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Scenes from the steps of the high court

WASHINGTON–While attorneys argued the legal issues before the justices inside the U.S. Supreme Court, thousands gathered outside the imposing structure to voice their support for diversity and affirmative action.
Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) talks to reporters on the steps of the Supreme Court. Kennedy said knocking down the walls of discrimination remains the unfinished business of America. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

It was a gray, cold and windy morning with rain threatening, but the widely diverse crowd was undeterred. People began to gather well before 8 a.m. with signs proclaiming their messages to the court and to the millions who would view the images transmitted by the dozens of cameras around them. People told their stories to reporters who roamed among them. One speaker after another reminded those gathered for the rally—sponsored by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary—why they were there, and why the day was so important for them and, they said, for every American.

Thousands of people responded to the speakers with cheers and chants, such as "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to segregate."

"The crowd was so diverse," says Michelle Lin, a senior in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a member of Students Supporting Affirmative Action. "There were, of course, mostly people of color, including many students from all over the nation, but there were also many white allies, the old, the young. It was empowering to see them there. I think they knew it was a kind of final moment, and that as a collective there could be an impression made by their presence," Lin said.

At one point, a small, white woman, slightly hunched and probably in her 90s, carried a beautiful polished wood walking stick bearing a sign reading "Don't Hate" as she slowly made her way through the crowd.

As the time approached for the start of a march to the Lincoln Memorial, coinciding with the start of the oral arguments at 10 a.m., some of the most prominent people at the event made speeches: Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Jesse Jackson spoke earlier.

Julio Perez was in the crowd. As a graduate student in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and chair of political action for Students of Color of Rackham, he said it was a demonstration of how democracy plays out. "This is a very important policy, and we had come together to speak out the best way we knew how, to say we were definitely in favor of affirmative action," Perez said. "It's a policy that benefits all of us."

Just as the march was under way, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) appeared for a final word. "Knocking down the walls of discrimination is still the unfinished business of America. One of the most important keys to equality is providing opportunities for everyone to achieve a good education," Kennedy said. "There's a compelling interest to achieve diversity in our colleges, our workplaces and ultimately our society, so that the doors of opportunity are open to everyone."

Several hundred demonstrators remained during the time of the oral arguments. They cheered each time a group of people who had been waiting to enter the courtroom was led up the steps into the main entrance to fill the seats that were rotated during the proceedings. And finally, they cheered when the attorneys and members of the University contingent, including President Mary Sue Coleman and Vice President and General Counsel Marvin Krislov, came down the steps to meet the media.

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