What the Media Missed: The Missouri Student Revolt in Historical Perspective

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Robert Cohen is a Professor of Social Studies at NYU Steinhardt, and an Affiliate Professor in the History Department at NYU.

Students protest at the University of Missouri on Sept. 25. (Photo courtesy J. Herrick The Maneater)

Related Link In Solidarity with Students at the University of Missouri (Public Letter Signed by Professors)

The mass media have never been very good at covering student protest. Back in early December 1964, for example, the press totally missed the significance of Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio’s historic speech calling for mass civil disobedience, which helped inspire the largest campus sit-in in American history. Though Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech would eventually end up quoted in most US history textbooks and in narrative histories of the 1960s, even leading newspapers, such as the New York Times, garbled Savio’s words and ran articles that gave no hint that his speech was one of the most memorable dissident orations ever made on a university campus. It was not until a week after the sit-in that Jazz columnist Ralph Gleason, who heard the music in Savio’s words, became the first print journalist to quote Savio’s speech extensively and accurately, and alerted the world that Savio’s “classic words” of resistance to unjust authority would be long remembered.

This media tendency to miss the historical significance of a student protest was again on display this past week in the coverage of the revolt led by African American students at the University of Missouri.  Though reporters did cover the story few set it into historical context, and none seemed to realize that Missouri’s student movement against racism has with lightning speed emerged as arguably the most effective on-campus student revolt in American history.  In less than a week the Missouri movement was able to win its central – and not easily attainable – demand, the removal of Timothy Wolfe, the University of Missouri’s racially insensitive president, and also brought down the chancellor as well. Wolfe has been replaced by Michael Middleton, a veteran African American academic leader, with a strong civil rights record, including a history of anti-racist activism in his own student days at the University of Missouri in the late 1960s. 

Not even Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement could match the speed of this victory; it took some three months, the better part of a semester – from mid-September though December 1964 – for Berkeley students to win their free speech victory, ending the restrictions on political advocacy at Cal. About the only student movement that prevailed with the speed of Missouri’s was Deaf President Now, the revolt by students at Gallaudet University back in 1988, demanding that their university remove its newly appointed president for a deaf president. But if the Gallaudet students  matched Missouri in winning in a week they could not match Missouri in the originality of their tactics. For while the Gallaudet students used familiar 1960s-style civil disobedience, seizing the campus and closing it down until its demands were met, the Missouri protesters won via a fast by black graduate student Jonathan Butler – who said he would not eat again until President Wolfe stepped down – which within days inspired the university’s African American football players, and then their coach and white teammates to express solidarity with Butler by threatening to boycott its next intercollegiate game unless Wolfe’s presidency was ended. Estimates were that such a boycott would cost the university at least a million dollars, and that economic pressure seems to have played a crucial role in provoking Wolfe’s resignation.

The speed of the Missouri student movement victory, though clearly facilitated by the football team’s demand for Wolfe’s ouster would not have been possible without the Ghandian tactic, the fast, initiated by Butler. Indeed, it was partially out of concern for Butler’s health that the team acted as quickly as it did. So it was this combination of a classic dissident act, a fast, and a highly unusual boycott threat by the football team, a wedding of conscience and economic clout, a black initiated action that enjoyed interracial support from the team’s white  football coach and players, that forced Wolfe’s resignation.

While the quickness of the Missouri movement’s victory is impressive, that victory can at the same time be seen as a long time in the making. Yes once the Butler-football team solidarity came together the movement managed to dump Wolfe in a matter of days. But the roots of Butler’s commitment to ousting President Wolfe and battling racism at the University of Missouri and the rise of a Black student movement on that campus had deeper historical roots.

The Missouri campus is close enough to Ferguson to have been impacted by the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 and the ensuing protests by the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, Butler is himself a veteran of that movement. And in response to numerous racist incidents on campus – including racial slurs directed at black students, racist and anti-Semitic graffiti in the dorms – Missouri’s African students developed a critical historical consciousness – symbolized in their taking on the group name Concerned Student 1950 (1950 being the year that the university desegregated) – displayed most dramatically in the history lesson they taught during their blockade of Wolfe’s car at the Missouri homecoming parade last month. 

Speaking through their megaphones, a small group of black student protesters including Butler, sporting T-shirts that read "1839 Was Built On My B(l)ack," (referring to the slave labor that made possible the university’s founding that year), tried to teach Wolfe and an increasingly unfriendly white homecoming crowd the crucial dates in the campus’s black history and the racist incidents that they had experienced. Allegations that Wolfe’s car had bumped one of the protesters, and his refusal to even acknowledge these black student demonstrators during that blockade, where they were jeered and jostled by whites and finally removed by the police, helped make Wolfe’s removal a priority for the movement.  Wolfe’s removal came to seem all the more urgent as the president repeatedly responded to the anti-racist student movement with inaction and incomprehension.

Wolfe’s resignation this month does not represent total victory for the student movement since it remains to be seen how effective Missouri’s new administration will be in battling campus racism. The death threats directed at black students in the wake of Wolfe’s ouster suggest that Missouri’s new president and Concerned Student 1950 have a difficult job in front of them as they seek to liberate their campus from its racist past.  But on one level the threats themselves are a testament to the movement’s stunning rise to power, since they reflect the ire of prejudiced whites over the ability of Missouri’s African American student activists to not merely demand but win a change of administration.

Moving beyond Missouri, the question now is how influential the political tactics and precedents set by the victory on that campus will be among student activists nationally. Back in 1970, in the wake of the Kent and Jackson State tragedies, the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest (popularly known as the Scranton Commission) reflected back on the Free Speech Movement’s role in pioneering tactics soon used nationally by student protesters in the 1960s. The commission termed as “the Berkeley invention,” the Free Speech Movements use of civil disobedience and related tactics on campus to empower students. Berkeley students had taken the sit-in tactic first used off-campus in the civil rights movement against segregated lunch counters and used it to blockade a police car on campus and to occupy the university administration building. Such occupations became widespread in antiwar, black power, and other student movements on campus later in the 1960s. Given how novel and effective Missouri’s combination of a student-fast and football boycott threat have been it seems fair to term this new hybrid tactic “the Missouri invention” and to ponder the prospects that it will be emulated on other campuses. 

Unlike the “Berkeley invention,” Missouri’s is not completely portable. In 1960s America students on any campus could emulate their Berkeley counterparts by holding sit-ins, occupying administration buildings, staging student boycotts of classes, and holding mass protest rallies to demand changes on their campuses and beyond. But the tactics that led to change at Missouri require the economic clout and full support of the university’s football team, and many campuses do not have a major football program or any division I athletic teams. So only on campuses that are part of the billion dollar intercollegiate football industry or its counterpart in intercollegiate basketball can student activists hope to follow the Missouri route to student power. 

Fasting is of course a more universally accessible tactic. But without the added clout of the football team’s boycott threat it is unlikely that the Missouri protesters would have succeeded in ousting Wolfe. On the other hand there are more than a hundred colleges and universities that do have division I football programs, and given the strong representation of African American athletes in them there is now reason to think that other campuses with poor records on race will find themselves challenged by student movements allied with such athletes in anti-racist protest movements.  

The student victory at Missouri seems sure to encourage a campus counterpart to the Black Lives Matter movement; it may also inspire college athletes – who already have discussed unionization – to flex their muscles politically on behalf of their own economic interests and grievances.  At Missouri in 2015, as at Berkeley in 1964, students discovered and prevailed by wielding a new source of power, and such power tends be magnetic since students are ordinarily a relatively powerless group.  Back in the 1968 after the mass rebellion and strike at Columbia University, student radicals spoke of “One, two, three, many Columbias.” It is too soon to say, but there may now be student activists drawn by this same slogan, only they are thinking about the Columbia in Missouri not the one in Manhattan.  



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