil rights movement,” said Avery Jackson, a Morehouse College junior and student organizer. “I like to see it as a reviving of this need for justice and equality for groups of people.”

In the 1960s, organizing and informing students was likely a function of underground newspapers. Today, a protest is just a tweet away, and social media is used to keep college students connected and engaged during school breaks.

Student leaders of the 1960s sought out dangerous public spaces as part of their strategy. Their goal was to highlight the brutality of Southern racism by attracting the attention of the national media. Many were prepared to pay with their lives, and some did, such as the three civil rights workers in Mississippi who were murdered in 1964.

But today, a video posted on social media can bring immediate national attention to an injustice, real or perceived. For the most part, these student activists are not courting violence, nor are they offering up an individual leader as the face of their movement. Their strategy is to protect and sustain themselves while still bringing about change.

‘A SPACE FOR EVERYONE’ 

Talk on campuses today frequently includes the term “safe spaces.” For some students, that means being shielded from opinions they disagree with or ideas that challenge their worldview. For other students, including some black students on majority white campuses, feeling safe means not feeling isolated or ignored.

For black male students on black male campuses like Morehouse, it could mean not feeling that you are targeted because of your sexual orientation.

Student activists in the ’60s fought against bad laws and an unjust war. Today’s students are just as outraged by what they define as bad ideas.

“This movement is big on safety and inequality,” said Jackson, the Morehouse student. “It is less about physical organizing and more about innovative ways to provide intellectual critiques of our systems. It is a space for everyone, and that is what college activism is starting to do — find a space for everyone.”

Yet there are questions about how safe a college campus should be.

Professor Mark Naison of Fordham University in New York, who supports Black Lives Matter protests at his own and other universities, said, “I don’t think universities should be safe spaces when it comes to new ideas.”

Naison said if people are afraid of offending others in a political argument, then something precious is lost at the university.

OBAMA’S CONCERNS 

President Barack Obama, in a recent interview with National Public Radio, had this to say about the upswing in campus protests: “Feel free to disagree with somebody, but don’t try to just shut them up.”

Students at Kennesaw State University, however, have very specific grievances against one professor whom they mention by name in their list of demands. They’ve asked that the school create a clear protocol for students to complain about him and any other individuals who offend.

The school response to this and other demands was initially inadequate, said Devyn Springer, 20, a junior majoring in African diaspora and communications.

School officials have since said they will issue an anti-racist open letter on Jan. 11.

This comes just months after the university made changes to its advising department in response to a viral video of counselor Abby Dawson threatening to call security on a student. After meeting with students, the university pledged to centralize academic advising, make new hires and implement diversity training.

BIG ACT TO FOLLOW

While student activists of the 1960s dealt with overt racism, today’s students have the trickier task of dealing with issues such as mass incarceration, racial profiling and racial bias in police shootings.

There is a new vocabulary for discussing these more subtle forms of racism, including the term “micro-aggressions,” meaning seemingly harmless words or actions that hurt nonetheless.

Black students at Emory asked the university to take action in monitoring “Yik-Yak,” a social media app that they say has become “a hub for attacking students of color.” The students say they “experience micro- and macro-aggressions” daily on campus.

In January, black students at Emory are scheduled to meet with administrators during a retreat at which they aim to discuss plans of action for each of their 13 demands, as well as set a timeline for the actions to be executed, said Casidy Campbell, 21, a senior majoring in African-American studies and sociology.

“This is a conversation between us and the administrators, who can change the academic and social climate at Emory,” Campbell said. “What we are asking for is not just for us, but to make a better Emory.”

What this new wave of student activism will yield in the future is uncertain, as is Atlanta’s place in it. They have a big act to follow. Student activists from the 1960s changed the nation, helped to end an unpopular war, and groomed future political leaders.

At campuses across the metro area, 2016 could bring a host of changes or more protests from this new crop of student activists as they prepare to deliver consequences of any unmet demands.


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