Trayvon Martin: Leading Black Colleges Back to Their Roots

Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed on February 26. People across the country have rallied to support this young man’s family and call for the apprehension of his killer, George Zimmerman. People from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds have marched together, signed petitions, donned hoodies, and expressed their hurt, outrage, and dismay over this young man’s death. Anyone with a heart can understand the utter pain felt by Trayvon’s parents. To lose a child is perhaps the most devastating thing that can happen in one’s life.

On the campuses of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) students are rallying for justice as well. Across the country, students and, in many cases the presidents at HBCU’s, are gathering together to bring attention to Trayvon Martin as well as all of the other black boys and men who are killed in the United States each year. Trayvon, who was gunned down because his killer thought he looked suspicious, is symbolic of the prejudice and hatred that continues to exist against black men in America. This prejudice takes away the chances and lives of these young men.

HBCU’s have a long history of protest and civil disobedience. HBCU students were active and central to the civil-rights movement. They registered African Americans to vote, marched against violent white racism, integrated lunch counters and movie theatres, and endured beatings and ridicule in the name of justice. These young people were brave in the face of racism. With the death of Trayvon Martin, we again see this bravery in the actions of HBCU students.

At Paul Quinn College, in Dallas, students held a rally on campus with the full support of their president Michael Sorrell. Although the students were both sad and angry, local leaders and the institution’s president called for peace with one speaker urging students to follow the lead of Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of reacting with prejudice and hate, students were advised to foster understanding.

At Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, students led a demonstration focused on stereotypes and how they led to the death of Trayvon Martin. The students don’t see this case as isolated and want to raise awareness so that these incidents don’t continue. Philander Smith College has a social-justice mission fostered by its president Walter Kimbrough. Unlike some institutions (including some HBCU’s) that shy away from controversial issues, the college and its leader have a reputation for speaking out and demonstrating bravery for others.

At Howard University, hundreds of students came together on campus to protest the lack of justice for Trayvon Martin, referring to his killing as a modern day lynching. They expressed outrage, noting that no matter how much education or wealth, black men in America are looked upon as suspicious. They saw the young boy as one of their own, proclaiming that it could have been one of them who was shot.

At Dillard University, students also held a protest, noting that Trayvon Martin was guilty of nothing more than looking suspicious. These students not only want justice for the family of Martin, but they also aimed to draw attention to the role of racism and prejudice in Martin’s death.

Across the nation, young African Americans are coming together at the nation’s HBCU’s to call for justice much like their ancestors did several decades ago. They are speaking out and calling for change—both in their own communities and in the United States overall. In many ways, they are bringing the HBCU approach to learning, which is rooted in social justice, alive. Rather than see young black boys as suspicious or dangerous, they are urging all of us to see these boys as human and to honor their humanity and potential in the world.

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