November is the month where we truly kick off the holiday season! In a couple weeks, families across the country will be passing around portions of freshly brined turkey and mashed potatoes. If you’re anything like me you look forward to gorging yourself. I always wake up and skip breakfast because I know that I am going to drown myself in cornbread dressing, gravy, and cranberry sauce that afternoon. I know what it is like to count down the very seconds until I can devour the sweet morsels baked with love the last Thursday of this month. But, does our generation truly know what it is like to be hungry… for justice? At the University of Missouri, we have seen a group of students who are hungry for change in the culture of their campus as well as their leadership.
Everyone has seen the film strip of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have A Dream’ speech–most likely it was during a Black History month lesson, many Februaries ago. We have all seen the videos of the marches, and the black and white stills of the protests, and sit-ins–all done corporately to change the way African Americans were treated in this country. The Montgomery bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in which Rosa Parks and lesser known, Claudette Colvin, started a well-known phase of the ‘movement (if you will) toward equality in public transportation. The results of the boycott that lasted 381 days was the Supreme Court ruling that determined that any other law requiring racially segregated seating within the bus system was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. After that landmark victory, several years later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The people of that time were desperate for change–they were hungry for progress, and progress occurred.
History has shown us is that when people come together, they can make change happen. But, I had recently been wondering about the strength of today’s civil rights movement. In the 1950s’ and 1960’s people who didn’t have much were compelled to join their labor and financial resources together. They were fine with abandoning their own individual efforts if the greater whole could succeed. These days it is much more difficult to garner that type of solidarity. As a people, African Americans have more economic freedom on some level, but our social freedoms seem to be in more danger now than they ever were. Despite having an African American President, we are seeing endless cases of police brutality, gun violence, and data that shows the legal system is disproportionately biased when it comes to African American men.
We (as a race) have transcended an age where making sure the families of others are fed and clothed and disciplined into a ‘every man for himself’ mentality and a ‘I got mine, you get yours’ methodology. Yet, even with some of the nonchalance we have seen, I am very encouraged by the courageous and results driven actions of the students at the University of Missouri. There had been a string of racial incidents on the campus including incidents in which students were addressed with racial slurs and a swastika of human feces was drawn in a residence hall. The students had tried to wait for the administration to address the issues. When they did not, they called for resignation of the University’s president. The racially charged incidents fed into mounting tensions, and we saw the rise of an unapologetic leader, Jonathan Butler. Butler decided to go on a hunger strike the morning of November 2, 2015, and it lasted seven days. He wasn’t satisfied with what the University’s President had done to address racial concerns. He said in a statement posted on facebook that he would not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of his health until Tim Wolfe [was] removed from office or [his] organs fail[ed].”
The football team joined in on the action threatening to not take the field in a game against Brigham Young University that could have cost the University approximately $1 million dollars. Hitting the University ‘where it (really) hurts’ was a tactic that we also saw in in the civil rights movement. With an exorbitant amount of money hanging in the balance, it is not surprising that these protests were effective. The legislature even called for president’s resignation. At a press conference, President Tim Wolfe said that he hoped the University of Missouri could begin the healing process in his absence. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin also vacated his position for one that is more ‘research oriented’ in the wake of all of the campus unrest. Some may argue that calling for the resignations of leadership was extreme, but I think it shows strength and unity. It reinforces the power that students (and anybody else) can have when joining forces to achieve a shared goal. It is the bravery of the freedom fighters half a century ago that allow me (for the most part) to go about my daily activities in peace. It is the tenacity and the fearlessness that they showed that will allow me to travel to my family’s home in South Carolina and not see a burning cross or feel threatened by the presence of supremacists in white sheets. I am thankful for both the past leaders and the ones that are just now cutting their teeth on the sweet meat of victory.
I used to worry a bit more about the future of social justice and civil rights–not because no one is talking about it, but, because newer, younger leadership has failed at times to have a strong presence. With the #BlackLivesMatter movement and now a new awakening amongst conscious collegiates–like the ones at Mizzou, we are seeing the baton passing from those like Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson, to new activists. These advocates will run the next leg of the race toward a society who will not put up with injustice–no matter how big or small the racial faux pax. What we have learned here, class, is that there’s honestly nothing more effective than a group of people, influenced by a strong leader, with the conviction to see their process through. I applaud them. There are similar movements going on at Yale University and Ithaca College in response to incidents ranging from black women being turned away from a fraternity party in adherence to a ‘white girls only’ policy to offensive remarks made by public safety officers at resident advisor trainings. Jonathan Butler and said in his statement that his life was in God’s hands. This is reminiscent of a young Dr. King. King and others and others were willing to (and did) sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Dr. King said:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Martin Luther King Jr. – I’ve Been to the Mountaintop
The journey for racial justice and change at the University of Missouri is just beginning. There are surely more victories to come; In the spirit of the season, I am thankful that these students are showing some (and reminding others) what it is like to have a voracious appetite for something other than pumpkin pie and green bean casserole. These new, young drum majors for justice were insatiable when it came to their convictions, and one in particular didn’t mind starving for the cause.Image Credits: Jonathan L. Butler, KCUR, Coach Gary Pinkel