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The history of black students’ fight for equality at the University of Missouri

In 1938 a black honors student from St. Louis named Lloyd Gaines won a lawsuit against all-white Mizzou to attend its law school.
In 1938 a black honors student from St. Louis named Lloyd Gaines won a lawsuit against all-white Mizzou to attend its law school. Twitter

The University of Missouri’s problems with race date to its earliest days.

1839

The University of Missouri is established in 1839 as the first state university west of the Mississippi River. Like many colleges and universities at the time, it only admits white, male students. Only a few colleges exist for black students.

1865

Slavery is abolished in Missouri several months before the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even so, “Jim Crow” practices enforcing segregation of whites and blacks in the South, and Missouri, persist.

1866

Troops from the U.S. Colored Infantry establish Lincoln University in Jefferson City to provide secondary and higher education for black students in Missouri.

1935

A black honors student from St. Louis named Lloyd Gaines applies to Missouri’s School of Law and is denied admission. Aided by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Gaines sues the all-white university, challenging the “separate, but equal” policies of the country’s education system.

1938

In December, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Missouri must admit Gaines to its all-white law school or create a satisfactory law school equivalent for black students. The court rules that providing a law school for whites but not blacks is discrimination, and providing black students tuition to attend out-of-state law schools instead is discriminatory, too.

The move helps pave the way for the civil rights movement and is considered the legal framework for the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 ,which banned segregation in public schools.

The stage is set for Gaines to enter the Missouri Law School in the spring of 1939 as the university’s first black student. He is a reluctant civil rights hero.

“As for my publicity relative to the university case, I have found that my race still likes to applaud, shake hands, pat me on the back and say how great and noble is the idea,” he writes to his mother in St. Louis. “Sometimes I wish I were just a plain, ordinary man whose name no one recognized.”

1939

In south Chicago, Lloyd Gaines heads out on a rainy night in March to buy stamps. He is never seen or heard from again. His disappearance remains a mystery today.

In 2006 George Gaines accepts an honorary doctor of law degree from MU on his uncle’s behalf.

1939

Lucile Bluford is accepted into Missouri’s School of Journalism for graduate work but when she arrives on campus she is turned away because she is black.

She is a working newspaper journalist, having graduated with honors in 1932 from the University of Kansas.

With the help of the NAACP, she files the first of several lawsuits against Missouri on Oct. 13, 1939. Her case is denied many times.

When the state’s Supreme Court rules in her favor in 1941, Missouri’s School of Journalism responds by closing its graduate program, saying it doesn’t have enough professors or students because of World War II.

Bluford’s career at the Kansas City Call, where she works her way from reporter to publisher, helps turn the newspaper into one of the most important black newspapers in the country.

When she accepts an honorary doctorate from Mizzou in 1989, she says she accepts “not only for myself, but for the thousands of black students” Missouri has discriminated against over the years.

1950

Missouri admits nine black students, including Gus T. Ridgel, who becomes the first black student to receive a graduate degree from the university.

1968

Racial tensions erupt at a football game when the marching band waves the Confederate flag and the crowd sings “Dixie.” Black students respond by waving a black liberation flag.

The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity founds the Legion of Black Collegians, the school’s official black student government. The LBC demands changes from the administration: Create a black studies program and black culture center, hire more black faculty, actively recruit more black students, dedicate a campus building to a black leader.

1969

Mizzou hires Arvarh Strickland, the school’s first black professor. He teaches the first black history class at Missouri and helps found a black studies minor in 1970.

1971

The Black Culture House opens on campus. In 2000 it is renamed the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center to honor Gaines and Marian O’Fallon Oldham, Mizzou’s first black female curator.

1977

Reacting to reports that the Grand Dragon of the Missouri Ku Klux Klan has authorized a chapter in Columbia, the Missouri Student Association passes a bill condemning the KKK and creates a task force to sponsor an anti-racism rally and deal with racism on campus.

1987

In April, students and faculty march on campus to demand that more minority students be enrolled — black students make up 3.2 percent of the student body at the time.

1988

In response to the official homecoming theme, “Show Me Old Mizzou,” the LBC creates its own theme: “Show Me a New Mizzou: Black to the Future.”

