In February 2012, I was teaching African American history at the same college George Zimmerman attended in Sanford, Fla. The day I was introducing my students to Emmett Till, the 911 tapes of Trayvon Martin were released. My students, most of whom were African American, began to cry. They said, "Professor, they killed Emmett Till, Malcolm X, Dr. King, and those four little girls in Birmingham. They still follow us, harass us, and are still killing us because of our race. Will it ever stop?" I responded, "Only when you make it stop."
Not long after, I received a call to meet with Phillip Agnew, a young activist from Miami who was attempting to start up a new organization in response to Trayvon Martin's murder. When we met, Mr. Agnew asked for my advice as someone who was an activist and now a professor of African American history. I told him simply to learn from the past; learn from those who were successful before him like SNCC, SDS, and the NAACP.
In April, about 60 students from across the state, now known as the Dream Defenders, marched for three days from Daytona Beach to Sanford, Fla. While this act alone was significant, I had told Mr. Agnew that the most critical piece of starting a movement would be what happens when all of the speakers and media had left Sanford and no one was wearing the Trayvon Martin T-shirts. What will happen when justice for Trayvon is no longer the cause of the day? Commitment was one of the key reasons for the success of the civil rights movement. A few months after Emmett Till was murdered, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days. I asked, "Will these students be willing to do the same?"
As of today, the answer appears to be yes. However, the Dream Defenders have not only shown their commitment to the cause, but a willingness to learn from history. For starters, they are not leaderless. While Mr. Agnew is the executive director and public face of the Dream Defenders, the group also has legal, field, political, and communication directors. Moreover, these activists have continued to mature and work with veteran civil rights leaders such as Julian Bond and the NAACP.
The Dream Defenders also have clearly stated goals and demands. They are not simply throwing out slogans or abstract ideas. The group continues to fight for the end of racial profiling and a repeal of "Stand Your Ground," through the passage of "Trayvon's Law."
Most importantly, the Dream Defenders are not "armchair activists." From their first action, they refused to accept the notion that the only form of effective activism is to sign an online petition, tweet your anger, or rant on Facebook. Like SNCC activists in the early 1960s, the Dream Defenders risked their academic futures, arrest, and personal safety by sitting in Florida Governor Rick Scott's office for 31 days demanding the legislature hold hearings on the "Stand Your Ground" law, which they won. Now, the Dream Defenders, along with the NAACP, have taken their fight to the United Nations, asking whether "Stand Your Ground" laws violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by denying, what Dream Defender Legal and Policy Director Ahmad Abuznaid described as "the most basic and fundamental right -- the right to life."
Last month, at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I met up with Phillip Agnew. We had not seen each other since our first meeting over a year ago. I expressed to him how proud I was of his work. "You did it. You are really making a difference," I said. He responded, "Thank you, Professor, but I haven't done anything yet. We are not finished." So often, the media describes this generation as self-absorbed, narcissistic, and incapable of accomplishing anything that will be of historical significance. I disagree, and would ask anyone who doubts this generation to meet the Dream Defenders.