Perhaps on the outside looking in, the events at the University of Missouri appear baffling. They’re not.
I taught there from 1996 to 2008. The recent racist incidents and lackadaisical administration response, which sparked the amazing display of student solidarity, is part and parcel of a long-established pattern.
Long history of racism
Founded in 1839 in a slave state, the University of Missouri, known affectionately as Mizzou, is the state’s flagship, Research 1 campus. But even 100 years later it held fast to the slavery legacy.
In 1936, an African American, Lloyd Gaines, was denied admission to the Law School solely because he was black. Missouri’s constitution, it was argued, called for “separate education of the races.”
Gaines challenged the decision and won in front of the Supreme Court - in fact, the State of Missouri ex rel Gaines v Canada, case is one of the key rulings on the road to the landmark Brown v Board of Education (1954) decision.
In response, the university administration tried to do whatever it could to stop the enrollment of black students, including actually paying the tuition for African Americans to receive an out-of-state education.
Although the US Supreme Court ruled that Gaines had to be admitted, he never stepped foot into the Law School. In one of the great mysteries of the 20th century, Lloyd Gaines simply disappeared.
And for more than a decade no black student entered the university, despite the Gaines decision.
It was only in 1950, after another series of Supreme Court decisions – Sweatt v Painter, Sipuel v Oklahoma, McLaurin v Oklahoma – made clear that the walls of racial segregation were cracking in higher education, that the University of Missouri finally geared up to admit its first black student, Gus T Ridgel.
But Ridgel lived alone because no white student would room with him. He had to go off campus to a coffeehouse because every social space on campus was “whites only.”
A telling memo in the university archives, which I uncovered in my research, shows that the only way the university prepared for this transformative moment was to search for someone on campus who could be a shoulder for Ridgel to cry on when the possible epithets, shunning, or outright blatant discrimination happened.
What the administration did not set out to do was to make the epithets, shunning, and blatant discrimination unacceptable and therefore unlikely. The onus, instead, would be on Ridgel to absorb the attacks, to figure out how to soldier on through the blows.
Students organize but racism continues
In the midst of our own struggles on the campus, I researched further into the university’s commitment and found that African American students in the late 1960s formed the Legion of Black Collegians. They experienced a campus that hovered somewhere between being indifferent and decidedly hostile to their presence.
They strategized. They organized. They mobilized.
Three of their top demands were: hire African American faculty – there were none; establish a Black Studies program – there wasn’t one; and remove the 5 ½ ton “Confederate Rock” – dedicated in 1935 and a symbol of the state’s struggle to hold onto its slave owning past – from its prominent place on the campus.
It was only through a long series of protests and meetings that the students’ demands were met. But, as is the nature of Mizzou, it was not quite a victory.
For example, the so-called Confederate Rock, a memorial to Missouri men who fought for the South, finally got dislodged from the university only to be relocated a few blocks away to the courthouse, which backs right up against the black neighborhood in Columbia, Missouri. The rock has been at the courthouse for more than 40 years.
It has taken the recent race-related killings on June 17, 2015 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to reignite the debate over where the rock should be sited.
Faculty faces racism
Then there are issues that confront black faculty. Despite students’ enormous efforts, the administration managed to undermine the issue of black faculty.
Records in the university archive make clear that nearly a decade after the student uprisings of the 1960s, the administration, ostensibly to deal with budgetary concerns, decided to reorganize and close several departments.
As the target list began to circulate, one administrator noted that the majority of all African American faculty were located in the departments slated for closure.
The administration’s documented response was a simple, “yes, we know.” They then proceeded to shut down those departments.
As is documented in a memo, dated April 1982, kept in the University of Missouri Archives, the number of African American faculty subsequently plummeted. This then led to a mediation agreement in 1988 between the US Department of Justice, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the university to address the problem. Mizzou promised to do better.
However, between the late 1990s to the early 2000s, there were fewer than 50 black faculty (out of more than 1,500 total) at Mizzou.
I personally observed an onslaught of racist incidents. In one such incident, a white student, angry with her grade, cursed at an African American professor in the classroom and followed the faculty member all the way into the department’s office swearing the entire time.
I worked with the faculty member as she tried in vain to get someone in the university to condemn the student’s actions.
In another case, I watched another professor being denied tenure by her department because her research and teaching – the attributes for which she was allegedly hired – were about African Americans and, therefore, “not mainstream.”
Eventually, as the incidents mounted, black faculty mobilized. We gathered oral histories. We collected data. We pored through the university archives to discern the patterns. And we met with the provost and the chancellor repeatedly. But nothing happened. The administration urged the African American professors to “just let it go.”
As has happened now, it was only through the intervention of the head coach of a prominent high school basketball program, that the administration agreed to take some action.
This happened in 2004.
Will the resignation have any meaning?
Eleven years later, African American students at the University of Missouri have experienced this same phenomenon.
Once again, they brought the evidence to the administration. They met. They discussed. One student even went on a hunger strike. But, once again, nothing happened.
Black students, apparently, were just supposed to “let it go,” absorb the hit, take the blows, and soldier on.
The administration did eventually decide to take action but only when the football players threatened to boycott the season and the university, it seems, saw a threat to the athletic revenue stream.
The resignations, however, will have no meaning if the university does what it has done before: abdicate responsibility for courageous, effective leadership and expect strong African Americans to just “let it go,” absorb the hit, take the blows, and soldier on.