On the (activist) road

My reason for believing in extremism, intelligently directed extremism, extremism in defense of liberty, is because I firmly believe in my heart that the day the black man takes an uncompromising step and realizes that he’s within his rights — when his own freedom is being jeopardized — to use any means necessary to bring about his freedom or put a halt to that injustice, I don’t think he’ll be by himself.
—Malcolm X

You can’t know what was going through the mind of Malcolm X when he said that at an Oxford Union Society debate in December 1964. But it’s a safe bet that Malcolm, who preached a sort of separatism throughout most of his political career, never imagined a bright, white college kid latching onto his words and heralding them as his battle cry as he and a multiracial carload of friends traveled cross-country on an organizing mission some 37 years later. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened.

University of Michigan sophomore Ben Royal and three of his friends and fellow members of BAMN — the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary — have just returned from 10 days of trailblazing in the Northeast. In a scene reminiscent of the organizing that laid the groundwork for the 1960s sit-ins of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Royal and pals joined rallying students at Pennsylvania State University, occupying the student center in the wake of death threats levied against members of the school’s Black Caucus. Then they headed on to Harvard where students had erected a tent city in a sign of solidarity with underpaid janitors. From there the group passed through several other schools in Massachusetts before heading south to New York and NYU, discussing all the while the state and prospects of campus activism.

All in all, this modern-day freedom ride lasted 10 days and drew the attention of no less than the New York Times, the nation’s paper of record, before Royal’s 2001 Toyota Corolla returned to Michigan. But the journey is far from over.

Next month BAMN — a loose network of organizations at campuses around the country — plans to host students from across the country at its National Student/Youth Conference on U-M’s campus in Ann Arbor. Royal hopes the three-day conference will act as the official kickoff of a new civil rights movement. He said the conference is something that the Rev. Jesse Jackson urged during a campus visit in support of the university’s affirmative action policies.

“Basically what we’re doing on a daily basis is trying to get the word out,” he says. “We’re trying to get people organized nationally to defend affirmative action and the gains of the civil rights movement.”

Those gains, says Royal, are the advantage BAMN has over its SNCC predecessors. Gone are the days of “Jim Crow and the old ‘separate but equal’ lie,” he says. “That’s what makes the organizing somewhat easier. The key difference now is that we have those gains and we’re saying we won’t go back. We want to expand where the movement left off.”

Royal has known this was his calling since his first year at U-M.

“The issue of affirmative action was a very prominent question on campus,” he says. “There was a point at which I guess that I had, because of [BAMN’s] organizing, I had read enough or heard enough to actually think that this was something important enough to fight for, that it was important enough to make my mark on history.”

Lofty ideals, indeed, for a 19-year-old Detroiter who hasn’t declared a major and who doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. Yet for all his naïveté, Royal may be on to something. More than 150 students have already registered for the conference, and Jackson is scheduled to address participants at the opening rally.

But how kindly will the rest of Jackson’s generation take to BAMN’s laying the blame for these attacks on affirmative action firmly at their feet? Royal says that had the movement not gotten lazy, these losses — at U-M, in California with Proposition 209 and, of course, Jeb Bush’s “One Florida” plan — would have never occurred.

“The biggest threat that allowed sort of the national tactic to start was that there was no movement,” he says. “What we’ve been saying is that the only way to defend the gains of the civil rights movement is to start a new civil rights movement, an integrated, mass, militant civil rights movement.”

And don’t forget electronic. One other advantage BAMN has over SNCC is technology, the advent of cell phones, e-mail and two-way pagers.

“They facilitate organizing on a national basis a lot,” Royal admits.

Royal also says they’ll come in handy if BAMN moves forward with plans to call for a march on Washington, an issue on the agenda for next month’s conference.

“This is going to be a long struggle,” he says. “Like any movement it takes time to build in strength, working long hours and pushing hard. Things don’t generally happen overnight.”

But what about graduation? It’s only two years away for Royal. How many more years can he spare to be the poster boy for this bold new movement?

“As long as it takes,” he says confidently. “The question of equality, for me, does not have a time limit or a time frame. It’s something that must be fought for and must be defended.”

BAMN’s National Student/Youth Conference is scheduled for June 1-3. For more information, visit www.bamn.com.

Jason Michael is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]