What happened at the University of Missouri has sent shockwaves throughout this country: A startling coalition of students and faculty just forced the top leadership of the University to resign. The students had had enough. A swastika drawn with human feces on a residential dorm was the latest incident in a long list of ugly incidents, which made it clear that some people believed that black students did not belong at the University of Missouri. The image and the medium spoke volumes about those who composed it.
President Wolfe’s tepid response sealed his fate, but as with every other issue involving race in America, change is never given; it must always be won. And the student protests, Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, the faculty’s threat of a walk out, and the strike among black football students announced that a new wave of campus activism has arrived, armed with the power to bring real change. The nation has been put on notice.
We have seen something like this before. In 1968 and 1969, black students organized protests across some two hundred campuses in the United States. These were among the first significant wave of black students on predominantly white campuses, and they brought with them the energy and expectation of the black freedom movement—particularly the militancy of Black Power. They pushed for the hiring of black faculty, argued for an increase in financial aid for African American students, and pressed administrators to support black living spaces. In short, they challenge the whiteness of American universities and colleges.
These students took over buildings, participated in demonstrations, and organized campus strikes to change American higher education. As Martha Biondi notes in her wonderful book, The Black Revolution on Campus, “these student activists forced a permanent change in American life, transforming overwhelmingly white campuses into multiracial learning environments. The academic community would never be the same.”
This is not to suggest that the activists won. As the first wave of black students on white campuses their very presence changed the game, but while they could challenge the whiteness of universities, they lacked the leverage to truly uproot it. A brief glance at the demands of the black students at the University of Missouri shows how little has changed.
What Missouri’s “coalition of the willing” demonstrated, however, is that the nature of the protests has dramatically changed—especially if black student athletes join in. Campus protests didn’t end after 1970. Over the decades, students have continued to make demands and threatened to take over buildings. Yet much of this protest has had a kind of nostalgic flavor to it, reminiscent of the student activism of the sixties.
What we saw in Columbia, Missouri, was something different. There was nothing nostalgic about it. The protests were decidedly of this moment. These students are shaped by the startling contrast of the nation’s first black president and the black lives matter movement. They have seen the viral videos of police brutality, and many have watched family and friends struggle to recover from the economic devastation that has left their lives in shambles. They have witnessed, some even participated in, the convulsions of Ferguson and Baltimore.
And they have taken to heart the lessons of those protests in making their case on campus. When the black football players joined with #ConcernedStudent1950 and in solidarity with Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, they revealed a kind of power in coalition that shook the University to its core—a kind of power the first wave of black student activists in the 1960s simply did not have, but whose labor made possible. The combination of continued student disruption, the economic leverage of the football players (people who can’t be so easily discarded), and the administrative power of the faculty added up to a force the university simply could not ignore.
And what’s more these activists have given students at other schools a working blueprint for change. Can you imagine what would happen at Ohio State or the University of Alabama or UCLA or any major institution of higher learning if similar coalitions dared to act in a similar vein?
Well…the activists have. One even posted on her Facebook page:
Dear Predominantly White Institutions, and HBCU’s soon too:
Y’all gon learn today.
The Nation has been put on notice. We should brace ourselves for more protests to come.
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., is the author of the forthcoming book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. He is the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.