1989

Political science professor KC Morrison becomes the first vice provost for minority affairs and faculty development, overseeing efforts to recruit minority students and faculty.

1991

Responding to student rallies, MU officially recognizes the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for the first time.

2004

The school starts the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative aimed at creating a more welcoming and inclusive campus.

2006

The Missouri Student Association votes to remove T.A. Brady’s name from the student center. A student-led campaign argues that Brady, the first MU professor to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, was homophobic and supported segregation.

2010

On Feb. 26, two white MU students — Sean Fitzgerald, 19, and Zachary Tucker, 21 — scatter cotton balls outside the Black Culture Center. School officials consider it “more than a childish prank.”

The two are sentenced to two years’ unsupervised probation and 80 hours of community service.

At their sentencing student Bryan Like, who is black, testifies: “The action that was taken in placing the item, which has a very strong connection with my culture, with my ethnicity, in a place that I am located in often, was a slap in the face.”

2011

After the cotton ball incident, and another in which someone spray-painted “(bleep) n-word month” on a campus statue, students launch the One Mizzou initiative to build community inclusiveness.

“For the past two years, certain (see: white, male) students have found creative ways to remind minority students of their ‘lesser place’ at Mizzou through public racist acts,” writes a columnist in the student newspaper, The Maneater.

“The idea that emerged was One Mizzou, a proactive response to the racist (stuff) that kept popping up on campus.”

2014

The fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., inspires students and faculty members to participate in demonstrations. Social media becomes a valuable tool in organizing and joining forces with protests going on at other campuses across the country.

2015

April

On April 9 and 10, swastikas and anti-Semitic epithets are found written in ash in a stairwell of an MU residence hall. The graffiti reportedly does not just target Jews.

“This goes to show that maybe we’re not as progressive and inclusive as we think we are as a campus,” says Chantelle Moghadam, co-founder of Students Supporting Israel, a new campus student organization.

On April 21, police arrest 19-year-old MU student Bradley M. Becker and charge him with property damage motivated by discrimination.

Becker tells police he “acted in the spur of the moment” and was inspired by YouTube videos.

August

Demonstrations and anger at the administration flare up on campus after the school says it will stop providing health care subsidies for graduate student teaching and research assistants, blaming the Affordable Care Act for the move. The workers are given one day’s notice of the change.

Grad assistants threaten to walk out; talks of unionizing spring up. Mizzou reverses its decision, but not before the teaching and research assistants join forces with student activists fighting against racism on campus.

One of the graduate students rallying the troops is a veteran of the Ferguson protests: Jonathan Butler.

Sept. 12: Student government president Payton Head gains national attention with a Facebook post about being called racial slurs by white people riding in the back of a pickup truck. He expresses frustration with bigoted and anti-homosexual sentiments on campus.

“For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here,” he writes.

Sept. 17: Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin issues a statement saying he has “heard from far too many of you who have experienced incidents of bias and discrimination on and off campus. This is particularly hurtful when our students are the target.”

Sept. 24: More than 100 students gather at Speakers Circle for a rally called “Racism Lives Here,” protesting what they call the administration’s slow response to and lack of action regarding Head’s concerns about racism on campus.

Says graduate student Danielle Walker: “The University of Missouri does not care about its black students.”

Walker points out that the MU response comes up short in comparison to the swift action taken in an incident at the University of Oklahoma. In March, when members of OU’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter were caught singing racist songs on a bus ride, two of the students were expelled and the chapter was shut down. “Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners are not racists,” said OU’s president.

Jonathan Butler leads protesters to Jesse Hall where they chant “It is our duty to fight for our freedom!” and “We must love and support each other!”

October

Oct. 4: A white student, reportedly drunk, disrupts the Legion of Black Collegians, said to be the only black student government in the United States, as it prepares for homecoming in Traditions Plaza and uses a racial slur when he’s asked to leave.

“Not only did this individual disrupt our rehearsal, but we were also made victims of blatant racism in a space that we should be made to feel safe,” the group says in a statement.

As the incident becomes public, MU students, alumni and college students across the country began tweeting their support using the hashtag #StandWithLBC.

