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Hundreds of student volunteers arrived on Howard University’s campus a week early to help freshmen move in to their new dorms. They lugged their belongings to their new homes, directed them around campus, and caught up with friends before classes started.

It was the kind of scene that was repeated on university campuses around the country over the last couple of weeks. But while everyone was settling in at Howard, law enforcement officials clad in military gear were in Ferguson, Mo., confronting people who were protesting the death of Michael Brown—the unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer at least six times on a Saturday afternoon. Before he was killed, Brown was also slated to start college this month.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

So a few hours before an assembly for freshmen move-in volunteers started last Wednesday, Howard University student government leaders decided they had to say something about Brown—a teenager that Howard University Student Association Vice President Ikenna Ikeotuonye said “could have been any one of us.”

The 300 students were instructed to stare straight ahead and pose with their arms up and their palms forward—a gesture that, particularly in the aftermath of Brown’s death, is universally understood to mean “don’t shoot.”

“After we explained to them what that photo was about, the room went from a lot of chatter to just dead silence. It was somber,” says Ikeotuonye, a senior.

Ikeotuonye snapped the photo on his Canon camera, made some edits on his computer, and sent it to his staff on student government. It eventually landed on Twitter, was retweeted tens of thousands of times, and got nods in local and international papers (including in one post on Washington City Paper’s website).

The sheer number of students in that small-framed photo is striking. But it’s more than just the packed auditorium that makes the picture so powerful. These are Howard University students, students who had just arrived at the Mecca—with a capital M, as it became known during the Black Power movement in the 1960s—of black intellectualism in the U.S. The thought that even these top-tier students have to worry about walking down the street and getting shot by the police in this country resonated with people.

“No matter where they are from, no matter what their story is, these kids are black kids, which is why they had their hands up in the first place,” says Gregory Carr, the head of the Afro-American Studies department at Howard. “Can they ever jailbreak this identity that basically communicates a different humanity? I don’t know that they can, I don’t know that they can ever do that.”

But, Carr says, “the Howard brand means you can’t assail these kids.”

That brand, and the social activist mission at the university’s heart, is what continues to draw students to a private historically black school like Howard in today’s post-segregation era. When civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael attended Howard in the ’60s, places like Howard and Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta were some of the only options for elite black students. These days, Ivy League schools and their peer institutions accept—and seek out—top black students, which means enrolling at Howard is a more concerted choice than default option.

“I saw that Thurgood Marshall and Frederick Douglass—my favorite orator—went here,” says senior and student body president Leighton Watson, who chose to go to Howard over schools like the University of Chicago and Notre Dame. “Seeing those individuals and trying to become a part of that lineage was a big part of why I wanted to go to Howard.” (Douglass didn’t attend Howard, but served on its Board of Trustees and was instrumental in its creation.)

Watson says that when students walk on campus freshman year, they feel that responsibility to fight for social justice. Yes, the law now purports to provide equality, but that’s still far from how it plays out in American communities. Howard students in 2014 are at the Mecca during a time when an unarmed black teenager living in a mostly black town can be slain by a white officer on that town’s mostly white police force. The students, Johnson says, know that people like Carmichael, who started the Black Power movement nearly 50 years ago, impelled change from Howard’s campus before them, and they think they can do it again.

Since Watson and his fellow senior class started at Howard in the fall of 2011, they’ve had ample opportunity to rise to action. In their first year on campus, they protested the pending execution of Troy Davis—a black Georgia man who was eventually executed for killing a police officer despite serious doubt that he committed the murder. (A Howard professor and a number of students were arrested in front of the White House during those protests.) And in 2012, students held vigils and rallies for Trayvon Martin, the Florida 17-year-old killed while also unarmed. Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton and attorney Benjamin Crump even came to speak to law students at Howard before the case went to trial.

But Watson says and he and his peers aren’t naive; they know a photograph is just a photograph, no matter how viral it goes, and a rally itself won’t incite change. The students, after all, watched on television with the rest of the country as the appeal to stay Davis’ execution was denied, and George Zimmerman eventually walked free after killing Martin.

“It’s not about that march,” says Watson. “I’m willing to do the research. I’m willing to do the hard work and not the glamorous work. That’s the point where I am personally, given what I’ve seen in the last three years.”

