Standing at the pulpit of McDaniel College's Baker Memorial Chapel, U.S. NAACP President Cornell William Brooks encouraged the audience to "stand, fight and, if need be, die for the right to vote."
Brooks initiated a passionate, poignant conversation entitled "Unless Black Lives Matter, All Lives Can't Matter" with more than 500 McDaniel College students, faculty and community members Monday evening.
"If our forbearers were willing to lay down their lives for the right to vote, why can't we do more with all that we have been given?" Brooks implored.
The event was organized by McDaniel College's Division of Student Affairs and Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion. According to director Jose Moreno, the program was planned after "quite a few incidents throughout the country involving police violence."
"We wanted to bring in a speaker to talk about this and to have a place where students can learn about this more and ask questions," Moreno said. "We want to just to give them a perspective on what's happening in our country right now and to give them a sense of empowerment that they can work through these issues."
Brooks, a Methodist minister, has served as the president and CEO of the NAACP since 2014. He travels the nation advocating for justice and change. He has spoken on behalf of the NAACP following high-profile incidents involving unarmed black men from Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and has actively embraced the Black Lives Matter movement within the evolving continuum of civil rights activism.
"We need a multigenerational civil rights movement," Brooks declared during his address. "We need student activists. … This is your civil rights movement, this is your time."
During a telephone interview Monday afternoon, Brooks discussed the role of students in the new civil rights movement.
"There's an unprecedented level of activism all around the country," Brooks said. "Students are taking up issues related to voting rights, policing, racial profiling and also environmental challenges like the water crisis in Flint [in Michigan]."
Brooks said he believes this generation of students is poised to lead the country.
"In the same way digital technology has revolutionized the way we communicate, this generation is poised to revolutionize what we communicate about," Brooks said.
Brooks used the example of millennials using their digital devices to photograph Brown's body. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer, on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson.
"They transported those images around the world and put the words Michael Brown on the lips of Barack Obama," Brooks said. "It's a testament to the technology and their ability to prioritize what we think about. They're able to organize at an entirely new level."
Brooks also talked about Baltimore City's police misconduct.
"In Baltimore, we had over 300,000 stopped and frisked under a policy that is both ineffective and discriminatory," Brooks said. "We found that 90 percent of stop-and-frisk incidents involved no guns, no drugs, and no reason for people to be stopped in the first place.
"Imagine GM or Ford making 100 cars, 90 of which are dysfunctional. That's not effective. We saw it with Freddie Gray, who was not guilty of any crimes; Michael Brown, who was at most guilty of jaywalking; and Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun."
Brooks said these issues are young people's issues.
"College and high school students have a critical role to play," Brooks said. "We need students to bring their energy and imagination to getting out the vote. Whether you love or like less the candidates at the top and bottom of the ballot, remember that your community and your interests are on the ballot. It's not about voting for the candidates, it's about voting for yourself, your community and your interests."
Brooks also discussed multigenerational voter suppression.
"There are states that don't honor high school and college IDs and politicians have moved polling places from college campuses to suppress the youth vote," Brooks said. "There have been nine cases in recent months upholding voter suppression. This is not imaginary. … These are real issues."
Brooks said today's students live in a diverse democracy.
"It's not an evenly diverse democracy, there are corners of our country that are less diverse than others," Brooks said. "Though the college may not be that diverse, the challenges the students take up are ultimately questions of diversity. The people they will work with in their careers will be more diverse than on their college campus.
"McDaniel is part of a university ecosystem and these students are part of a generation and movement that is diverse," he continued. "The careers they chose will have everything to do with the direction and trajectory of the nation."
Freshman Kavante Green said he attended the program because "it's definitely subject matter that needs to be talked about."
"It's a big deal for the president of the NAACP to be here," Green said.
Freshman Tamera Stanley said she came to hear Brooks' opinions on current issues.
"Police brutality and racism is still going on," Stanley said. "I want to hear his insights and how he feels about the situations around here."
Junior Tommy Schoolman described Brooks' speech as "really empowering."
"In Carroll County we tend not to bring up racial issues," Schoolman said.
Black Student Union president Dasia Barnett described Brooks as a "visible representation of what it means to be black and successful."
"I think it's important for McDaniel's campus to recognize that there are black lives here and they do matter," said Barnett, a senior.
McDaniel's Student Government Association president Alexaundria Leonard said Brooks' visit was important for both the McDaniel College and Carroll County communities.
"For me, as a black woman on campus, it's important that not only the McDaniel community but the Carroll County community understand the importance of black lives," said Leonard, a senior. "We live here for eight months out of the year and we want to make this environment more comfortable and responsive with black issues."
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