The steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building were a magnet for hundreds of college and high school students who turned out on a cold and windy Monday to show their support for affirmative action and Brown v. Board of Education, which they believe will be damaged if the court strikes down two voluntary plans used to promote racial diversity in the Jefferson County, Ky., and Seattle schools.
The rally began hours before the court was to hear the cases, in which parents challenged school policies that assigned students to schools using, in part, a formula to maintain racial balance.
The T-shirts worn by Anita Wadhwa and Shannon Garth-Rhodes, both students at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, expressed the message that most demonstrators at the court today promoted. Listed on the back of the T-shirts was a timeline of key Supreme Court cases concerning race, including Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which upheld the creation of “separate but equal” public accommodations for blacks and whites; Brown, which struck down that doctrine in 1954 in overturning segregated systems of public education; Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 case in which the Supreme Court upheld the use of race as a factor in the admissions policy of the University of Michigan law school; and the two current cases, which are just as important, the demonstrators believe.
Ms. Wadhwa, 29, who is taking a class on civil rights at Harvard, said she was surprised and angered that she hadn’t heard about the cases before taking the class. She and others were part of a group of about 50 students from Boston-area universities who drove from New England to participate in the rally, which started at the court building and ended at the Lincoln Memorial.
In reference to the message on the T-shirts, Ms. Wadhwa said, “It’s important to notice that this is an issue that has established a trend.”
Ms. Garth-Rhodes, 23, said that the student-assignment policies adopted in Seattle and Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, are needed to ensure that students are exposed to diversity in their classes. “I don’t understand why people coexisting in schools is such a controversial issue,” she said. “Integration doesn’t harm anybody, but segregation does.”
Alecia Barrett, a 22-year-old senior from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, left her campus at 10 p.m. Sunday to drive here for the Dec. 4 rally. She heard about the event last week, and decided a few days later that she wanted to participate.
“I don’t want us to go back another 40 years,” said Ms. Barrett, who is majoring in social work and psychology. “I think it’s a positive to have racially balanced schools. You learn a lot from other races.”
But Teddy B. Gordon, the lawyer representing a parent who is challenging the student-assignment policy in Jefferson County, disputed the argument that his client’s case erodes integration efforts.
“This is not about black and white, it’s about individual rights,” Mr. Gordon said outside the court building after presenting his arguments in the case. He is representing Crystal Meredith, who says her son was denied a placement in his neighborhood school because he is white. “It’s time to get rid of the box” in which applicants have to indicate their race, he said, “and treat all people, and all children, equally.”
‘Best Way to Educate’
But the vast majority of the people who gathered for the occasion appeared to be supporters of race-conscious policies.
Jeremy Burkett and Kyle Coleman, both 18-year-old college freshmen who grew up together in St. Louis, attended the rally. “Integration is something we fought for, for far too long,” said Mr. Burkett, a broadcast-journalism major at Howard University in Washington. “They’re chipping away at the things our ancestors fought for.”
Mr. Coleman, one of 21 students who drove down from Syracuse University in upstate New York, said that affirmative action and integration policies are still necessary. “The playing field is still not even at all,” said Mr. Coleman, a sociology major.
After pressure from students, East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., decided to allow the rally to be a university-excused absence, said Nadi Bishop, a 25-year-old graduate student in English. With the blessing of her graduate adviser, she left the campus at 2:30 a.m. Monday to drive to Washington for the rally, with the promise that she would be back on campus Tuesday to defend her thesis.
“I can only imagine how less enriched my life would be if I hadn’t met people different from myself in schools,” said Ms. Bishop. “That kind of diversity is the best way to educate kids.”
Harold White, the parent of a freshman at the 2,100-student Cass Technical High School in Detroit, said he also wanted to use the rally itself as a way to educate both his son and seven busloads of students who came from the city.
“It’s important for the kids to understand the struggle isn’t over,” he said. “It’s still continuing, just in a different form. Most of our kids here have opportunities that we didn’t have in our day and age, but the racial discrimination has not changed.”
Fatima Sou, a 14-year-old freshman at Cass Technical High, rode in a car for 12 hours to attend the rally “because I believe we should have desegregation,” she said. “If they take this away from us, it’s going to affect our future and our children’s’ future.”