Being the student body president at a historically black college and being a student leader at, say, Georgetown or George Washington University, winds up being quite different. Watson says his tenure as president this year won’t be marked by fighting for on-campus issues, but rather working with student leaders at Howard and its peer institutions to lobby for police departments around the country to require their officers to wear surveillance cameras—an idea that’s gaining momentum as a way to hold cops accountable for using unnecessary force and harassing innocent people. Watson cited statistics out of Rialto, Calif., a city that has seen its police officers’ use of force decline by 60 percent in the first year since it required its entire police department to wear surveillance cameras.

Last Thursday night, Watson spoke in front of Howard students at a vigil for Michael Brown on the steps of Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall and received loud cheers when he told his classmates of his push to implement officer-camera programs. Students at the vigil lit candles for “brothers just like us” who died because they were black. They lit candles for black men like Brown, Martin, Oscar Grant, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and for those who died during slavery. They also spoke about Mya Aaten-White—a Howard alum who was shot last week while in Ferguson to attend a rally.

“Every sort of social change takes personal action,” Watson said, trying to call his classmates to stay involved. “It’s a continued personal investment.”

Eugene Puryear, a 28-year-old Howard grad who’s running for an at-large D.C. Council seat, says students at a predominantly black university are freer to express themselves politically than they would be on other campuses. In Puryear’s hometown of Charlottesville, Va., there are still monuments and places named after Confederate soldiers, which can be particularly alienating to a young black resident. But when he arrived at Howard, he felt comfortable expressing himself politically and immediately felt he was part of the school’s legacy.

In 2006, Puryear was responsible for organizing the Jena 6 protests and teach-ins on campus. Puryear says Howard was the first place outside of Jena, La., to hold a rally for the Jena 6—the six black high school students who were initially charged with attempted murder after they beat up a white student who’d been released from the hospital and attended a school function that same night. The incident highlighted the racial tensions and discrimination against black residents in the small town.

“Finding yourself politically happens in a freer space,” says Puryear. “It gives you the opportunity to spread out and not be defined by the on-campus discussions [at traditional universities] about what it means to be a black student.”

But Howard may not quite be the Mecca it once was. In recent years, enrollment numbers have plunged, as fewer admitted students choose to attend the university. (Enrollment did increase a bit last year.) These declining numbers have hit Howard hard financially; in April 2013, the vice chairwoman of the school’s board of trustees warned the board that Howard is in “genuine trouble” and “will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.”

Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates—a former Howard student (who also used to write for City Paper)—wrote in the New York Times last year that the D.C. institution was “the sort of school a black kid once looked to when endeavoring to become A Credit To The Race.” But in playing a significant role in the path to integration in this country, Howard’s job “is to pave the way for its own obsolescence,” he wrote.

Carr says Howard is far from obsolete, and that social justice is just as paramount to the university’s mission—and just as necessary in this country—as it was in the days of Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston. But Howard’s role and demographics have changed since the fall of Jim Crow, he says. Howard’s student body was once comprised of students who largely came from elite, educated black families. Many of these students have decamped in the post-segregation era for other top private schools, making way for a more economically diverse student body. Howard is typically thought of as a monolithic black university, but its students actually represent all aspects of the black diaspora in the U.S.: There are, among others, first-generation college students, students who come from affluent backgrounds, and many recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.

“You have people coming out of spaces where this struggle is immediate, it’s personal, it’s in their families,” Carr says. “They are coming to help transform the society they live, they are not aspiring for individual success, but aspiring for the group in a very different way. I think in post-integration, that is the way [at Howard.]”

For some students, the prospect of changing the way the public at large perceives young black people is still a major draw to attending Howard. That’s why junior Chyna Simone-Quarker says she was excited about how many people last week’s Ferguson protest photo reached.

“I think it’s important that the nation is able to see young African-American intellectuals,” says Simone-Quarker. “I think it’s important they are able to see us striving to better the next person.”

Students at Howard University hold a vigil for Michael Brown in August

But, as Carr points out, that photograph can be viewed as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it shows that even Howard students aren’t safe from systemic discrimination from law enforcement agencies. On the other, it shouldn’t matter that these are Howard students; the country should be just as shocked that anyone, even a black teen who smokes marijuana or shoplifts, can be gunned down by law enforcement on an American street.

Still, Carr says the photo is good for the Howard brand, and that brand is “indispensable” to the university.

“That picture, that photo, we will never know how that reverberates in the mind, the imagination, of a 6-year-old, or a 16-year-old trying to decide whether or not they are going to add Howard to that list,” he says. “Or most importantly, to that high-schooler who never thought to apply to college before they saw that photo.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery