The University of Missouri has been a battleground for the struggle against racism, oppression and underrepresentation on college campuses. This came to national and international attention in early November. After a series of racist attacks — including hate speech and vandalism — went unanswered by the school’s administration, a vibrant Black student movement arose to fight against white supremacy at Mizzou.
Students demanded that the university president, Tim Wolfe, resign or be fired due to his negligence in responding to the racist terror that students were facing on campus. The hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950 was used by students to draw powerful connections between the year that the first Black graduate student, Gus T. Ridgel, was admitted to the university, and the concerns and needs of every Black student at Mizzou since then.
As Black students continued to face a marginalization that is deeply rooted in the racism found in predominantly white institutions, their strength and determination manifested in various ways. From protests to a hunger strike by Jonathan Butler, a 25-year-old African-American graduate student, to the announcement of the Missouri Tigers football team that they would boycott the remainder of the season until Wolfe was terminated, Mizzou students proved that they were dedicated to combating systems of oppression on their campus.
While all the connected student organizing that took place at the university should be applauded, it is necessary to note the particular weight of the players’ act of resistance. Universities and athletic conferences bring in billions of dollars annually, primarily from the unpaid labor of student athletes, an issue which was the subject of national debate earlier this year when the Northwestern University football players attempted to organize into a union. By withholding their labor, the Mizzou football team drew on the most powerful weapon the working class has at its disposal: the strike. The players took a huge risk, endangering their future careers as students and athletes, but it paid off: Within just 36 hours of the player’s announcement of their strike, President Wolfe resigned.
In direct retaliation to the courageous action of the football team, Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin co-sponsored a now withdrawn bill that would have penalized the players for their actions to bring awareness to racism on campus and demand accountability from the university administration. House Bill 1743 threatened the freedom of speech of the players, including the right to protest and boycott, for it specifically stated that “any scholarship athlete who refuses to play for a reason unrelated to health, shall have his or her scholarship revoked.” (Edge of Sports, Dec. 15)
Yet, this bill was more than just an infringement on the player’s right to organize. Though the university’s student body is only 8 percent Black, 69 percent of the athletes are Black. This bill — a legislative version of the reactionary sentiment, “Shut up and play” — is a direct attack on the personhood of these Black students. Though the bill was withdrawn, it is a clear indication of the ruling-class agenda that Missouri’s legislature was so eager to rule out college athletics as an arena of class struggle. Similarly, the Northwestern players were ultimately denied the right to form a union by the National Labor Relations Board in August.
In defense of HB 1743, Brattin stated, “I sincerely believe students should be able to express their viewpoints, but I also believe our flagship state university has to keep and maintain the order that is expected from such an esteemed educational institution.” (Huffington Post, Dec. 16) Brattin’s sentiments reek of the oppressive respectability politicians often use to police Black voices. His need for “institutional order” mirrors the historic repression of Black resistance at the expense of our personhood. His “sincere” care concerning Black self-expression is limited to what fits the confines of systematic silencing and erasure.
While we celebrate the victory of Wolfe’s resignation and the withdrawal of the bill, we must not forget that it will take protracted struggle to fight against racist terrorism on college campuses and to also recognize that student athletes are superexploited, and deserving of a living wage and union, like all workers. The struggles are inextricably linked.