The Lesson of Mizzou: Black People Have Power If We Use It

The Lesson of Mizzou: Black People Have Power If We Use It

Students and faculty came together to force Tim Wolfe's resignation.

Published November 9, 2015

Today I'm beaming with pride over young people I've never met. That's because University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe announced his resignation this morning after weeks of campus protests led by students of color.

It all started when students experienced a series of racist and sexist incidents on campus, which the administration failed to address seriously enough for the students. Eventually, a Black grad student, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike until the president resigned. Then, over the weekend, football players for the Missouri Tigers threw their support behind Butler's protest and announced they would no longer participate in team activities until Wolfe stepped down.

As the news spread throughout social media and mainstream media, faculty members, already upset about gender and racial pay disparities, joined in the protest this morning. That left President Wolfe with few options, and, late in the morning, he finally surrendered to the inevitable.

Although the protests had been going on for several weeks, the final phase leading to the president's resignation developed fairly quickly after Butler's hunger strike eight days ago. I never doubted that college students could create change if they banded together, but count me among the impressed about the effectiveness of the courageous students in Columbia, Missouri.

I've been speaking at college campuses for 20 years encouraging students of color, women and LGBT students to recognize their power and use it. The University of Missouri is not the first campus where students have stood up to demand change, but it is one of the few places I've seen where top college athletes have used their considerable power to join a protest movement about non-athletic issues.

The football team's involvement, by itself, marks an important development in the consciousness of Black athletes. I've lauded athletes in the past who have spoken up about the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, but I've also complained about the silence of a few other high-profile athletes who could have spoken up but didn't.

To be clear, the Missouri campaign was not a "Black Lives Matter" protest. But, surely, the students on campus have been influenced by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, just a few hours away. I lived in Missouri for 15 years, and I never saw the level of Black activism I've seen in the past few years. This is new.

Dr. King once referred to a "marvelous new militancy" that was sweeping the nation in the 1960s. Today it feels like that energy is starting to return. For all the critiques of the Black Lives Matter movement, it seems that young people are engaging in a new level of activism in the wake of the events that have been highlighted by movement leaders.

Another part of the strength of the Missouri protest was the coalition it created. It wasn't just the usual suspects of campus activists. It was also the student body president, Payton Head, the Black alumni, the faculty, and the athletic department supporting its football players. The support of well-placed allies can make a difference.

I remember seeing this happen during South African divestment protests while I was a student at Dartmouth College. After months of negative headlines, student protests, mounting concern from alumni and a faculty vote of "no confidence" in the administration, our college president resigned under pressure as well. That was an important early lesson for me about building allies, and it's clearly a lesson that Mizzou students have learned as well.

One final but important element of the Missouri movement was its intersectional approach. Butler, for example, in his national media interviews, repeatedly spoke about racism, sexism, homophobia and teacher pay as connected issues of concern. That's an important, progressive approach to social justice that transcends self-focused organizing.

I've found from past experience that multi-issue campus coalitions can be very effective in waging progressive campaigns. As a student at Harvard Law School, I participated in a coalition of seven student groups — Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, LGBT students, women and students with disabilities — advocating for greater faculty diversity. That coalition led to greater diversity on campus than school administrators acknowledged was possible.

The point of the story is that students have power. Students of color have power. Disenfranchised people have power. Black people have power. All of us have power to create change — if we use it. That's an important reminder, coming just a week after conservative political causes made electoral gains simply because people on the left didn't vote.

African-Americans make up 13 percent of the nation's population, and we're growing 35 percent more quickly than the total population. We have $1 trillion in buying power, according to the latest Nielsen Report on Black consumers. And we have enormous untapped political power. It's time for us to remember that power. From the youngest college student to the oldest senior citizen, any of us can make a difference.

As the anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Daniel Brenner/Columbia Daily Tribune via AP)

Written by Keith Boykin


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