Tensions at the University of Missouri came to a head this past weekend, as student protests over a number of racist incidents forced system president Tim Wolfe to hand in his resignation. Despite earlier calls for peaceful discussion between the students and university faculty, Wolfe announced on Monday that he took "full responsibility for inaction that ha[d] occurred," expressing regret for how he had handled the mounting calls for change. The protests, which have become more frequent and intense in the past few weeks, have recently managed to capture the national media spotlight. So who are the student activists behind the MU protests and what do they want?
According to the students themselves, racism has been a problem on MU's campus since before the school first began admitting black students in the 1950s. Founded in 1839, the campus was built using slave labor and its forbears largely supported the slave trade itself. But even after the school began accepting black students, undergoing a monumental shift in the '60s during the Civil Rights era, the line between black and white never quite went away, with tensions bubbling up regularly in the form of hate-filled social media posts, racial slurs, and anonymous bullying. After Ferguson teen Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in August 2014, black students protesting the incident claimed the hostility against them became even worse.
"Not only do our white peers sit in silence in the face of our oppression but also our administrators who perpetuate that oppression through their inaction," wrote the student group Concerned Student 1950, in a letter to the University on Oct. 20 that detailed a list of demands. "The Black experience on Mizzou's campus is cornered in offices and rarely attended to until it reaches media, [and] ... only then, do campus administrators seek reactionary initiatives to attest to the realities of oppressed students, faculty, and staff."
Concerned Student 1950 wasn't the only group protesting the University's alleged inaction either, with members of the university football team threatening to boycott the remainder of their games until Wolfe stepped down, and the Missouri Students Association (MSA) calling for Wolfe's resignation as well. Included in those groups were a number of prominent student leaders who stepped forward to lead the charge.
One of Concerned Student 1950's leading members, Ayanna Poole has been actively (and creatively) protesting discrimination and injustice since Brown's death last year. In an interview with Newsy this week, Poole explained why the student activists were targeting Wolfe in their protests and demanding his resignation. "He's the starting point," said Poole. "That's what it is, because since he's not holding everybody else accountable, he's not doing good in his leadership position."
Poole also served as the point of contact between Concerned Student 1950 and the university football team, which first began boycotting practice and games on Nov. 7. "The players came to us because they wanted to take the initiative and give their community a better platform to fight injustices," Poole added in an interview with espnW on Monday.
Butler, a 25-year-old University of Missouri graduate student, has been at the helm of MU's student-led protests for some time, but it wasn't until recently that the rest of the country knew his name. In a letter to the university's Board of Curators on Nov. 2, the Nebraska native promised that he would not "consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of [his] health until either Tim Wolfe [was] removed from office," or until he suffered multiple organ failure — a promise which he successfully kept, and one around which the campus community circled its wagons until Wolfe handed in his resignation on Monday morning.
"For me, I'm fighting for justice," Wolfe told The Washington Post in an interview on Monday. "It's really plain and simple."
Head is the current MSA president at the University of Missouri. According to a now-viral post on his personal Facebook page, the Chicago native had been walking home from class on Sept. 11 when a man riding in the back of a passing truck began yelling racial slurs at him. "Some guys riding on the back of a pickup truck decided that it would be okay to continuously scream [the N-word] at me," Head wrote. "This is what I'm fighting against ... this is my reality. Is it weird that I think that I have the right to feel safe here too?"
Head has been actively leading fellow students in shows of protest for the past few weeks, telling The Washington Post that the story has become a national sensation because it was "not just something that happened" in Missouri. "It's not a Mizzou issue," Head told the Post. "It's a societal issue."
Student activist and McNair scholar Delan Ellington has been helping to lead the Concerned Student 1950 front of the MU demonstrations, the group that compiled the original list of demands sent to the university in October. However, Ellington's activism goes back much further than the most recent round of protests: At a student gathering in December last year, following months of contentious protests over the death of Michael Brown, Ellington spoke to a crowd of 500 supporters, explaining that black men and women should not "have to fear that one day [their] mother[s] would have to bury [them] after a confrontation with police."
"It is time for action," Ellington tweeted on Nov. 4, posting a photo of a Concerned Student 1950 flyer, which detailed ways students and faculty could join in on the boycott and support Jonathan Butler's hunger strike.
Another leading member of Concerned Student 1950, graduate student Danielle Walker is the organizer of the "Racism Lives Here" movement on MU's campus and was working closely with her fellow student activists long before the national media caught wind of the latest incidents. "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 a crowd of protesters, many of whom held signs that read, "I am not here because of affirmative action" and "#BlackLivesMatter," at a campus gathering in late September. "They say they are for the students? Well, we are the students."
Curtis Taylor, Jr.
University student Curtis Taylor, Jr. currently serves as the Director of Student Communication within the MU student association. In a now viral video posted on Twitter Saturday, Taylor was seen leading a group of student activists through the school's campus dining plaza and giving a moving speech about the university's perceived inaction.
"To the lady in admissions who thought it was okay to say the University of Missouri is making strides for change — obviously not," Taylor argued. "Racism lives here and so do we, and if you're uncomfortable, [then] I did my job."
Images: Adam Procter/Flickr