The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is synonymous with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As a leader of mass movements, King was surpassed by few, and in high school textbooks he is treated as the personification of the civil-rights movement.
King and other movement leaders, however, made up only one strand of the 1960s civil-rights struggle. Grassroots organizers—many now forgotten—helping African Americans in the South register to vote even as King spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial, made up the other. The spirit of those people and the groups they belonged to, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), can be found today in the dozens of grassroots groups across the country, that work to protect voting rights or expand access to a quality public education.
Phillip Agnew, the 28-year-old executive director of the Florida civil-rights group the Dream Defenders, is, at the moment, probably the most well-known leader of any of these grassroots groups, which means that he still is not all that well-known. Tapped by the Service Employees International Union to be a paid organizer, Agnew is best known for helping lead a month-long sit-in at the Florida state capitol building after George Zimmerman was found not guilty for the murder of Trayvon Martin last July. The Tallahassee occupiers wanted the legislature to convene a special session to repeal the state’s stand your ground law. They did not achieve that goal, but the Dream Defenders got plenty of media exposure—Agnew appeared on the MSNBC show, “Up with Chris Hayes” several times—and were even invited to speak at a rally commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this past Saturday.
On the ride up to Washington, D.C. with his fellow Dream Defenders last week, it was easy to tell, even over the phone, that Phillip Agnew was his usual calm, charismatic self, even as he weighs the details of the group’s new plan to register 61,550 new voters in the coming year—the margin by which Rick Scott, Florida’s Republican governor, won his last election. I asked him about the Dream Defenders, his thoughts on the group’s place in the history of American grassroots organizing, and himself.
How was Dream Defenders formed?
I’m a native of Chicago, grew up in Chicago, and went to Florida A&M University (FAMU). While I was there, I had the opportunity to join up with some brothers and sisters from FAMU, Florida State, and TCC (Tallahassee Community College) around Martin Lee Anderson.
Martin Lee Anderson was a 14-year-old boy who was killed in a boot camp [a military-style program for juvenile offenders, part of the state’s “tough love” system of punishment] in Panama City, Florida; he was killed by a guard. With students from all over the city of Tallahassee—and we had some great organizers and students from all three universities—there was a sit-in on the governor’s office. It was that experience—seeing the boot camps in Florida close, and seeing the top cop fired—that experience really transformed what I felt we could do and what people could do, and what we all thought we could do if we’re united under a shared vision and a shared purpose.
How are the Dream Defenders organized and what are are the problems you’re working on?
What we are now is eight college chapters around the state. We’ve operated by building and organizing young people and students, mostly black and brown young people, around issues that we felt created the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but that also affect millions of young people in the state of Florida. That includes the issues we brought forth during the sit-in: the school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling, anti-immigrant efforts, and it all leads to the private prison menace in our state. The issues are all around the criminalization of young people.
Why those issues?
Those are the issues we face; it wasn’t really a hard decision. If you go to any poor black or brown community, those are the issues they’re dealing with—large numbers of students and young people being taken out of school and thrown into jail, police officers using a dragnet over communities to profile people based on race or attire or how they look, and immigration—as you see around the state of Florida and around the country, immigration is the debate. Those issues weren’t hard to find.
How about your personal life—when did you get involved with organizing, with civil rights?
It was all around learning about organizing through the Martin Lee Anderson campaign. I didn’t have a long history or a wealth of experience with organizing at all before that, and even now I’m learning a lot more about what it takes, but that was really my first time engaging all the way in college.
It wasn’t until another tragedy—Trayvon Martin [Agnew helped lead a 40-mile march from Daytona Beach to Sanford to criticize the Sanford police department for not arresting George Zimmerman after Martin’s death]—that I was able to really get back into it, and I’m still learning—like I said—from Gabe [Pendas, who co-founded the Dream Defenders], from our students, from the experience. We’re making mistakes every day, so we’re on a journey right now, and luckily there are some young people around the state who are way smarter than I was when I was in college or any of us were when we were in college, so they’re able to pick up things and bring their innovations, too.
But for me it’s been a really winding path to get to where we are now.
You held leadership positions in college. Was that totally new to you?
Let me tell the story about that. In high school, I was the consummate underperformer. My teachers would always say, ‘You’ve got great potential,’ but I felt like I never really threw myself into high school. So I made a decision when I went to FAMU. I remember telling my mom, ‘I want to really get involved.’ My mom always wanted me to speak at graduation. At high school, that only happens if you’re valedictorian or salutatorian, and I was neither—I was nowhere near that! So I told my mom, ‘I want to really be involved, I want to really just throw myself in.’
When I talked to people that I met when I first got [to FAMU], they all told me that student government was the way to do that, so I just threw myself in. I didn’t have any experience, but I ran for class president and—and I really don’t know how I won that.
When I became student body vice president is when I first got involved in seeing how big being a leader is and how much work it is and managing people, so I learned there.
I’ve seen some people compare the Dream Defenders and SNCC. What similarities and differences do you see between you and SNCC?
SNCC was started by students and began as a nucleus of college students who were trained to go into neighborhoods and go into communities, live on the wages of the people they worked with and build an intimate leadership from that; they coordinated actions and really moved into the community. That’s what we hope to be, but that’s not what we are now. When people do compare us to SNCC, it’s an honor, but I think it’s based on a lack of understanding of what SNCC really grew into and what they were able to do—we’re not there yet.
A few similarities that we do have: We’re college students, started by students and alumni; we have a desire to capture the imagination of young people and engage young people in the process of building power and being a part of their democracy and being a part of the decisions that are made for them. But, man—SNCC is the blueprint. No one in our organization should be foolish enough to say we’re there yet, but I will tell you that we’re confident in what we’re building, and we hope to be as effective as they were and leave a legacy like they did.
Who are some of the leaders of the 1960s civil-rights movement who inspire you?
If you look at the nonviolent movement, spearheaded and led by Dr. King—we take many cues from the movement that he led, the principles of nonviolence that he professed and that he lived by. The college students who sat-in in Greensboro and Tallahassee and cities around the country—we look to them for their bravery because they knew they were going into places where they would get burned with cigarettes, or spit on, or kicked. You can look to individuals like Malcolm X, who gained a level of knowledge and had a level of oration that could move people to togetherness, and taught pride to people who had no pride. You can look to Ella Baker, who sat behind the scenes and built up people and built up organizations and built a movement without wanting credit. People like Bayard Rustin—who no one began talking about until a few years ago unless you knew the intimate details of the March on Washington—who worked tirelessly and was openly gay in an era when that was unsaid, unspoken about.
With all the national attention you’re receiving—appearing on Chris Hayes, meeting Harry Belafonte—it’s probably hard not to think about the Dream Defenders’ place in the history of the American civil-rights movement—when you actually have the time to do that kind of reflecting. Would you say that’s true?
These past days since the [Zimmerman] verdict happened are moving really fast. We left the capitol one week ago and now we’re on the road, up to D.C., and not just to meet people: we’re going to the March on Washington, the 50th anniversary, so it has been hard to reflect, but it’s something that’s always on our mind. This is not a part-time job for any of us. We have people who quit their jobs. I quit my job. It’s really all we think about, even when we’re having fun—and we do enjoy each other’s company—even when we’re chilling, even when we’re talking, this is a subject of conversation.