Black Power Used Effectively: University of Missouri President Resigns After Mishandling Racist Incidents

November 9, 2015  |  

I’m feeling super proud of my alma mater today. Young, college students are often the first to impact social change and I’m happy that the mostly Black men and women at my school, the University of Missouri (Mizzou), were able to effect such a strong change so quickly.

After a slew of racially charged incidents in the past few months, culminated by a swatiska drawn in human feces, found in a residence hall, Black students had had enough. They had sent e-mails and hosted meetings attended by administration, only to find their calls for action met with lip service. So they took more drastic measures. Several Black students, calling themselves, Concerned Student 1950, signifying the year the first Black student was admitted to the University, hosted a protest during the homecoming parade. They intentionally planted themselves in front of University President Tim Wolfe’s chauffeured car. Wolfe’s strategy was to essentially ignore the protestors. After his driver allegedly struck one of them, he called for University police to have them removed.

Mizzou graduate student, Jonathan Butler, took action.

He launched a hunger strike, refusing to eat until Wolfe was either fired or chose to resign. The Concerned Student 1950 published a list of demands, not only seconding Butler’s request for Wolfe’s resignation but asking for increased Black faculty and students on campus, among other things.

Days later, many of the Black football players decided that they were not going to practice or play until Butler’s hunger strike was over. They were eventually supported by their coaching staff, including head coach Gary Pinkel.

That did it. Not only did the football coach support his players’ decision, the university stood to lose a significant amount of money if the football team did not play. In 2014, the team brought in $83 million in revenue. With expenses, they grossed $3.5 million. The school could not afford to take a loss if the players missed one game.

And baby, money talks…in fact, it screams.

In response, today Tim Wolfe announced that he was stepping down from his position as University of Missouri president.

Wolfe’s exit came just two days after the football players announced their strike and 7 days after Butler announced his hunger strike.

According to NBC News, Wolfe appeared to hold back tears as he resigned. He said there has been frustration from both parties and took responsibility for failing to communicate with protestors.

“The question really is, why did we get to this very difficult situation?” Wolfe said. “It is my belief that we stopped listening to each other.”

Still, Wolfe took issue with the ways in which the protestors went about seeking change.

“This is not, I repeat, not, the way change should come about.”

Actually, that’s exactly how change should and historically has come about. But say whatever you want on your way out.

Wolfe did say that he hopes his resignation, effective immediately, would give the university a better chance “to heal and start talking again.”

I respect Jonathan Butler’s efforts. He certainly served as the catalyst for this action. And I’m elated that the football players not only recognized their value to the university system but weren’t afraid to take a stand for what is right. Athletes at Mizzou receive a bit of a privileged position and I’m excited and proud to know they acted so unselfishly to accomplish a common goal.

Unlike Wolfe, I know exactly where these racially charged incidents originate. The truth of the matter is, racism is literally the fabric that built the university.

Mizzou, the first public university founded west of the Mississippi River, was built with slave labor, in a slave state, financed and founded partially by a slave owner, James Sidney Rollins. There are buildings named after him on campus and he is known as the “father of the University of Missouri.” (It should be noted though that Rollins’ great-great grandson set up a James S. Rollins Slavery Atonement Endowment to fund research at the University of Missouri’s Black Studies Department.)

Lloyd Lionel Gaines was the first African American student to apply for the University of Missouri School of Law in 1936. He was denied on the basis of his race. He appealed to the Supreme Court and was legally granted admission. Before he had a chance to begin classes, he turned up missing and hasn’t been seen since. After protests from the Legion of Black Collegians, the university built a Black Culture Center on campus. In 1998 it was named for Gaines and Marion O’Fallon Oldham. Oldham was also denied admission to the University. Despite what some would call a set back, she would eventually serve on the University of Missouri Board of Curators.

A lot has changed since the days of Gaines and Oldham. But not enough. In the years I attended Mizzou, our beloved Black Culture Center was littered with cotton balls, in the hopes that a Black person would have to pick them up. The n-word was hurled at students, like it was at Mizzou’s student body president Payton Head, earlier this year. The racial slur was also spray painted on resident halls.

Black people throughout the world face racism in public and at their jobs; but when you face racism on a campus that is literally your home, the attacks seem particularly egregious. I generally had a good experience at Mizzou but I never felt welcomed there. Never. There was always something or someone to remind me that I was “other.” And at the University of Missouri, “other” is anybody who is not White and male.

Ignorant students in me and friends’ classes would ask questions like, “Why isn’t there a White culture center?” or protest at the election of Black homecoming King or Queen. Dr. Cynthia Frisby, a professor in the journalism school, who has been there for 18 years, has been called the n-word more times than she can remember, even by faculty members. A male student was told her that he refused to call her doctor because “that would mean that he thinks I am smart, and he was told that blacks are not smart and do not earn degrees without affirmative action.”

There are few tenured Black professors and when the name of one building was changed from “General Classroom Building” to Strickland Hall, after Dr. Arvarh E. Strickland, the first African American faculty member, White students complained. As if General Classroom Building was ever a suitable name.

There is so much work to be done at Mizzou and at universities and institutions around this country. And I’m glad the Black students at my alma mater are the ones showing us how to effect this change. (i.e. Recognize your power and hit people in the pockets, where it hurts.) We have a long way to go but it’s a pretty great start.

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