The Missouri Students Association Executive Cabinet issues a statement condemning the act. “The symbolism of this incident occurring on a space meant to be built on the ‘traditions’ of OUR University speaks volumes to where we stand today,” it says.

Loftin, who also tweets about the incident, records a YouTube video in which he is visibly angry.

“Hate and racism were alive and well at Mizzou … It’s enough! Let’s stop this!” he says. “We’re part of the same family. You don’t hate your family. You don’t call your family those kinds of names.

Oct. 8: Loftin orders diversity and inclusion training for MU students and faculty beginning next year.

In an open letter to Loftin in the campus newspaper, Butler welcomes the news but accuses the chancellor of failing to acknowledge the scope of Mizzou’s racial problems.

Oct. 10: During the homecoming parade, student activists block UM System president Tim Wolfe’s convertible to protest Mizzou’s history of and ongoing problems with racism.

The scene, which begins peacefully, takes a turn when bystanders begin heckling the students, yelling at them to “move on!” One white man tries to grab the bullhorn from one of the protesters.

The protesters later charge that the car’s driver revved the engine at them and that the car tapped Butler during the incident. They also accuse the police of using excessive force to clear them from the street.

Student body president Head is angry that Wolfe “smiled and laughed” during the protest.

Wolfe apologizes to the students — nearly one month later.

Oct. 20: Accusing the administration of ignoring its concerns, the student group Concerned Student 1950, named for the year MU admitted black students, issues a list of demands.

It wants an apology from Wolfe for the homecoming incident. The group also wants him removed from his job and a more comprehensive racial-awareness curriculum created.

Oct. 24: A swastika drawn with feces is found on a restroom wall in Gateway Hall. According to the police report, made public Nov. 12 after the veracity of the story is questioned, campus police find the swastika in a coed restroom.

The incident prompts the executive board of the Residence Halls Association and other student leaders to consider new safety protocols for the residence halls.

Oct. 26: Wolfe meets privately with Concerned Student 1950 members but does not agree to their demands.

The group issues a statement saying Wolfe “did not mention any plan of action to address the demands or help us work together to create a more safe and inclusive campus.

“Wolfe verbally acknowledged that he cared for black students at the University of Missouri, however he also reported he was ‘not completely’ aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus.

“Not understanding these systems of oppression therefore renders him incapable of effectively performing his core duties.”

November

Nov. 2: Butler begins a hunger strike at 9 a.m. He sends a letter asking UM’s Board of Curators, the system’s governing body, to fire Wolfe.

“Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou in a positive direction but in each scenario he failed to do so,” says the letter.

Butler vows to “not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.”

To support Butler, members of Concerned Student 1950 begin camping out on Carnahan Quad. They set up signs around their encampment declaring “safe space.”

Among his allies are a coalition of Jewish groups who are upset with Loftin for his “lack of action” after the swastikas were discovered in the dorm. Several deans on campus call for Loftin’s removal.

Nov. 5: Concerned Student 1950 holds a walkout on campus pushing for Wolfe to be removed from his position. Students join the group, marching and chanting across the campus to various locations, including Jesse Hall, Speaker’s Circle and Memorial Union.

Nov. 6: Butler, who has been keeping supporters updated on his condition on Twitter, tweets: “I woke up this morning w(ith) the same amount of pain I did yesterday but a little more lightheaded. So I will be taking things very slow.”

The same day, and nearly a month after the homecoming parade incident, Wolfe issues an apology.

“I am sorry, and my apology is long overdue,” Wolfe says in a statement. “My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment.

“Racism does exist at our university and it is unacceptable. It is a long-standing, systemic problem which daily affects our family of students, faculty and staff.”

Later that night, in Kansas City, Wolfe is confronted by student protesters who challenge him on his understanding of systemic oppression.

In the exchange, recorded by one of the protesters, Wolfe awkwardly answers that it’s systematic oppression “because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.”

“Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?” yells one of the protesters in angry disbelief.

The video of the confrontation spreads quickly on Twitter, touching off scores of angry comments about Wolfe.

