The making of a rebellion in Missouri

November 11, 2015

A surge of anger brought down the president and chancellor at the University of Missouri. Elizabeth Schulte and Joseph Moore explain how the uprising came about.

ANTI-RACIST protests rolled across the University of Missouri (MU) in Columbia like an irresistible force, as faculty and students--among them, the football team and its coaches--came together to challenge the administration's inaction in the face of rampant racism and injustice on campus.

Just one day after a statement defying the outcry, the university's president and then chancellor announced their resignation--a significant victory, though not the end of the struggle, by any means.

Weeks of protests led to student activists founding an encampment on November 2 in Carnahan Quad, where they vowed not to leave until University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe was no longer in office. The encampment was organized in solidarity with graduate student Jonathan Butler, who began a hunger strike that he said would end only when Wolfe was out.

On November 7, football players--with the support of their coaching staff--announced that they were on strike and refusing to play until Wolfe resigned or was replaced. Graduate students, joined by faculty, declared they were walking out of classes to participate in teach-ins on November 9 and 10 to demonstrate their support for student protesters.

Students demand action against racist incidents on campus at University of Missouri
Students demand action against racist incidents on campus at University of Missouri

Last weekend was the final straw. On Monday, November 9, Wolfe announced his resignation, and later that day, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said he would be stepping down at the end of the year. The administration also announced it would review its policies and would hire a first-ever diversity, inclusion and equity officer within 90 days.

Even as he stepped down, Wolfe refused to acknowledge the racism that Black students endure--one lightning rod for the protests, though not the only one. "We have to stop yelling at each other to work problems out," Wolfe lectured on his way out the door. But if it had not been for the increasingly loud protests, the concerns of Black students on campus would never have been heard.

LAST WEEKEND may have been the tipping point, but the fight at Mizzou has lasted longer than a few days or a few weeks. Anger at racist incidents and bigoted university policies has been building for months and years. And by the same token, Wolfe's resignation isn't the end of the struggle--because the racism at Mizzou goes deeper than just one or two administrators.

MU is overwhelmingly white--Blacks make up just 8 percent of the 28,000 undergraduates in 2014. The city of Columbia itself is nearly 80 percent white. Racism is a common occurrence for Black students at MU. Tim Love, an English PhD student, explained:

As a Black male English graduate student, I have experienced direct racism and indirect racism. I would say that on the indirect side, being excluded from certain events, being excluded from casual or professional events, or not being included in conversations as if I am a normal person is extremely hurtful.

Coming from a college like University of California Berkeley, it was a huge culture shock for me here. I had no idea that this kind of racism still persisted here in the Midwest.

"It's almost normalized and expected that if you're Black and walking on campus at nighttime, be prepared to be called the N-word," Danielle Walker, an MU student and founder of Racism Lives Here, told Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!

Walker described a series of incidents over the years, including white students spraying cotton balls all over the Black Culture Center her sophomore year. The administration responded by saying that this was "littering and vandalism," not a hate crime. "That inaction, from there on all the way until now, has just been building upon itself," Walker said.

In August 2014, when unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown was shot by a white police officer and left to lay dead in the street for four hours in Ferguson, Missouri, Black students in Columbia--which is just 110 miles away--joined people across the country in calls for justice.

As the Black Lives Matter movement spread throughout the country, MU students united around @MU4MikeBrown with vigils and rallies into the spring. They challenged the administration to start listening to their demands for greater diversity on campus and take action about incidents of racism. But administrators ignored them.

ANGER REACHED a boiling point on September 11, when Payton Head, the head of the Missouri Students Association, was walking through campus and "some guys riding on the back of a pickup truck decided that it would be okay for continuously scream 'N----' at me," as he described the incident on Facebook the following day. Administrators once again did nothing.

Head's post went viral. Racism Lives Here held its first rally September 24, after it took Chancellor Loftin six days to say anything at all about what happened to Head.

