UCC 'rose to the occasion' on affirmative action case
Written by Leandra Casson
September 2003


On April 1, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases challenging affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan: one involving the law school and the other the university's undergraduate program. At issue was whether the university's plan for ensuring a diverse student body justified making race a factor, among others, in admission decisions.

Not since 1978 had the high court ruled on affirmation action in college admissions, so recognizing the importance of this historic moment, the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries (JWM) underscored its support for affirmative action and devoted a staff person - me - to organize on the issue.

For starters, thanks to the support of JWM's racial justice ministry team, I traveled to the University of Michigan to attend a conference organized by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a group credited with having the foresight to mobilize the nation's high school and college students around a case that would impact them directly. BAMN spoke of building a new civil rights movement, but I preferred to say we were calling on new voices to join an existing movement.

For weeks, BAMN had been organizing pro-affirmative action voices in Michigan and beyond, including a number of students who legally intervened in the case. But now they were asking for help in organizing a march in Washington, D.C., that would apply political pressure and influence the decision. BAMN organizers spoke with the Rev. Knighton Stanley, senior pastor at People's Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., and in turn, he assembled the first meeting where BAMN was presented to the local community. His credibility greatly enhanced BAMN's ability to succeed.

On JWM's behalf, I joined the planning group for the march. At table were representatives from BAMN, the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Rainbow Push and many others - all poised to play an integral role in defense of affirmative action. The UCC rose to the occasion; we became a key player. In order to be effective at organizing, you cannot stay in the office. You must be among the people. So, once the strategy of mobilization was put into place, I contacted the Rev. Kwame Osei Reed, Potomac Association Minister for the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference, with hopes that he would help identify congregations willing to hear our message. He responded favorably, as did so many of our UCC churches, especially in the Potomac, Catoctin and Chesapeake Associations. I traveled almost ever weekend to preach and publicize the event.

UCC congregations invited us to visit their churches, and they offered money to the cause. Some even provided transportation to and from the march. For example, thanks largely to the Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Fellowship Chapel UCC in Detroit, that city brought seven bus loads of concerned citizens. Meanwhile, People's Congregational UCC became BAMN's make-shift Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Once the day arrived, I took my turn speaking to the crowd of 50,000 people gathered in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and at the Lincoln Memorial. I felt so proud of our contribution. With support coming from all settings of the church, the UCC's presence and involvement were significant.

John Payton, lead attorney for the University of Michigan, said later that the massive turnout on April 1 contributed greatly to the positive outcome of the case. As we now know, on June 23, the court released its decision in favor of the University of Michigan Law School. Race can still be used as a factor, among many, in the admissions process. Our collective efforts and prayers made a difference. When this part of history is written, let us not forget how the UCC, once again, influenced the course of civil rights. Neither our contributions, nor the power of protest, should be underestimated. We must continue to do justice, seek peace and build community!

Leandra Casson, who recently completed a year-long internship as associate for community outreach with Justice and Witness Ministries in Washington, D.C., is a member of Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga. As I See It is a column to help readers become better acquainted with UCC leaders.
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