A boycott's birth: How the Missouri race protests began

AP News
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Posted: Nov 22, 2015 10:36 AM
A boycott's birth: How the Missouri race protests began

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — On the day he met with black players for the University of Missouri's football team, graduate student Jonathan Butler hadn't eaten for six days.

The players wanted to know why. Butler told them: The school's president, Tim Wolfe, had repeatedly ignored concerns of black students. He'd rather starve than live with an alma mater that condoned racism.

Usually a world away from the center of campus at the athletic complex, the players were surprised and angry. They decided to launch a protest of their own: They wouldn't practice or play until Wolfe resigned or was removed. Until the fellow student they had only just met could eat again.

The team surrounded him and linked arms in solidarity. They snapped a photo: Thirty black men standing with another too frail to stand on his own.

"They were literally holding me up," Butler said.

The image, tweeted on a Saturday night, did in 48 hours what student activists hadn't been able to in several weeks and what black students before them hadn't been able to do for decades. It put a national spotlight on black students' experiences at predominantly white college campuses, touching off demonstrations around the country. By Monday, Wolfe was gone.

It was a moment pulled off by two groups of students whose paths, before that week, had rarely crossed.

"A lot of times, we're not a part of normal campus life," said defensive back Anthony Sherrils. "When it comes down to black, white, whatever the nationality is — we're all together as one."

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The roots of the protest began decades ago, when the University of Missouri, founded in 1839, enrolled its first black student in 1950. The first black varsity athlete enrolled in 1956.

Those who came behind them have been fighting for equality ever since. The current activist group, Concerned Student 1950, is named for the admission milestone.

In 1968, the Legion of Black Collegians — the black student government — began. Missouri's interim president, Michael Middleton, is a Legion founder said to keep in his desk a list of demands the group presented to the school in 1969. Among them: increased hiring of black faculty and increased enrollment of black students, concerns that echo today.

While they worked, the athletic department was growing as more black students enrolled. Today, about 7 percent of the 35,000 students at the state's flagship school are black. That figure is much different on its sports teams: the revenue-generating men's football and basketball teams are nearly 63 percent black. Missouri has grown into a national power on the football field, securing an invite into the Southeastern Conference, the premier league in college sports.

Butler first saw and experienced racial tension at Mizzou as an undergraduate. In 2008, he said someone wrote the N-word on his dorm door. In 2010, white students scattered cotton balls onto the grounds of the black culture center.

"Things were continuing to be swept under the rug ... to the point where there's so much under there, you trip over it," Butler said.

When protests erupted in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, last year after the death of Michael Brown, Missouri students — including Butler and other members of Concerned Student 1950 — got involved to protest disparate treatment of minority communities by police.

Butler saw himself in Brown, the unarmed black teenager killed by a white officer whose death sparked unrest in cities across the country. When he returned to Missouri this fall, Butler was looking for a way to channel his feelings into action.

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The new school year brought fresh insults. The black student president was called the N-word. A swastika was scrawled in feces on a dorm bathroom door.

At the beginning of the semester, Butler said the group tried reaching out to various administration officials, recounting to them their experiences as black students, sharing books, YouTube videos and articles about white privilege.

No response.

Next, the group decided they would hold a demonstration during homecoming. It turned out to be a showdown between the students — known as the "Original 11" or "Brave 11" around campus — and Wolfe.

"It was super intense," said DeShaunya Ware, a senior at Missouri. "(Wolfe) didn't stop the spectators or the police from ... physically intervening. They used the Mizzou chant to drain out our voices."

Concerned Student 1950 immediately called for a meeting. They sat down with Wolfe more than two weeks later and listed their demands: for Wolfe to respond to their actions, for him to acknowledge the existence of racism on the campus and to tell them whether he had a plan.

"We asked him direct questions: 'Do you care about black students? What do you think about our demands?'" Butler recalled.

Again, they said, no response.

Butler was desperate. Since the homecoming clash, he'd been mulling the idea of a hunger strike to get his point across. He studied examples of nonviolent civil disobedience. He consulted a doctor, a pastor.

After the meeting, his mind was made up.

Did he think he might die? "I was prepared to do so," he said.

He told the rest of members of Concerned Student 1950 hours before his strike began. Though they feared for his health, they vowed to support him. On Nov. 2, Butler stopped eating.

He made his protest public, setting up a tent on "The Quad" in the heart of campus.

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Mizzou sophomore wide receiver J'Mon Moore was driving on campus Nov. 4 when he passed near The Quad.

Moore parked his car, and got out to mingle with protesters. He found his way to Butler, who had only seen Moore playing football on television.

"I had never met him," Moore said. "I just saw someone in need and wanted to help."

When Moore got home, he told his roommate, Sherrils, about what he had seen. There were texts, and phone calls. Another conversation with sophomore defensive lineman Charles Harris and senior co-captain Ian Simon.

Two days later, the group reached out to the Original 11 and said they wanted to meet.

For about an hour, the players and the protesters talked. Butler ran down how Wolfe failed to respond to incidents involving black students at Missouri.

The players responded with surprise "like, 'Wow, we really didn't know this was happening,'" Butler said. "And then also just being upset because of the shared identity of being black ... They still face racism, but they face it in a different way."

"They've been told they're not supposed to speak on things like this, but they couldn't just sit back and not let anything happen," said Ayanna Poole, a senior and another member of the Original 11.

The team huddled and came back with a decision. We're going to support you, they told Butler. They met with their coach, Gary Pinkel. Some in tears, they shared their plans.

The boycott would have meant more than embarrassment for Mizzou. The team was scheduled to play a high-profile game in Arrowhead Stadium — home of the Kansas City Chiefs — the following weekend. Not playing would have cost the school at least $1 million.

The players' scholarships could have been in jeopardy. They knew that. They were willing to take the chance.

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Though black players initiated the boycott, they were soon joined by the rest of the team — many of them players and coaches who remembered embracing former teammate Michael Sam, who told his team at the start of the 2013 season that he was gay. His teammates kept that secret until he was ready to come out after the season.

Senior center Evan Boehm, who is white, said on a radio show appearance last week that it was initially tough to understand the situation. That's mainly because players are sheltered and "don't realize there's bigger issues out there on campus that are happening."

"When my brothers came and they gave me a call Saturday night and they let me know what was going on, I told them 'I respect you guys and I'm backing you guys 100 percent,'" Boehm said. "I saw this Mizzou Tigers team do the same thing that we kind of did for Michael Sam for JB."

The players' parents were learning about the protest on social media. The players had kept their intentions a tight secret before the tweet that started the protest. Calls flew from parent to parent. When Simon's mother finally talked to him, she was moved.

"Racism is a harsh word. It cuts like a knife. I told him that I've always believed if you feel what you're doing is right, you stand up for what you believe," Daphne Simon said.

There would be naysayers, she told her son. That is OK, she assured him.

"I want him to realize it is going to be tough. And it is. Nobody likes turns like this, but like I told him the truth is hard for everyone, and it will take time."

The boycott grew. On Sunday, another photo of the football team landed on Twitter. This time it was a picture of the entire team, tweeted by their coach.

"Coach Pinkel, he made a statement and said that he supported us," Sherrils said. "That's the only thing we needed."

As news of their boycott was spreading, Butler was growing weaker. The governor issued a statement saying concerns at Missouri had to be addressed. The attorney general called for a task force. The higher education leader in the state House said that Wolfe "can no longer effectively lead." And Sen. Claire McCaskill, contacted by Butler's family, reached out to university leaders.

That night, Wolfe issued a statement and said the students' demands were being included in a campus diversity strategy. It was clear, he said, change was needed.

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The news rippled across the campus the next morning. Wolfe was stepping down. Butler being interviewed when he heard.

"My body was so weak. I almost fainted. I started crying," he said.

His parents took him to the hospital, where over the course of several days, he would eat via IV and taste juice and applesauce to slowly regain his strength. Later that day, Moore, Simon and Harris read a statement on The Quad to tell the student body that their boycott was ending, too.

"It's not about us, we just wanted to use our platform to take a stance for a fellow concerned student on an issue, especially being as though a black man's life was on the line," Simon said.

"Through this experience, we've really begun to bridge that gap between student and athlete ... by connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture."

The players returned to the practice field, readying to play Brigham Young. And at the end of the week, there was a somber announcement: Their coach, who had been diagnosed with lymphoma, was leaving at the end of the season.

"That shows how strong of a man Coach Pinkel is," Simon said. "To carry that weight all season, to have that boycott happen and for him to drop the (retirement bomb) ... that's not easy to do."

Missouri, which entered Saturday's game with a 4-5 record, defeated BYU 20-16.

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The football team has one more regular-season game to play, and maybe a bowl, before the season ends. Butler plans to finish his graduate degree in May and continue his work as an activist.

Last week, as he recovered, players checked in on Butler's progress, making sure that he was eating.

Concerned Student 1950 is still calling for a more diverse student body and faculty, as well as mandatory diversity training for current and future students, and an increased presence in the school's governing structure.

The football team isn't sure it is done. Now that they've discovered their collective voice, they're trying to figure out where they fit in the debate on campus.

"There's a lot that we just found out on the fly. That shouldn't really happen," Simon said. "So we're bridging the gap, there's just a lot more that needs to be done."

For now, they are content with a place in history.

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Hightower reported from Columbia and Kansas City; follow him on Twitter @khightower. Whack reported from Philadelphia; follow her at @emarvelous. David Lieb contributed reporting from Jefferson City, Missouri; follow him at @DavidALieb. Researcher Rhonda Shafer contributed to this report from New York.