Social justice activist Daniel Maree.
Social justice activist Daniel Maree. (Getty Images)

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.


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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 ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Maree spoke 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: How has your background influenced your outlook on these issues?

DM: My mother is African-American and my father is from South Africa. I was educated there with a full awareness of the legacy of apartheid. I became well-versed in critical thinking. I questioned why things are the way they are. This is fundamental to all my work, and even my outrage over what happened to Trayvon.

It seems Americans have become so used to this kind of treatment of young black males that they dismiss it as normal. That is the most dangerous thing of all. We must challenge these things. Fight against them. Organize against them. Build movements against them.

Q: Benjamin Crump, the Martin family attorney, is trying to galvanize what he coined the "Trayvon Martin voter." His premise is that since Trayvon died before turning 18 years old, the young people who organized and came to rallies wearing hoodies should take their activism to the ballot box. It seems you are doing that work.

DM: That's exactly it. We are registering young people to vote and developing something similar to MTV's Rock the Vote app -- using technology to get people involved in politics. We are supporting Florida's Dream Defenders and organizations like the Trayvon Martin Foundation in their efforts to challenge "Stand your ground" laws in states across the country.

What's most important is to tackle the root cause of the problem, and that is institutional discrimination. That is what has led to the war on drugs being fought largely in communities of color. It's led to massive incarceration rates, such that more black men are in prison than were enslaved. That alone shows you the extent of our challenge, but we are up to the fight.

Q: How are you using social media platforms to revolutionize this new civil rights movement?

DM: We're launching a program called Million Hoodies Music, which uses pop culture and music platforms like iTunes to get young people engaged in major issues. Our aim is not to push any particular political agenda but to inform and educate by conveying critical messages through entertainment.

Geography -- both physically and virtually -- is key. Instagram and Twitter are crucial to our cause; we must reach the kids where they are. As I learned, the first lesson in advertising is to give people something they want. My team and I are essentially acting as "cultural engineers." We are creating a demand for action though social movements and causes.

I am inspired by The Truth campaign in the 1990s, which sparked awareness of the dangers of tobacco smoke. My vision is that Million Hoodies will have the same impact -- by educating people about the dangers of racial profiling, gun violence, "Stand your ground" laws and discriminatory police practices like stop and frisk.

Q: What drives you? And where will you go from here?

DM: My father lived through apartheid, and I have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of courageous black Americans and Africans who fought and sometimes died for freedom. I realize what can be achieved when a small group of people organize. And since these problems are global, and not enough people are engaged, we each must become our brother's keeper.

Before Million Hoodies, I was working on a documentary. Now I'm doing this. I see it as a nonprofit startup of sorts. Many CEOs of startup companies sell the idea and move on to something else. I'm not sure what's next for me, but I want this idea to be sold to young people everywhere. I want to see millions buy into the hope and change that should come from the story of Trayvon Martin. There's a lot more to be done, and we must do it together.

Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio.