Beholding Mizzou and the Power of Black Students

After a series of protests, most recently a hunger strike by a graduate student and more than 30 Black student-athletes announcing they would not practice or play, pledges of social change came to the University of Missouri on Monday. Many of the demands of the Black student activists and their allies were met in principle. Not only did President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin both resign, but the University of Missouri Board of Curators announced a series of initiatives. The Board gave into the students’ demands for mandatory diversity training for all Mizzou students, faculty, and staff, and the creation of strategic plan for diversity, pledging to implement these and other reforms over the next 90 days “to address the racial climate on its campuses.”

The constant racist slights suffered by Black students, their mass organizing, their forming of coalitions with non-Blacks and non-students suffering their own slights, the list of demands, the protests, the media coverage, the administration giving in and then having to hear the ire of racists—these events at Mizzou reminded many Americans in their 60s and many historians of the 60s of a movement that began exactly five decades ago: the Black Campus Movement (1965-1972).

Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee speaks on the campus of Florida A&M University in 1967

I have been writing on and speaking about the Black Campus Movement (BCM) for years. And what still captivates me the most is not that those campus activists forced the institutionalization of Black Studies, Black cultural centers, and diversity offices—and their activism yielded an unprecedented rise in the numbers of Black students, faculty, staff, and administrators. What still captivates me the most is not the sheer scale of the Black Campus Movement—hundreds of thousands of Black students and their allies organizing, demanding, and protesting at upwards of 1,000 historically White and Black colleges in 49 states. What still captivates me the most is not these Black campus activists forcing their colleges to embrace the diversity ideal (leading to efforts of the last fifty years to ensure campuses were living up to their professed ideals).

What still captivates me the most is the sheer power of Black students and their antiracist allies. What captivates me the most is the process of how Black students have been able to impose their will on wayward administrations of today and yesterday. During the 1968-1969 academic year, which was the climax of the BCM, more than seventy college presidents resigned. After all these years—as the Mizzou example shows—Black students and their allies are still amassing power and wielding it to push academia forward.1

(Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Jonathan Butler, a University of Missouri grad student who did a seven-day hunger strike (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

The process of just how these students amassed their power, and how they ended up wielding it captivates me, even as this process can be and probably has already been quickly lost to protest and sports headlines. Commentators have talked endlessly this week about these resignations and pledges of reforms stemming from concerns over the losing of football dollars and recruiting turf and getting those athletes back on the field. And they are not wrong. Black football student-athletes at major college programs are the most powerful students and Black people on their campuses—more powerful than the handful of Black faculty, or the couple of Black administrators. Mizzou power brokers almost certainly realized they needed to stop that athletic boycott before those players started demanding more than Wolfe’s resignation—before they started reciting all of eight of the demands released by Mizzou’s #ConcernedStudent1950. Mizzou power brokers almost certainly felt the pressure from outsiders to end this thing before it spread to the rest of the almighty Southeastern Conference. It is no secret we would not even be talking about this issue if not for the athletic boycott. It was the key to change—that should be understood—as all of two days of these student-athletes boycotting opened the door to resignations and reforms. But why were they willing to use their key on Saturday evening? Who—or shall I say what ideas and actions ushered these powerful Black student athletes to the door of protest in the first place?

To overlook the process is to overlook the way in which it took several months for students to foment the crucible of the boycott. And the crucible did not just stem from previous protests, like the courageous hunger strike of graduate student Jonathan Butler, or the protest disruption of the homecoming parade on October 10. These Black students and their allies won some serious intellectual battles on their campuses. These student activists’ framing of the Mizzou administration as irreversibly racist and uncaring won the day, crucially among those 30 Black players and their sympathetic teammates and coaches. And in winning those serious battles, they amassed their power base. And after amassing their power base, Black student power came in full display at Mizzou for all of us to see.

  1. Stefan M. Bradley, Harlem vs. Columbia: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.