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Being Black at Mizzou, Then and Now

What it was like to be a student at the University of Missouri in the 1990s and how that informs the campus protest movements of today

by Minkah Makalani, November 18, 2015

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I don’t know what it’s like to be an average Black student at Mizzou in 2015, though I imagine it’s not very different from what it was like when I studied there in the early ’90s. Along with a sense of community among a Black student population so small it seemed we all knew one another, there was the ever present sense of fear that came from having to routinely determine which racial slight you would address and which you would ignore; which racial joke you would complain about; whether you could forget seeing “niggers go home” chalked on the side of Jesse Hall as you work on a paper due in the morning.

Twenty-five years ago, to be a Black student at MU meant your university had yet to recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday. Today, it means you were likely in high school when Trayvon Martin was killed, and later watched in vain as your institution said nothing about the gratuitous killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown just two hours away in Ferguson, Missouri; it means coming to the Black Culture Center only to find cotton balls strewn about the yard; it means having a Black president of student government, Payton Head, as well as members of the Legion of Black Collegians, called “nigger” on separate occasions; it’s finding a swastika drawn in feces on a dorm wall; it’s knowing these are only the incidents that have been reported.

To borrow from James Baldwin, to be a Black student at Mizzou, then as now, and have a basic sense of justice, “is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

But it also means you enter into a decades long tradition of Black student activism at the University of Missouri that brought an end to segregated student housing, pushed the university to hire Black faculty, and played a key role in the campus’ anti-apartheid movement. It was in this tradition Black students were acting when they formed Concerned Student 1950, when Jonathan Butler started a hunger strike to get the university’s attention, when they erected a tent city on the quad that caught the attention of a Black football player. And they have joined this tradition to a wave of student protests across extending from California to New York.

When I learned of Concerned Student 1950 homecoming protests in October, I was reminded of protests I participated in the early ’90s. At the beginning of the year, during Greek Town’s Bid Day Bash celebration, a White fraternity brutally beat and blinded a local Black high school student. When we learned the administration would only give the fraternity a slap on the wrist, we reached our tipping point. The Legion of Black Collegians, the Black student government, planned a protest march during homecoming to disrupt the parade and force university and state officials to listen to our demands. As we prepared for the march, a car carrying then Miss America, Debbye Turner, an MU veterinary student, drove by, and a few of us asked if she would carry a sign in solidarity.

Turner declined, saying she didn’t know enough about our protests. We cursed in frustration, because we knew having her take that sign would have given our protests a level of national attention we could never have achieved on our own. But our protest was not premised on her participation. We marched on. We stopped the parade for about 10 minutes. We chanted “No Justice, No Peace!” We presented our demands. The university did make some changes, though many of us felt these were largely cosmetic and would leave the university’s racial edifice intact.

Recent events have borne out those fears.

That Concerned Student 1950 is addressing, almost verbatim, the same issues we confronted a quarter century ago, which black students confronted 20 years before that, is entirely unsurprising. This is Missouri, where racism rarely fells the need to huddle in dark corners or cloak itself in hushed tones. You see it in city planning and municipal policies, police violence and judicial maleficence, and the actions of a university official who, rather than begin a dialogue with student protestors during a homecoming parade, responded by bumping them with his car.

As a University of Missouri alum and avid Mizzou sports fan, I was surprised and elated to learn 32 Black football players announced they would not participate in any football related activities until MU system president Tim Wolfe resigned or was removed from office. This is unprecedented in modern-day major college sports. With millions of dollars in revenue on the line, it didn’t take long. Wolfe resigned Nov. 9, and later that afternoon, so did Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.

These students have done something those who founded the Legion of Black Collegians in 1969 likely could not have imagined. They have exceeded anything we thought possible in 1990. Issuing from the Black Lives Matter movement and coming in the wake of Ferguson, they have shown a level of organizational sophistication and resolve that is literally changing the university, and quite possibly, even if unintentionally, how race operates within college sports. They have taken the concerns that have animated Black student struggles for over 65 years and made them resonate around the world.

Still, I am disturbed by a trend that reflects a set of racial values at work in American social life making Wolfe’s resignation something less than a victory. Given his violent response to student protesters and his ineptitude in thinking about racism, Butler’s resignation demand was diplomatic.

While Butler believed he had to place his life on the line to make MU safe for Black students was courageous, it is unfortunate when one feels they must endanger their own life to secure many more. Yet it is a sad irony that where Butler’s life garnered only scant national attention over five days, 32 Black men refusing to hurl themselves at other Black men became a national story within hours.

As one Black woman repeatedly told reporters, the football players are not the story: “Talk to your average black student,” she insisted. And we should, for they might tell you how unsafe they feel on campus with increased threats of racial violence. They might tell you how it feels to know administrators and state officials care more about entertainment and revenue than Black lives. They might talk about their demand for a campuswide curriculum on racial oppression, more black faculty, improved mental health care, and social justices centers around campus.

Still, this was an example of how Black students and Black student-athletes can change their institutions. And I hope they continue to challenge the set of values that can only accept Black pain as entertainment and profit. As defensive end Charles Harris pointed out, they showed “athletes across the country that you do have power.”

Never forget, however, the courageous athletes are only part of the story. Talk to your average Black student, and I imagine they will tell you something about the rivers of Black struggle that run deep at Mizzou.

Minkah Makalani is an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1996.

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