Affirmative action march in Mich.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Despite freezing temperatures, hundreds of youth, students, community and union members marched here to defend affirmative action on Jan. 20 in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, has become the focus of sharp debate over affirmative action and the struggle for equality for people of color in America.

About 800 people took to the streets to protest George W. Bush’s intervention in the lawsuit brought against U-M to overturn its affirmative action policies. Bush has urged the court to outlaw the university’s policy of awarding a few points to applicants because of their race.

One Ann Arbor-area high school student told the World that “Bush’s policy is scary.” Many activists are questioning Bush’s stand, especially after the “Trent Lott incident.”

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow (D) expressed her support for the U-M affirmative action policies. Referring to the Bush administration, Stabenow said, “there are a lot of voices in Washington trying to move us backwards.” Affirmative action really means “all kinds of diversity.” It means “bringing everybody together and giving everybody a chance,” she said.

The senator also urged opposition to right-wing judicial nominees promised by the Bush administration.

Detroit NAACP President Wendell Anthony revved the crowd up with his challenge to defeat Bush’s intervention. “The policies of the president stink.” He urged students and community members to organize people to attend the March on Washington in early April when the Court plans to hear the case.

Anthony exposed the hypocrisy of Bush’s King holiday speech at a Washington D.C.-area church which urged “racial tolerance.” Bush’s speech was “like the devil in the church trying to get you saved,” he said.

Ron Richardson, executive vice-president of Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE) international union, said “Bush is following the Thurmond/Lott line.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sent a statement, which Richardson read to the rally. Sweeney said Bush’s decision to intervene “is outrageous and short-sighted.” It is “disingenuous, divisive and deeply troubling,” Sweeney said.

Bush is “pushing America backwards” by nominating judges with “abysmal records” on civil rights, women’s rights, and worker’s rights, the statement said.

Sweeney concluded that affirmative action “remains essential, if we are to win our longstanding fight for equality.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson urged the rally to build a strong movement to defend affirmative action, including a large presence in Washington in the spring, and keeping up the pressure on elected officials, judges and the Bush administration.

Jackson accused Bush of defending the privileges of wealth, while trying to role back the small advances that have come because of affirmative action.

Pointing to Bush’s own preferential treatment at Yale and Harvard, despite his unqualified status as a student, Jackson said, “Bush supports legacy points even for schools that receive federal grants, protecting the products of wealth, inheritance and access; but denies affirmative action for women and people of color. This hypocrisy is no different than the blatant segregationism of the Lotts and Thurmonds of Bush’s own party.”

The main theme of the march and rally, and the week of workshops and events is to build for a “new civil rights movement.”

The week of events organized by By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a local civil rights organization is a call for building a movement against segregation and a new version of Jim Crow.

Other groups involved included the North American Indian Student Organization, the Black Law Student Association, Asian Social Workers, Wolverine Student Bar Association, Graduate Employees Organization and Michigan Federation of Teachers.

Movement organizers gathered over 50,000 signatures in 2001 to present to the 6th Circuit Court, when the case went to federal appeals in Cincinnati.

Organizer Agnes Aleobua, a University of Michigan student and intervener on behalf of the University in the lawsuit, said, “we have an unelected president who will move us back, but we will not get back.”

The author can be reached at jwendland@politicalaffairs.net