On October 5, a rehearsal of the Legion of Black Collegians (LBC)--which administers campus groups primarily serving Black students--for its 2015 Homecoming Royalty Court was interrupted by a drunk, white man, who walked onto the stage and wouldn't leave. Eventually, he "stumbled off the stage" and said "these niggers are getting aggressive with me," according to the LBC.

The LBC has hosted its own separate homecoming celebration since 1988. That's the year that the Mizzou Alumni Association's Homecoming theme was "Show Me Ol' Mizzou," which brought to mind a celebration of MU's old racist history.

The day after this year's incident, about 100 faculty and students took part in a study hall protest, where they sat on the floor of Jesse Hall to call on the administration to do more about racism on campus. During the homecoming parade on October 10, protesters in Concerned Student 1950--which takes its name from the year the university accepted its first Black student--blocked Wolfe's car. The president called on police to remove the protesters.

On October 24, a swastika drawn in human feces was found on the floor and wall of a bathroom of the Gateway Hall dormitory. A similar incident happened in April at Mark Twain Hall, where a swastika and the word "heil" were etched on a stairwell wall in charcoal.

Every step of the way, administrators have ignored student complaints. When Wolfe finally met with Concerned Students 1950 activists on October 26, he failed to talk about any concrete measures to make the campus safer and more inclusive for Black students.

THE BUILDING anger at the administration's inaction led to the hunger strike, the activist encampment--and finally the strike by Mizzou's football team. The threat of the Tigers not playing in an upcoming game against Brigham Young University and forfeiting $1 million surely made the university trustees (known as curators) think twice about continuing business as usual.

For the Black football players inspired by the anti-racist fight on campus who decided to stand up--and the rest of the team and coaches who joined them--there was no question that they had to be on the right side of this fight.

The Legion of Black Collegians posted a photograph to Twitter on Saturday night of more than 30 football players linking arms with Butler, the graduate student who was on hunger strike.

In a statement, the players said:

The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe "Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere." We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experiences. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!

The problem is about more than just two administrators, however. While Wolfe's resignation was top on the list of demands issued by Concerned Students 1950, there are plenty of others they want the administration to respond to, including increasing the percentage of Black faculty and staff.

Students have many ideas about what could make the campus a more diverse and equitable place. As Tim Love said:

I want to try to incorporate, as soon as possible, mandatory classes that address racial injustice and racial inequality for all incoming freshman. I don't think it's too much to ask for. As far as the direct racism side, I want to see more immediate action. I want to see almost instantaneous action when it comes to incidents of racism.

At a rally organized by the Forum on Graduate Rights on November 10--the day after Wolfe's and Loftin's resignations--activists were talking about how to carry on the fight and link it with other campus struggles.

For one, the Coalition of Graduate Workers (CGW) has been organizing to win a union at MU. CGW co-chair Connor Lewis said:

I think what really led to Wolfe's and Loftin's resignations is really the collective action from a number of engaged constituencies on campus that realized that they had kind of a common struggle outside of just narrow sectional interests...It was a common concern for the entire university community, and I think that everyone rallied behind that. So I think that what yesterday demonstrated was that collective action fights back. It gets results.

Maxwell Little, a Masters of Education student and member of Concerned Students 1950 member, said at the rally:

What I want to say is that right now, we have something unique. We have unity, and that is rare, especially when you consider race and class. So we must continue this unity and continue our unified voice for justice and equality for all students on this campus--not just for students of color, not just students who have different sexual identity, but we have to take into account students who have disabilities. Their voices are often silenced.

Concerned Students 1950 are advocating for shared governance, not just on our campus, but on all campuses. We believe that our voices have been silenced too long...We want our voices heard in all spaces of the decision-making process, just like you. When the higher-ups put the pressure on us--because they will, because they fear our unified voice and they don't like that--let's keep this unified voice and this movement going.

April Langley, an associate professor of English, took the same point a step further: "It's incumbent upon us to pull up our sleeves and build a new MU because the older MU--from the offices in Jesse to the classrooms--is fouled, and now is the time to do the work of cleaning and pulling and digging up those roots, and that takes all of us."

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