Lots of folks at the Supreme Court yesterday, with lots to say about who gets into the University of Michigan.
Let's see, there was labor and the LaRouche cluster. The NAACP, Jesse Jackson and the ever-well-coiffed Reverend Al. Michigan's black alumni, and, yes, the Angry White Guys for Affirmative Action. But amid the hodgepodge, one group stood out as especially curious: students from historically black colleges. They were loud and forceful -- even though, if one calculus is correct, they could win a lot even if Michigan loses.
The math goes something like this:
First, there was the announcement this past January -- on Martin Luther King's birthday, no less -- that President Bush was supporting the legal challenge to admission policies at Michigan.
Then, the statement issued days later that the White House would be increasing funding to historically black colleges by 5 percent.
To some, the two statements combined added up to one thing: "It was his 'go back to Africa' statement," said Daarel Burnette, a 19-year-old Hampton University freshman.
Yesterday, Burnette and thousands of other students from historically black universities assembled to issue a reply. They dubbed it "Black Tuesday: A March in Support of Affirmative Action."
Many rode chartered buses across the country to reach the event. On Monday night, thousands marched from a pep rally and poetry slam on Howard University's campus to the steps of the Supreme Court. Residents of the Shaw neighborhood flung their doors open to get a better look. Drivers egged them on with blaring horns.
The students crooned hip-hop hits remade into rally cries. Mooove, Bush! Get out the way! Get out the way! They belted out -- in pristine harmony -- old spirituals and James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."
When the throng passed the Capital Grille, filled with silver-haired white male diners looking out, one student planted a "By Any Means Necessary" affirmative action placard on the window.
"It's just so inspiring to see all those people in the streets," said Burnette, who had traveled by bus with 100 other students from Hampton's campus in southern Virginia.
"They might not even be affected by affirmative action, but this impacted their lives, just like it's impacting ours."
The rally comes as many black colleges continue to struggle to find their relevance post-integration. Some are imperiled financially and others are struggling with their own calls to desegregate. But what brought the participants here was a white student's court challenge of the University of Michigan's policy of awarding 20 points on a 150-point admissions scale to minority applicants for their race. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case yesterday.
And though they were pressing a cause for diversity at mainstream universities, some "Black Tuesday" participants also seemed to be saying that they're liking life "back in Africa" just fine.
Saginaw, Mich., native JoVion Greer wouldn't have it any other way. At the moment, he's standing across from the Supreme Court steps as the justices hear arguments on the Michigan case, leading a group of about a dozen of his fellow Florida A&M University students in a chant.
We are FAMU!
And we SUPPORT!
Greer had traveled with 50 other Florida A&M students on a bus for 17 hours to get to Washington, then marched for three hours. He believes "there shouldn't be a black student from Michigan sitting at home today."
As his high school's class salutatorian, Greer says he was qualified to go to the University of Michigan. But, dismissing the Michigan campus's minority enrollment as "a shame," the 19-year-old freshman says that "it never appealed to me."
Still, affirmative action could come into play when Greer, as he intends, goes to a majority-white school for graduate work.
Also chanting in the crowd is Kim Black, 19, a freshman agricultural engineering major at Florida A&M. She turned down offers to attend several majority-white schools in her native Texas but sees no contradiction in fighting to preserve the right to that choice for anyone else.
"As African Americans, any kind of education should be preserved at all costs," Black says.
Close to midnight on the Monday evening before the rally, Howard University freshman Lenora Robinson, 18, stood on the court steps wrapped in blankets, prepared to camp out until the next morning's oral arguments.
Although she had never had any desire to help integrate a white college campus, she says staying home now would have been "an act of ungratefulness" to the civil rights generation's sacrifices to create affirmative action.
"It's not just about going to college," Robinson says. "It's the real world. It's people looking for jobs. It's affirmative action as a whole."
Nodding in agreement is Stephanie Hall, an 18-year-old Howard freshman. "I just feel like our ancestors fought for this. We can't just let it fall down the drain," she says. Hall says she picked Howard over state schools in her native California because she wanted to get the black experience.
"I think that's what I'm getting by walking out here right now," Hall adds.
Others came to the rally in search of a future racial harmony they find somewhat elusive now. "I'm here for my children, to make sure they have all the opportunities," says Crystal Wright, 19, a freshman psychology major at Howard.
Keneshia Grant, 19, a sophomore political science major at Florida A&M, never applied to any majority-white schools. Whatever the justices decide, she says, it's crucial now more than ever for black schools to be vocal in helping shape the college admissions debate.
"The role of historically black universities has been important because we didn't have anywhere else to go," Grant said.
If Michigan loses, Grant says, "it will go back to that."