Nov. 7: Black football players on the University of Missouri football team announce they won’t practice or play until Wolfe is removed.

A photo posted to social media shows 32 black football players and the message: “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere’ We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”

The move attracts national attention to the hunger strike that the protesters have campaigned for. Mizzou is slated to play BYU in a game on Nov. 14 at Arrowhead Stadium. If the team doesn’t play, the school will be obligated to pay a $1 million forfeiture penalty.

One politician who speaks to Wolfe about the protests later tells the New York Times that Wolfe was “kind of oblivious to the fact that he was at the center of this.”

Nov. 8: Head football coach Gary Pinkel expresses solidarity with his players, tweeting a photo of the team and coaches locking arms.

“The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players,” says the message.

It is the beginning of the end for Wolfe as the protesters begin picking up public support, and big-money donors begin worrying about the university’s image.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon issues a statement saying concerns about racism and intolerance at Mizzou must be addressed.

Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweets her support for the protesters.

The Missouri Students Association’s executive cabinet calls for Wolfe’s ouster, also, saying the system’s administration “has undeniably failed us.”

Nov. 9: Wolfe resigns.

“This university is in pain right now … and it needs healing,” he says at a meeting of the Board of Curators. “We have to stop yelling at each other to work problems out and focus on how we can improve the day and the future and not focus on the past.”

Later in the day, chancellor Loftin also announces his resignation, effective at the end of the year.

I want to acknowledge his extraordinary courage and leadership,” Loftin says about Jonathan Butler. “A very tough, tough young man, a very focused young man, a very intelligent and forward-looking young man, so we owe him a lot.”

Donald Cupps, chairman of the Board of Curators, apologizes “on behalf of the university for being slow to respond to experiences that are unacceptable and offensive in our campus communities and in our society.”

Cupps says the system’s first chief diversity, inclusion and equity officer will be appointed within 90 days as part of a review of all system policies.

During the celebration among student protesters after the announcement, two student journalists have a confrontation with allies of Concerned Student 1950 who try to prevent them from entering the “safe space” around the protesters’ camp.

A video of the clash goes viral that shows Melissa Click, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, calling for “muscle” to push the media way.

Public backlash against her is swift and harsh.

Student-journalist Tim Tai, hailed by the media for standing his ground, tweets that he never meant to become part of the story.

At a rally after Wolfe’s resignation Butler talked about the months of protests and other actions taken to push for change. “It should not have taken this much, and it is disgusting and vile that we find ourselves in the place that we do,” he says.

Nov. 10: The day after Wolfe’s resignation begins and ends with tension.

For much of the day the clash between protesters and media dominates the headlines out of Columbia.

Click resigns her courtesy appointment with the university’s Journalism School but remains at her post in the Communications department.

Later in the evening, threats against black people are posted to the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak.

“I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see,” one of the messages reads.

“We’re waiting for you at the parking lots,” reads another. “We will kill you.”

With bad weather moving in, protesters break down their temporary tent city under police protection.

As word of the Yik Yak threats hits social media, and rumors of KKK sightings around campus and other threats pick up speed on Twitter, fear spreads. Some professors cancel classes for the next day, restaurants near the campus close and students at other universities send stay-safe tweets. University officials caution students not to spread rumors.

Student body president Head apologizes for a Facebook page that seems to indicate a KKK presence on campus.

Nov. 11: Police arrest Hunter Park, 19, a sophomore computer science student at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and charge him with making terrorist threats.

Later, police arrest Connor Stottlemyre, 19, of Blue Springs, a student at Northwest Missouri State, for allegedly making threats against blacks.

“I’m going to shoot any black people tomorrow, so be ready,” read the Yik Yak post that police say Stottlemyre wrote.

Nov. 12: The Board of Curators names longtime Mizzou administrator Mike Middleton as interim president of the four-campus system.

Middleton, currently professor emeritus of law at MU, retired Aug. 31 after 30 years at the university.

Sources: The Kansas City Star, The Maneater, Columbia Missourian, Columbia Daily Tribune, Associated Press, University of Missouri archives, CNN, The DailyDot, The New York Times, The New York Daily News, U.S. News & World Report, University of Missouri archives.

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