By now we all know that University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe, and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin have resigned after protests by Concerned Student 1950, a hunger strike by grad student Jonathan Butler, and the support of the protests by faculty, members of the football team and its coaching staff.
Dave Zurin’s piece at The Nation, 3 Lessons From University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe’s Resignation, makes an important point:
The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement threatens the operating of this machinery like nothing since the black athletic revolt of the 1960s and 1970s. These conferences, particularly the Southeastern Conference, field teams that, in the words of sports sociologist Harry Edwards, “look like Ghana on the field and Sweden in the stands.” In other words, black football players in particular have a social power often unseen and not commented upon. It’s there all the same.
These athletes are a sleeping giant. At a school like Mizzou, where just 7 percent of the students are black but a whopping 69 percent of the football players are, one can see how their entry in the struggle had a ripple effect that tore through Columbia and into the college football–crazed national consciousness.
This is not the first time that racism has reared its ugly head on college campuses across the U.S., and it won’t be the last. It is the first time in recent years that black student protest has had such powerful results.
The protests involved a list of demands from the student group. They have achieved some of them, and it is important to see how the University will deal with the rest.
Here is the list of demands from Concerned Student 1950
During the University of Missouri’s 104th homecoming parade, Saturday Oct.10, 2015, eleven black student leaders on campus interjected themselves into the parade, presenting UM system president Tim Wolfe, and the Columbia community with a demonstration addressing Mizzou’s history of racial violence and exclusivity. The demonstration covered the raw, painful and often silenced history of racism and discrimination on the University of Missouri’s campus. This history of racism at Mizzou dates back to 1935 when Lloyd Gaines petitioned the university to be its first Black law student and was denied admission. The actual year the first Black student, Gus T. Ridgel, was accepted in the University of Missouri wasn’t until 1950, hence this is where the concept of “Concerned Student 1950” comes from.
The mention in the demands of Lloyd Gaines, and Gus Ridgel piqued my interest, and I found this interview with him.
After he filed a lawsuit in 1950, MU was forced to admit Ridgel as its first African-American graduate student. He said the NAACP contributed to his education because money from his GI Bill had run out. Ridgel, who completed his undergraduate degree magna cum laude at Lincoln University, said he never experienced overt racism in the classroom, but he dealt with it elsewhere in Columbia. He recalled being denied service at local restaurants and coffee shops.”There was segregation off-campus,” Ridgel said. “There was no place I could eat.”
Ridgel lived alone in a two-person dorm room because no one was willing to live with him. The university originally tried to make him pay the full price but eventually only charged him the price of a single. According to Ridgel, the president of the student government association offered to live with him but retracted his offer after students threatened to run his father out of business if he did. Ridgel didn’t have much time to enjoy a social life, although he did view a couple of football and basketball games. He managed to complete the coursework of a two-year master’s program within one academic school year, in part because of finances.
Ridgel graduated in June of 1951 with a master’s degree in economics.
I was also curious about Lloyd Gaines, who had applied in 1935. Much to my surprise, I found an unsolved mystery.
On March 19, 1939, police in Missouri received the report of a missing person - 28-year old Lloyd Gaines -- who was black. In the 1930's, he was the plaintiff in one of the most important court cases in the U.S. civil rights movement. Gaines was denied admission to the all-white University of Missouri Law School. Gaines sued, and the US Supreme Court ruled in his favor. An additional lawsuit was planned, but Gaines disappeared. To this day, his fate is unknown.
In a Washington Post piece, writer Robert Elias, author of a forthcoming book “At What Price Equality? The Heroic Court Battle and Mysterious Disappearance of Lloyd Gaines.” wrote:
Lloyd Gaines had just become a civil rights pioneer. Denied admission to the University of Missouri’s Law School in 1935 because he was African American, Gaines sued, without much hope of winning in Jim Crow America. Yet after the U.S. Supreme Court finally heard his case in 1938, the justices ruled that unless Missouri created a black law school overnight, it would have to admit Gaines to the all-white law school. This was astonishing news for a black boy born dirt-poor in rural Mississippi who had watched racism follow his family’s migration north to St. Louis.
In the spring of 1939 it appeared, remarkably, that Gaines would enter the Missouri Law School later that year as the first African American ever enrolled there. On the cold, rainy evening of March 19, Gaines told a housemate he was going to buy stamps. He went out . . . and was never seen again. What happened to Lloyd Gaines? Did he vanish because he and his family were threatened? Was he bribed to abandon his plans? Was he overwhelmed by the pressures of fighting his case? Was he so traumatized that he committed suicide? Was he murdered by racists? Did he leave the country?
There is evidence for all these theories, but the case has never been solved, or even seriously investigated, despite occasional pleas to the FBI by the NAACP and others. Not only did this legal trailblazer vanish, but the extraordinary story of his life and groundbreaking efforts also have been largely overlooked.
It wasn’t too long ago that I wrote about the states’ checkered history with race in ‘Show Me’ Missouri racism. What I didn’t write about was a lynching in which white Missouri U students, male and female, participated, which you can read about in detail here: The Lynching of James T. Scott: The Underside of a College Town
I suggest reading Summary Justice: The Lynching of James Scott and the Trial of George Barkwell in Columbia, Missouri, 1923, by Doug Hunt, for more of the history:
In the spring of 1923, in a university town that had been proud of its progressive attitudes, a mob of several hundred men and women gathered to watch the lynching of a black man accused, wrongly it seems, of raping a professor’s daughter.
The lynching caused a national outcry among black activists. “We are glad to note,” W. E. B. noted in The Crisis, “that the University of Missouri has opened a course in Applied Lynching. Many of our American Universities have long defended the institution, but they have not been frank or brave enough actually to arrange a mob murder so that students could see it in detail.”
Hunt’s book describes both the mob’s actions and the attempts of some citizens, black and white, to bring its leaders to justice. Enthusiastic readers of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” may be interested in this account of how justice operated in a Southern town when its representatives were men more ordinary and flawed than Atticus Finch.
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Hundreds looked on as an angry mob dragged a black University of Missouri janitor from his jail cell in April 1923, publicly lynching him before he could stand trial on charges of raping a white professor’s 14-year-old daughter.
Historians say the instigators included some of Columbia’s most prominent citizens. The crowd that watched James T. Scott hang was filled with laughing and cheering students from the first public university west of the Mississippi River.
Efforts are being made to correct the horrors of the past. In 2010:
Eighty-seven years later, civic leaders have come together to confront an ugly episode in Columbia and correct the record on the death of Scott, who insisted the rape allegation was a case of mistaken identity. Local filmmaker Scott Wilson teamed up last month with the Boone County medical examiner’s office to successfully lobby state officials to change the cause of death on Scott’s death certificate.
The primary cause is now listed as “asphyxia due to hanging by lynching by assailants.” A secondary cause of “committed rape” was removed and now reads “never tried or convicted of rape.” “This was done solely for one purpose,” Dr. Michael Panella, associate medical examiner, said of the original listing. “And that was to justify an unjustifiable and heinous act.”
It is a good thing that this ugly history is once again seeing the light of day. Let us not forget we haven’t buried racism — yet. Its roots are deep in this nation, in Missouri, and at the campus. The Missouri protests do not stand alone however, since there are currently protests underway at SUNY Plattsburgh, and at Yale.
(cross-posted to Black Kos)
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