With the White House in their shadow, black students from across the country gathered yesterday to demand that the government make education its highest priority and that it be vigilant in exposing and condemning racism.
It was a serious, spirited six-hour rally that began outside the U.S. Department of Education, proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue and culminated with dozens of speakers and musical performances in Lafayette Square.
About 1,000 people, most of them students, participated in the event, which was the start of a weeklong series of seminars and protests to address racism, drugs, cuts in financial aid to minorities at U.S. universities, and other campus issues.
"Something is wrong with America's heart," David Miller, a student leader at North Carolina A&T State University, told the crowd to start the rally. His remarks set the tone for what fast became hours of angry speeches against the government.
Students and activists often denounced U.S. political leaders, chiefly President Bush, saying they have shown scant interest in fighting racism, giving economic muscle to poor neighborhoods or helping black students who seek but can't afford college educations.
"It's about time we decided to start taking control of our future," said Chris Scott, a junior studying chemistry at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "The country needs to concentrate so much more on education. They're spending billions saving the S & Ls, billions building prisons all over. We wouldn't need to build so many prisons if schools were better."
Many students said they felt there was little equity in the United States for blacks and argued that racism is alive and growing. Last year's student riots in Virginia Beach, many said, first provoked their alarm over race relations.
"That woke us up," said Miller. "This is our chance to stand up. It's only the beginning."
Among the speakers were U.S. Reps. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.), Jesse L. Jackson, former Black Panther Bobby Seale, representatives of the Nation of Islam, students who led protests at Howard University last year, and members of the rap group Public Enemy. One of them, Harry Allen, described black life in America as a "400-year mugging."
Yesterday's rally came amid signs that race relations on many college campuses have deteriorated. The event also reflected what many educators say is a reemergence of black cultural awareness.
Many in the crowd were clad in the black, green and red colors of the black power movement. Others wore shirts that paid tribute to Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela or bore slogans such as "Most of My Heroes Don't Appear on Stamps," "It's a Black Thing," and "Fight The Power."
Rally organizers had expected about 5,000 students but said they were not disappointed with the much lower turnout.
"We're satisfied," said Ural Hill, chairman of the Collegiate Black Caucus. "What's important is what people are saying. This is a group with commitment and courage."
One of the most riveting moments of the day came when Seale recounted how he had fought for black empowerment. He spoke of Huey Newton, another Black Panther, who was slain last year. Then he pledged to assist the students in strategy, with "bail money," and even "when you need some guns."