THE BLOG
08/15/2013 02:09 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

LISTEN: Where the Dream Defenders Came From

The Dream Defenders have been occupying the Florida State Capitol for 29 days, making national headlines with their call for a special legislative session to pass a "Trayvon's Law" -- to repeal Stand Your Ground, ban racial profiling, and end the school-to-prison pipeline.

They've made headlines coast to coast. They're being recognized as the next generation of civil rights leaders. But rewind a month, and almost nobody had heard of them. So who are they, and where did they come from?

This March, I had the opportunity to interview Phillip Agnew, executive director and co-founder of the Dream Defenders, on The Flaming Sword of Justice, my MoveOn-powered radio show and podcast.

His life story makes for spellbinding listening: After a childhood in the black church, he was jolted into political action by the killing of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old African-American boy, by guards in one of Florida's state-run "boot camps." Following the tragedy, a diverse group of Florida students staged a sit-in of then-Governor Jeb Bush's office, and Agnew mobilized support from around the state and the country for their efforts. Ultimately, thanks in no small part to student activism, Florida's state legislature passed the "Martin Lee Anderson Act," which closed the boot camps down and replaced them with a less-militaristic (although, as Agnew notes, still problematic) juvenile detention system. It was a singular, life-changing moment for a generation of young Floridians who tackled injustice head-on, and made a difference.

The parallels to the movement for Trayvon's Law speak for themselves. But there's more to it than that: the experience of fighting that fight planted a seed about the kind of life that Agnew wanted to lead. And although he successfully entered a corporate career after college, that seed kept sprouting. There's moment about half an hour into the interview that I'll never forget, about the moment that Phillip knew he had to return to activism full-time. You can check out the whole interview here:

(For more info, check out the Dream Defenders episode page on the Flaming Sword of Justice website--or the Dream Defenders' own site.)

To observers outside Florida, it might seem like the movement following Trayvon's death appeared out of nowhere. But for the Dream Defenders and other young people of their generation -- as for civil rights champions of preceding generations -- racial justice has been a life-and-death issue since the day the were born... and they know that committed, strategic activism can get results.