Missouri anti-racist student struggle inspires

Photo: Members of Concerned Student 1950 chanting on Nov. 9.

November 14, 2015 marks the 55th anniversary of public school desegregation and an end, at least officially, to education for “Whites Only,” a system which existed in the United States since its founding. This anniversary adds historical context to recent victories won by Black students organizing on their campuses to oppose racism.

In October, Black students at the University of Mississippi  (MU) organized and won the removal of the racist Confederate flag from public display at their school. Their victory resulted from decades of organized struggle. On the heels of Mississippi’s victory, this week, student activists at the University of Missouri protested to win these following demands: that their school administration immediately confront acts of racism on campus; fund anti-racist training of the school’s staff, faculty and students; fund health care and increase mental health resources for staff, faculty and students; hire at least 10 percent more Black professors and faculty; and grant graduate student-workers the right to unionize. The progressive nature of these students’ demands has been almost completely omitted by the corporate media coverage of this struggle, which has focused largely on the progressive stance taken by Black members of the MU football team, who essentially went on strike demanding the immediate resignation of MU president Tim Wolfe. Wolfe resigned within days of the football team’s action.

Significance of #ConcernedStudent1950

The Black students at MU have been organizing under the name, “Concerned Student 1950.” 1950 is the year MU admitted its first Black student, in spite of the fact that the school had been sued as far back as the 1930s to force them to admit Black students. That lawsuit was waged by Lloyd Gaines, a Black law student, who pursued his case all the way to the Supreme Court and won in 1938!

However, it was only a partial victory, as the U.S. Supreme Court provided MU a way to continue its “Whites Only” admission policy. Rather than allow Black students on campus, MU was allowed to create a secondary, “separate and inferior” alternative school, which MU set up off-campus inside a former beauty salon. Lloyd Gaines was then invited by MU to attend their under-funded, lower standard “alternative” campus, which Gaines refused to do. This pattern of immediate racist retaliation in response to Black organizing (and victory) continues today at the University of Missouri as well as throughout the country, on and off campuses.

The name and political demands of Concerned Student 1950, reflect activists that are class conscious, inclusive, thoughtful and politically astute. They are exposing the University’s history of systematic racism, and in doing so they’ve inspired students across the country to do the same.

This week solidarity demonstrations have taken place at: Massachusetts’ Smith College, Georgia Tech, New York’s Ithaca College, Chicago’s Loyola University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the list continues to expand.

Following Concerned Student 1950’s example, Black students and their allies are presenting their school’s administrators with progressive demands of their own, all of which share the same goals of confronting and ending systemic discrimination.

These students are inspiring to all people struggling against oppression, yet what most of the capitalist media has focused on is either the resignation of Tim Wolfe, MU’s president, and/or MU’s football team going out on strike in a show of solidarity with protesting students.

The Los Angeles Times, took this to the extreme when they gave full credit for Wolfe’s ouster to the technology behind social networks like Twitter and Facebook, as opposed to simply reporting the hard work of the Black activists themselves.

This timeline exposes the opposition these students overcame as well as their skill as organizers.

Timeline of events

1950: MU admits nine African-American students for the first time since the 1938 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

1964: The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity establishes the nation’s first Black student government, called “The Legion of Black Collegians.” They formed in order to better represent minority students and faculty. This was in response to a racist event at a MU football game when the school’s marching band waved the Confederate Flag and the crowd sang, “Dixie.” Black students responded by waving a Black liberation flag. LBC demanded the establishment of a Black studies program, more Black faculty and students and a week of Black culture events every year. Knowing this history, Concerned Student 1950 deliberately included the same list of demands, which currently remain unmet 55 years later! “We have original ideas, but it would be ignorant not to look at what the people have done before us, it’s about using those works as a compass,” said organizers of Concerned Student 1950.

1969: MU hires its first African-American professor, Arvarh Strickland. He taught there for 27 years and created the first Black history class, which launched the founding of a Black studies minor in 1970.

1986: Students erect an anti-Apartheid shantytown on campus demanding MU stop investing millions of dollars in companies doing business with South Africa’s racist system. Five months later, the protesters win their demands.

April 27, 1987: MU students and faculty march demanding higher enrollment of minority students. Black students at time made up 3.2 percent of the MU population, 740 out of 22,532 students, according to the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative. Black enrollment continues to remain low in 2015.

2010: White MU students Zachary Tucker and Sean Fitzgerald scatter cotton balls across the lawn of the Black Culture Center and are cited for “littering,” thus avoiding the racist nature of their act. They were sentenced to community service and probation.

