University of Missouri: A Win for Students against Racism

In this brief Teachable Instant activity, students learn about how organizing by Black students and their allies at the University of Missouri led to the resignation of the university's president and helped spark a wave of organizing on campuses nationwide.   


Read students this quote from Payton Head, president of the Student Association at the University of Missouri, Columbia:

"I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society."

Ask students if they know why Payton Head made this comment. 

Explain or elicit that his comment was in response to racist epithets that had been yelled at him on campus. This fall, Head and other students organized protests against racism at the University of Missouri that have led to the resignations of the university's president and the Columbia campus chancellor.

 Ask students to read the following, or share the information with the class.

 Students mobilize against racism

Sustained student protests over racism at  the University of Missouri have led to the resignations of the university's president and the Columbia campus chancellor. The protests, which were joined by faculty members and other allies, began after a series of racist incidents at the school this fall:

  • Racist slurs were yelled at Student Association president Payton Head, a Black man.
  • A group of Black students rehearsing a play was interrupted by a white man shouting the n-word at them.
  • Students found a swastika drawn with feces on a dorm bathroom wall.

The incidents at the University of Missouri were not the only outbreaks of racism on college campuses this semester. Here are some of the many others that have been reported:

  • At Claremont McKenna College in California, Dean of Students Mary Spellman responded to a student article on campus racism by referring to students "who do not fit our CMC mold." (After protests, she resigned.)
  • At Yale, a guard at a fraternity party announced, "We're only looking for white girls."
  • At UCLA, white students appeared in baggy pants and blackface at a campus party.
  • At an alumni panel at Ithaca College, a white alumnus repeated referred to an alumna of color, Tatiana Sy, as a "savage" after she talked about a "savage" hunger to succeed.
  • At Michigan Technological University, a student was arrested for posting "Going to kill all Black people" on the Yik Yak social media site.
  • The racial epithet "nigger" was carved into the door of a Fordham University student.

At Missouri, students of color and their allies did not allow the racism to be noted and forgotten. Students repeatedly called on the university president to take some action to address the hostile racial climate. The students formed a group called Concerned Student 1950 (the year the first Black student was admitted to the school). They held protests, sit-ins and met with MU President Tim Wolfe. Their demands included: a racial awareness curriculum, an increase in Black faculty and staff, increased funding for the counseling center, and the resignation of Wolfe.
The protests gained momentum as support grew around the campus.  One student activist, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike to protest the university's  inaction. He vowed to continue his fast until Wolfe resigned. Several graduate student organizations (which were already fighting health insurance cuts and the ending of a contract the university had  with a Planned Parenthood clinic) joined the movement. Faculty support steadily grew.
Black members of the football team threatened a strike.  The players posted a tweet: "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' experience."
Head Coach Gary Pinkel gave his full support and posted a picture of the entire team and coaching staff linking arms in solidarity.  


The threatened strike had a powerful effect, since the team generates enormous revenues for the university.
A group of professors, Concerned Faculty, led a walkout of classes.
Finally, on November 9, President Wolfe resigned his position. He admitted that he should have acted sooner.  Students, faculty and their allies celebrated the victory. (See this New York Times slideshow.)
On November 11 and 12, students on campuses across the country protested in solidarity with Missouri, and against racism on their own campuses. They organized marches and teach-ins, and  called for administrators to resign. They created new organizations, including the Black Ivy Coalition, with representatives from all the Ivy League colleges.


For Discussion 

1. With the recent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and now the widespread campus activism, is there a new civil rights movement happening?
2. The Concerned Student 1950 has won a victory with the removal of the college president. What additional steps do you think students at UM and other colleges might take to counter racism on campus?
3.  Some have charged that the campus anti-racist protesters’ calls will lead to a limiting of  free speech and open debate on campus.  What do you think of this argument? How can we encourage the free expression of ideas while also helping ensure that students are safe from incidents such as those described at the beginning of the reading?