On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, many students and staff from Andrews University joined together in Benton Harbor, Michigan for the Thousand Man March. The purpose of the March was to address issues of poverty, mass incarceration, fatherless homes, limited educational opportunities, and racial profiling in the Benton Harbor community, and to unite this community with Andrews University to affect change on these issues. Pastor Taurus Montgomery of Harbor of Hope Church in Benton Harbor organized the event. Though Benton Harbor is the official site for the corporate headquarters of Whirlpool Corporation, it is also a depressed city with a large concentration of impoverished African Americans, sharply contrasting with a large concentration of more affluent Caucasian citizens just across the river in Saint Joseph, Michigan. Despite its small size, Benton Harbor has one of the highest crime rates in America. As a diverse campus of higher education only 13 miles away, Andrews University has the opportunity to reach out to the city and support its community.
The Thousand Man March had a profound effect on the students who participated. Below, two students share their stories of marching on January 19, 2015.
It was a beautiful day for a march. Wall-to-wall sunshine accompanied us on the 13 mile bus journey to Benton Harbor’s City Center Park. I had high expectations for the attendance, and I hoped for a sense of togetherness between Andrews students and Benton Harbor community members. Less than two months earlier, Andrews University’s first official protest, The Injustice March, came out of a collective reaction to the results of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The campus Chaplains hosted a forum where students discussed the incident and what we as a community hoped to accomplish to create safer and more stable environments for youth like Michael Brown and ourselves. Students mobilized to reach out to the Berrien County Police Department, and prayed for officers around the nation. We went home with plans to peacefully boycott Black Friday (November 27, 2014) in order to raise awareness for the cause. Students returned from the Thanksgiving Break with resolve to finish the work they started. I hoped the Thousand Man March would cause a similar ripple effect.
I marched because I wanted to offer my support, skills, creativity, and passion to the cause. I want to be a foot soldier, just like the people who did the grassroots work for Dr. King’s initiatives, briefing the press, making signs and sandwiches, and organizing meetings. Movements for change are nothing without people coming together to identify and solve problems. Participating in a March brings similar-minded people into contact in order to do something constructive for a cause. It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to make connections and offer my resources. I was able to meet Benton Harbor city Commissioner Mary Alice Adams. We discussed tensions she sees between the youth of Benton Harbor and the youth of Andrews University. I also met an educator from Benton Harbor who recently moved back to give back. We decided that the best way to fight for the cause was first through prayer. We commenced the one-mile march, marching first to the Berrien County Jail to pray for the inmates and law enforcers, and then to the courthouse to hear an address of encouragement from Pastor Montgomery.
I believe the March was successful. We made an initial headcount of 168 and officially projected 200 attendees in all. A thousand men did not march, and the buses that transported Andrews University students were not full. Yet, if the purpose was to bring communities together to pray for and do something about our common cause, then we achieved our goal with flying colors. After the March, students, faculty and staff, and leaders from Benton Harbor met with Pastor Montgomery to debrief and plan more interaction between Andrews and Benton Harbor, including getting support and volunteers for several initiatives. These include a group called Greater Young Men, the purpose of which is to inspire, inform, and ignite. Male mentors from the group will meet weekly with students from the Benton Harbor High School. Pastor Montgomery also plans to start taking a team of volunteers into the community every Sabbath and to host a prayer rally on February 21, 2015. Plans also include another march, a Greater Young Men conference, and a group for young women called PEARLS.
Protests are not futile since there is always more work to do than walking a mile to the county jail or even (dare I say) watching director Ava DuVernay’s critically-acclaimed Selma, the biopic of Dr. King’s life. Those touched by the issues that the Thousand Man March addressed are to be encouraged to do their part as foot soldiers. The world needs people of all races, persuasions, and creeds to come together, uplift each other, and assure justice and fair treatment for all.
I was not going to march. A boatload of assignments, work, practice, and various rehearsals threatened to drown me. I wondered how my presence would be of any significance. How can this one event solve all of the atrocities and injustices happening every day due to racial prejudices? All morning I wrestled with hesitation and indecision. However, one persistent quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. kept resonating within me: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Civil rights activists like Dr. King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou and many others experienced moments of doubt, fatigue, and despair. Nonetheless, they continue to serve as inspirations today not because they resolved all of the world’s major issues, but because they decided to use their voices and their influence to fight for freedom and justice. Out of respect for their legacies, I and many others made the decision to march.
I marched side-by-side with Andrews University students, faculty and staff, as well as many people from the community we wanted to help. There were people of all backgrounds, races, and walks of life. As we marched, we sang hymns and chanted statements like, “Education is the key that will set our people free” and “Seek justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly before the Lord.” The act of marching evokes feelings of solidarity and unity you experience with everyone present. It is the realization that we are much stronger united than we are separate, and if all these people are passionate about justice, then just maybe we can change the world. And if not the world, at least Benton Harbor. And if not Benton Harbor, at least one boy or girl present that day will know hundreds of people marched to ensure they would have a brighter tomorrow. Maybe one person incarcerated in the county jail will know they have not been forgotten because the prayers of hundreds were sent to lift him/her up.
Marching is just one way to promote justice. The very same day, my cousin involved herself by making racially equitable curriculum for an educational setting. A close friend of mine spent her time on campus discussing her unique experience of being a mixed-race female. We may not all be able to march, but each one of us can make a difference in our own respective spheres of influence. Each of us has a unique voice and experience that can help another person realize a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
Photo Credit: Joshua Myers
Givan Hinds is a Senior studying History at Andrews University with a passion for helping to create stable environments for the underprivileged.
Jonathan Doram is a current student at Andrews University with a major in Music Education and minor in History who aspires to work with kids in inner-city environments.