After a diverse series of protests against racism at the University of Missouri and the administration’s lack of action, the university’s president and chancellor have decided to resign from their positions. For months, student activists have hit the school administration with a variety of different protests, including blocking cars and hunger strikes, with the knockout blow coming from the school’s football team refusing to practice or play.
“This is not the way change should come about,” former university president Timothy M. Wolfe said in the statement. “Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. And we have to respect each other enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening and quit intimidating each other. Unfortunately, this did not happen and this is why I stand before you today and I take full responsibility for this frustration and I take full responsibility for the inaction, which has occurred.”
Within two days of the football team’s announcement that — in solidarity with other student activists — they would not practice or play in any games, Wolfe announced that he would step down. Hours later, university chancellor R. Bowen Loftin also resigned, stating that he would take on a research position in the school starting January 1. Many then focused on the football team’s actions as the main factor in this victory for the students.
“If the football team gets behind a cause, that cause is going to win,” Missouri student radio station KCOU general manager Kyle Norris told Texas A&M University’s The Batt. “Football has that much influence on what’s going on, because it’s such a money grab.”
And while the football team’s strike would ultimately land the finishing blow to Wolfe’s tenure as university president, the various protests that led to the football team strike were just as important in achieving this victory. Each protest made the administration’s inaction more and more blatant until the football team felt a duty to step in and flex their political muscles to save a fellow black student’s life.
Back in April, a swastika and the word “heil” were found scribbled at the Mark Twain Residence Hall on campus. After the hateful graffiti was cleaned off, a swastika and “You have been warned” appeared the next day. A freshman at the school was later arrested for allegedly being behind the graffiti.
On September 12, the Missouri Students Association President Payton Head, a young black man, posted a Facebook status discussing a racist incident that had happened to him the night before. On Friday night, as Head walked through campus, a group of men in the back of a pickup truck yelled racial slurs at him as they rode past. Head also said that a similar incident happened to him during his sophomore year. The post quickly went viral.
“I’ve always dealt with microaggressions, and there’s racism in all sorts of things that we do, but never directly had someone said something like that to me, out of hatred, to my face,” Head told The Maneater, the university’s campus newspaper. “Like, they looked me in the eye and called me the n-word.”
Later on September 24, students staged their first “Racism Lives Here” rally on campus to protest Loftin’s slow and inadequate response to what happened to Head. The students gathered at Speakers Circle on the campus and gave speeches about Loftin’s slow response and unimpressive letter regarding the incident. Loftin had refused to even use the word “racism” in his statement. After the speeches, they chanted and marched to Jesse Hall.
“Let me be clear about what I think of this letter: Fuck this letter,” graduate student Danielle Walker told The Maneater. “Fuck this letter, because it continues to perpetuate the fact that Mizzou doesn’t give a damn about its black students.”
A second “Racism Lives Here” rally was then held October 1 where students marched around the student center and gave speeches.
“Let us be clear that until the administration takes a serious stance on racism on our campus, we will be marching until we are guaranteed justice,” Walker told The Maneater. “They say they are for the students. Well, we are the students.”
A few days later, on October 5, as the Legion of Black Collegians, or LBC, was going through its 2015 Homecoming Royalty Court rehearsal, a drunk white man stumbled on stage, refused to leave, and then hurled racial slurs at the black students. LBC President Warren Davis later released a statement on what happened and on the casual racism that pervades the campus. The next day, students held a sit-in on the floor of Jesse Hall for four hours with breaks where students would stand and chant. During the sit-in, students once again said that school administrators were doing little about the racism on campus.
On October 8, Loftin announced that beginning in January, students, staff and faculty would be taking “diversity and inclusion” training. Two days later, 11 students locked arms and blocked Wolfe’s car during the homecoming parade to get him to finally address the racial climate on campus. Wolfe never even got out his car. After 10 minutes, police threatened to pepper-spray the students and forced them out of the way. A third “Racism Lives Here” rally took place on October 10, but was ultimately cut short.
On October 20, student activist group Concerned Student 1950, named for the year black students were first allowed on campus, issued a list of demands including Wolfe’s resignation and more diversity in the faculty and staff. On October 24, yet another set of swastikas were found written in feces in a bathroom on campus. Concerned Student 1950 then met with Wolfe on October 26, but — according to a statement released afterward by the group — the university president “did not mention any plan of action to address the demands or help us work together to create a more safe and inclusive campus.”
Then, on November 2, graduate student Jonathan Butler announced on Facebook that he would be going on an indefinite hunger strike until Wolfe resigned.
“Students are not able to achieve their full academic potential because of the inequalities and obstacles they face,” Butler told The Maneater. “In each of these scenarios, Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou.”
This hunger strike went on for days and is what finally led the football team to go on strike, refusing to play despite an upcoming game against Brigham Young University. Missing the game would have cost the school more than $1 million, which likely made things much more urgent for Wolfe. He soon resigned along with Loftin. But as the football team themselves acknowledge, they were ultimately pushed to action by the previous protests, particularly Butler’s hunger strike.
“It is not about us,” senior defensive back Ian Simon said in a statement. “We just wanted to use our platform to take a stance as fellow concerned students on an issue that has special meaning, as a fellow black man’s life was on the line. We love the game, but at the end of the day, it is just that — a game.”