A quote from African-American tennis great Arthur Ashe adds perspective to the earthshaking move by black University of Missouri football players over the weekend to threaten a boycott of future games over the failure of the MU system to address racial incidents aimed at black students.
Ashe wrote in 1990 about efforts to end apartheid in South Africa: “For 21 years I have been hearing from anti-apartheid South African activists that ‘sport is the white man’s Achilles’ heel; he can’t do without it.’ ”
MU’s players proved how much power they wield. Their action over the weekend followed some professional black football players running onto the field last year with their hands up to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement after the fatal police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the MU team’s stand is where athletics and social activism have bonded, which could result in meaningful change. It’s long overdue.
When I was a student on campus from 1973 to 1977 and for years afterward for the students I talked into going there, drive-by racism occurred often, and neither faculty nor staff did anything about it. That created an environment of fear in the post-civil-rights era, extreme tension and mistrust. Finally some action is occurring.
At MU, system president Tim Wolfe on Monday resigned at a university board of curators meeting. So did MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Their attempts to address MU’s racial problems have been weak and ineffectual.
Part of the tension has been over a graduate student, Jonathan Butler, starting a hunger strike last week and refusing to eat until Wolfe was out. Butler ended his hunger strike Monday with the resignations.
The players’ action caught the attention of the national media and the backing of head football coach Gary Pinkel and his staff. Forty-one of Mizzou’s 58 players on offensive and defensive depth charts are African-American. That’s not a percentage to be ignored. The football team resumed practice Tuesday and on Saturday will face off against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium as scheduled.
The larger current protest is driven by African-American students calling themselves Concerned Student 1950. The name is tied to the year the first black students were admitted to the university.
Two campus incidents of racism have made headlines. One occurred shortly after midnight Oct. 4 as members of the Legion of Black Collegians were practicing for homecoming and were verbally assaulted by someone shouting racial slurs at them.
But earlier Missouri Students Association president Payton Head told on Facebook of drive-by racial slurs he endured from white males riding in the back of a pickup truck. This is not new at MU.
To understand the problem, people need to look at the race relations history of MU and the surrounding community.
Over the years I have had that conversation with Jim Nunnelly, 73, who is an MU graduate and avid supporter. He grew up in Columbia. His parents worked for the university. MU is dear to Nunnelly both personally and professionally.
“I’ve got two closets of MU T-shirts and sweatpants,” he said in a telephone conversation Monday.
He received an academic scholarship and was a student on campus from 1960 after graduating with honors from segregated, all-black Douglass High School. He graduated from MU with a bachelor of arts in English and worked in the dean’s office of the medical school in 1969, which helped direct the longtime Kansas Citian into health care.
But Nunnelly explained that when he was a student, “Dixie” was regularly played at MU football games with the lyrics “I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten.” But he also recalled seeing a homecoming parade — mostly driven by fraternities and sororities — on a Saturday morning in which whites on horseback dressed in Confederate uniforms marched through town with some people in blackface ahead of them dressed as slaves.
“The slaves represented whoever the opposition was” for the homecoming game, he said.
Nunnelly recalled being offended as a student, but “it was so hard to articulate why that would be offensive.”
It’s important to understand that MU is rooted in a part of Missouri called “Little Dixie.” Signs on Interstate 70 near Columbia have even noted that history.
Because of segregation’s continued grip on the former slave state, many white students from big cities to rural areas arrive on campus never having firsthand experience with African-Americans. Many continue to do and say what they’ve always done and said without respect or an awareness of how offensive that might be to the university’s growing diversity.
Blacks represented about 7 percent of the student body in 2014; 3 percent were Latino and 2 percent Asian. Nunnelly said there were 21 or 22 black students total when he was first on campus and no black professors. In 2014, 3.25 percent of the full-time faculty was African-American. Arvarh Strickland in 1969 became the first African-American faculty member, and Theodore D. McNeal in 1971 became the first black appointed to the University of Missouri board of curators.
Those firsts were easy fixes. Continuing the progress has been hard. Getting students and staff at MU to be welcoming and respectful of the diversity on campus will be even more difficult.
“It’s very hard to get your hands around what’s wrong,” Nunnelly said.
He characterized the black students’ feelings as an “angry fear.” They are angry over the recurring incidents of racism and fearful of the effects that and the protests will have on them and their education.
It’s not something that white students have to contend with. The paternalism of the university often gets in the way of forging change.
Nunnelly, former administrator of Samuel U. Rodgers Community Health Center and former administrator of COMBAT, Jackson County’s anti-drug program, said students need to reach out to MU’s black alums to understand the history and help forge meaningful change.
It would be a good step to get the university and all of its students on the right path.