Uprise At Mizzou A Long Time Coming: An Inside Perspective

Storms tend to be random in their reach and their impact. Sometimes they end up flaring out before they even get started while, in other cases, they go torrential seemingly out of nowhere. Over the past year, Missouri has become the nation’s lightning rod for racial reality lessons. And in the most recent case of up rise in the area, the institution was challenged in a way and with a leverage never seen before.

However, this outcome is so unlikely in its fervor, that it still feels surreal for this particular University of Missouri alumnus. Simply if no other reason, because being unheard or underestimated became the norm status, it seemed. Because more often than not, the life of a student at a predominantly white university can many times be that of the unheard minority.

This is an experience that became oft-familiar for myself and fellow African-American classmates at the University of Missouri, where I pursued and completed my undergraduate studies between 2003 and 2008. And while my courses provided a thorough and solid foundation for my post-graduate life, the most strikingly different element was the socialization received away from the classroom. What was to follow in subsequent years was a crash course in a study in separate societies living under one roof. In many ways, the black portion of the Mizzou population functioned in an entirely different sphere than the white portion. “They” had their events and social areas, while we had “ours,” a dynamic that was strikingly different when put in the vacuum of the small, 35,000 person population of the school.

Yet, the minority aspect was still strong, as it is to this day. When I was a freshman, there was a push called “Represent” which chronicled the percentage of African-American students at the university at that time, which was 5.9 percent. Just a bit over 2,000 people in the school’s population were African-American, which for all intents and purposes is a fairly easy number to marginalize.

The history of racially divisive transgressions is numerous and colors the history of both the university and the overall struggle for equality in the nation. In many ways, actions of inclusion at Mizzou stands as a textbook example of the history of the fight from underneath for African-Americans, and the very relevant battle it continues to be. For decades, the environment at the school has been one that has been far too easily accommodating for the racist acts against its largest minority segment. African-American alumni from decades past often choose not to revisit the campus due to the institutionalized racism they faced there.

The climate began to thaw some in recent times, as the university has at the very least, made some representative changes to university’s stated aims and purposes geared towards being a more complete environment. African-American enrollment has risen to seven percent as of 2014, good for a total of just north of 2,500 students. Over the past decade, an initiative was carried out to include “diversity” to as one of the institution’s core values. There are diversity awards, minority-named building structures and a healthy number of African-American national interest organizations present on the campus.

Regardless of this surface level progressive movement, the environment as the school remains staunchly discriminatory in the acts perpetuated by majority students and inhabitants of the area against the African-American population. This has been the historical narrative of the school, whose first African-American student enrolled some 111 years after its inception. These exclusionary tactics in the area required for the historically black institution of Lincoln University to be established in nearby Jefferson City in the mid-1860s so that black students in the area could pursue a higher education.

This policy of aggressively forward Jim Crow segregation was intact until Lincoln University student Lloyd Gaines applied to attend graduate school at Mizzou, which he ultimately achieved via suing the university due to the violation of his 14th amendment rights. A pair of lynchings in the Columbia area accompanied Gaines' trip to challenge the legality of his exclusion – a common practice for the times in the city – but Gaines endured for the time, and received his admission.

13 Jul 1936 --- Lincoln University graduate Lloyd L. Gaines, 24 years old, during the mandamus suit trial in which he is seeking to compel the University of Missouri to admit him as a law student. Gaines is pleading, with assistance from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), that refusal to permit his enrollment is abridging his "equality of opportunity" rights under the 14th amendment. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
13 Jul 1936 --- Lincoln University graduate Lloyd L. Gaines, 24 years old, during the mandamus suit trial in which he is seeking to compel the University of Missouri to admit him as a law student. Gaines is pleading, with assistance from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), that refusal to permit his enrollment is abridging his "equality of opportunity" rights under the 14th amendment. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

However, Gaines never had the opportunity to truly pursue his goal, as he was never seen again after being abducted three months later in the Chicago area. His disappearance was a lightly investigated affair and is still unresolved to this day.

I mean after all, this is the state of Missouri, and in many ways it is simply following the course that it has prescribed to for years. It has long been the home to segments of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the neo-Nazi regime. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriage was legal in the state, often forcing couples to go to neighboring Illinois be legally joined in the U.S., although non-recognized in their home state.

On its edge, the city of St. Louis has long stood as one of the most visually segregated major cities in the United States. A raised map of St. Louis could be shaded in based on color lines, and one could learn how to (mostly) safely navigate it. It is where Dred Scott was denied his legal suit for freedom in 1857, based partially on the grounds of “any person of African heritage is not a citizen of the United States,” on the steps of the city’s former courthouse downtown. An area that now proudly commemorates itself as the location of this infamous act, now noting it as a spot of progressive history.

