Daniel Maree: Leader of a Million Hoodies

The organizer behind the march in support of Trayvon Martin is part of a new wave of civil rights activists.

Daniel Maree (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
Daniel Maree (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

(The Root) — America is experiencing a 21st-century civil rights movement, and with it comes new leaders.

“There’s a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young,” President Obama said Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. “For the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose, serves in this generation. We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains.”

Participants in the original march relied on newspapers, radio broadcasts and word of mouth to organize. Today social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit serve as virtual message boards to galvanize a new generation of believers.

Enter Daniel Maree.

Maree, 25, is the founder and executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice and winner of DoSomething.org’s Do Something Award and its $100,000 grand prize. He created the Million Hoodies movement in 2012 in response to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Maree quickly built a global following through social media and generated well over 2 million petition signatures on Change.org calling for Zimmerman’s arrest. He organized the original Million Hoodies March, drawing 50,000 people in cities across the nation.

He plans to use his prize winnings to increase the membership of his organization, launch a conflict-management boot camp for 5,000 youths and create an online virtual platform. Maree has also applied for a multimillion-dollar grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to spearhead a campaign that would be, in part, devoted to registering 18-year-olds and young adults to vote.

He’s committed to making members of Congress act on racial discrimination and gun violence or risk paying for inaction at the polls in the 2014 midterms. The activist even organized free buses from Harlem and Brooklyn, N.Y., for hundreds to attend the Saturday ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Maree spoke to The Root about what it means to be a freedom fighter in the 21st century and how he intends to keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and Trayvon Martin’s legacy alive.

The Root: In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, it must have seemed that the movement you started had been defeated. Where does it go post-Trayvon? How do you motivate young people to stay engaged and organized?

Daniel Maree: Yes, Zimmerman’s acquittal was devastating for us, as it was to millions of Americans across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, but that was not — and is not — the end of the Million Hoodies Movement. All our organizers, many of whom have been involved from the beginning, are committed to the long term. Trayvon Martin is not the only one: Ramarley Graham, D.J. Henry, Oscar Grant are all victims of similar violence.

The national news is so shortsighted and race-schizophrenic that too many unknown Trayvons often get lost in the conversation. This is yet another symptom of our society not valuing black life and the lives of young black males in particular. And that is a battle which must be fought and won at the local level. So that’s where we’re organizing and directing resources to affect change — at the local level.

TR: And how do you plan to do that?

DM: We’re developing a study guide with the intent of lowering the barriers to civil education. I was recently on BET’s 106 and Park discussing how young people must learn to protect themselves, even against those who are sworn to protect them — namely, police officers. It’s sad that we have to begin civic education at such a basic level, but that is the only way to honestly address these issues. It’s a question of civic engagement versus civic education.

I see it as a component of what Dr. Cornel West argues in his “American evasion of philosophy” theory: the idea that American society pragmatically embraces minorities but is ill-equipped in understanding their grievances with respect to discrimination and disparate treatment. I think education is the way to conquer these barriers.