February 2011: MU student Benjamin Elliott spray-paints the N-word on a sculpture outside of the university’s Hatch Hal. Similarly, he’s cited for second-degree property damage and given probation, but the racist nature of his act is not addressed officially by the school.

August 9, 2014: Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager is shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, about 120 miles from Columbia. Protesters take to the streets chanting, “Hands up, Don’t shoot,” to confront racist killer cops. This in turn develops into a larger movement associated with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which continues to expand into other areas confronting racist violence and discrimination across the country.

August and November, 2014: MU students join demonstrators in Ferguson protesting in response to a grand jury decision which refuses to indict Darren Wilson, the white officer who fatally shot Brown. MU students form the group “MU for Michael Brown.” These students are inspired by demonstrations in Ferguson and decide to organize and confront their school’s lack of official response to on-campus racism.

Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015: Missouri Students Association president Payton Head is called the “N-word” by a group of white men on campus. He documents the incident online and his post goes viral with other Black members of the MU community—including professors—sharing similar experiences of racism on MU’s campus.

Monday, Oct. 5, 2015: a meeting of the student group, Legion of Black Collegians, is interrupted by man who refuses to leave and calls them the “N-word”.

Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015: At the first public protest organized by Concerned Student 1950, students interrupt MU’s homecoming parade and surround the university president’s car. Wolfe remains silent inside the vehicle as Black students attempt to chant their demands. They are met with hostile MU students who drown out the demands by chanting the school’s fight song.

In the incident, Wolfe never interacted with the protesters nor left his car to address the Black students. “We disrupted the parade specifically in front of Tim Wolfe because we need him to get our message,” graduate student Jonathan Butler, one of the protesters, told the Missourian. “We’ve sent emails, we’ve sent tweets, we’ve messaged, but we’ve gotten no response back from the upper officials at Mizzou to really make change on this campus. And so we directed it to him personally.”

Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015: Concerned Student 1950 released a list of demands, including: hiring more Black faculty and staff; mandatory racial awareness and inclusion curriculum for all staff and students; additional funding for mental health professionals and services.

Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015: Months after a swastika was found in the Mark Twain residence hall, officials find a second swastika, this time drawn in feces on the floor and wall of a bathroom on campus.

Monday, Oct. 26, 2015: Concerned Student 1950 meet with Wolfe, but he won’t agree to any of their demands.

Monday, Nov. 2, 2015: 25-year-old graduate student, Jonathan Butler begins a water-only hunger strike, which he does not break until Wolfe resigns.

Butler, a founding member of Concerned Student 1950, said he was ready to die for his cause, and other students join a tent city on campus in support. “People call me the n-word [and] write the n-word on the a door in my residence hall—for me it really is about a call for justice,” Butler told the Post. “I’m fighting for the Black community on campus because justice is worth fighting for. And justice is worth starving for.”

Friday, Nov. 6, 2015: Tim Wolfe confirms his clear lack of understanding on the issues at hand when asked by students to explain the term “systematic oppression” he instead blames the victim saying, “It’s—systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.” Students are stunned, asking him, “Did you just blame us for systematic oppression?”

Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015: MU’s football players announce they’re joining the student protests and stop all football-related activities for the remainder of the season unless Wolfe resigns or is fired. Head coach Gary Pinkel tweets his support for his players and includes a photo of the team. This aspect of the struggle almost exclusively attracts national attention to the exclusion of the students’ demands. Immediate corporate news reporting redirects the national discussion away from racism and instead focusing on the million dollar penalty the university is contractually obligated to pay to Brigham Young University in the event its next game is canceled.

Sunday, Nov. 8: Wolfe issues a statement making it clear he does not intend to step down even after state legislators begin to call for his resignation. Rep. Steve Cookson (R), chairman of the Missouri House Committee on Higher Education, is quoted as saying, Wolfe “can no longer effectively lead” and Gov. Jay Nixon (D) declares his support for the protesters. MU faculty prepare to walk out on Monday.

Monday, Nov. 9: Wolfe resigns at a special meeting called by the university’s governing body. Wolfe is quoted as saying, “My motivation for this decision comes from love.” Profit was more likely motivating his bosses to urge Wolfe to step down along with escalating negative public scrutiny of his administration, an imminent million dollar fine and MU’s students’ unwavering activism. However, Wolfe’s ouster was only one of numerous demands made by Black students.

“This event on the MU campus shows other students how much power we actually have when we come together as a campus,” said, Ravyn Brooks, a junior at Missouri State University. “There’s power in solidarity, there’s power in a unified voice, and it exposes systemic racism in higher education.”

Liberation News will continue to cover this and other struggles as they unfold.

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