Crossing into the recreational realm of sports, the state has also been painfully slow in adapting to cultural acceptance as well. The St. Louis Cardinals were the last National League team to integrate its roster after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Tom Alston appeared for the team in 1954, some seven years after Robinson reached Brooklyn.

It would seem ridiculous to think that Bill Russell would ever be anything besides a Boston Celtic. But digging into the NBA archives and reaching the 1956 Draft, which brought the future 11-time champion to the league, it reflects that it was originally the St. Louis Hawks who selected him with the 2nd overall pick that year. However, being acutely aware the environment he would be subjected to on a daily basis in the St. Louis area, Russell refused to report to the Hawks, and forced the trade to the Celtics, stating that he would “rather not play basketball than have to do it there.”

All the while, during the 76 years since Gaines’ victory (and subsequent loss) to break the barrier at Mizzou, the acts of hostility both socially and institutionally never truly subsided. The campus’ first black students did not occur until 1950 (which provided the inspiration for the “Concerned Student 1950” movement, which is currently ongoing). It was 12 years later that the first minority organization, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated was granted a charter by the University. It took another five years after that for a black student government, the Legion of Black Collegians (LBC), to be recognized. Three years later, the first African-American professor reached the school’s ranks.

All the while, the tensions between the student body stayed at odds. The LBC came to exist due to the fight back from black students against a Confederate flag waved in their proximity at a football game. To this day, the LBC holds its meetings in the campus’ Black Culture Center, which was initially established as sanctuary and gathering point for black students and black culture in the midst of their plight on campus. It currently stands on grounds where an African-American fraternity house was burned down in the 1970’s.

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The before & after: the sign on the grounds of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri. Freshly vandalized on the evening of November 12, 2015 amid racial unrest on campus.
The before & after: the sign on the grounds of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri. Freshly vandalized on the evening of November 12, 2015, amid racial unrest on campus.

In a striking showing of things remaining the same, this building and meeting ground for African-American students was the site that was vandalized with cotton balls thrown into its bushes late in the night in 2010.

So perhaps it is fitting that that this same location was the pivotal meeting point of all of the decisive elements that turned the current state of affairs at the university on its ear: racial unrest, rebellion against the status quo and the world of sports.

Because despite the fact of the impassioned pleas of graduate student Jonathan Butler and his bold hunger strike in mutiny against the actions and standing status of the then University system president Tim Wolfe, the movement was once again being largely ignored and treated as a passing rain cloud and the most recent dispute from the campus’ “angry black men/women.” But it all changed when the football team took notice of it all and decided enough was enough.

On Saturday evening, the African-American rank of the Mizzou football team made the public stance that they would support the up rise of their fellow African-American students and vowed to not return to the football field until the demands of Butler and the LBC were heeded. This was a leverage of position by the school’s most profitable entity in an unprecedented manner (the school stood to lose upwards of $1 million if the team did not play Saturday’s game vs. BYU), and it was one that got the nation’s attention.

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The notion was stunning in the fact that more often than not, athletes are treated as being in a world unto themselves and above the reproach of the everyday student. They are deemed as sources of entertainment and representative school pride, but not much more than the uniform they wear that gives them that position.

However, when they shed their helmets, left Faurot Field and stood in the main hall of the Black Culture Center not as athletes and jersey numbers, but as a gathered showing of black men that wanted better for themselves on a deeper basis, the country began to pay attention and results followed at a stunning pace. Less than a day later, both Wolfe and school’s chancellor were removed. The national media converged on the campus and began reporting the happenings on campus and reasons for it, and showcased the decades of regularly oppressive tactics that have been an everyday part of the life of African-American student at Mizzou. Where the athletes turned their focus, results followed.

To say what happens from here is an ever-changing picture. It would be naïve to believe that racism at the school will suddenly disappear. Even since the joint show of support between the football program and protestors on campus, there have been even more intensified anonymous backlashes at the campus. Between online message boards threatening indiscriminate violence towards minorities on campus, to even the sign outside of the Black Culture Center having the word ‘Black’ covered in black spray paint in the middle of the night, the situation is far from solved.

However, it says something to power that is given to athletics and entertainment that when the football team turned its focus, both the institution and the country did as well. It is unfortunate that it required that for the minority voice to be heard, but will endure as a turning point example in the power that athletes and minorities wield in pulling for what they believe to be right, and doing so in numbers.

We can not erase history, but both the present and the future can be changed when true position is leveraged in such a striking and focused manner. And athletes, who are far often told to stay in their lane and only perform the task they are notable for, have the true power create changes well outside of the scoreboard. Robinson, Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and many others have proven this before, and it is fair to place the 30+ Mizzou football players whose example provided such an instant catalyst in the same vein into this lineage as well.

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