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How Racial Incidents Sparked Change At The University Of Missouri


It was a remarkable turn of events yesterday in Columbia, Mo. The chancellor of the university there and the president of the entire Universities of Missouri system both announced they would leave their posts. This after a series of racist incidents sparked an intense week of protests. Frank Morris of member station KCUR looks back at the beginnings of this story.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: If you ask five students or faculty at MU when this all started, you're likely to get five different answers. While there have been racist incidents before, senior Zach Amos says this school year started with a striking verbal assault.

ZACH AMOS: When Payton Head, the student body president posted on Facebook about his experience walking around campus and having a truck full of white males use the N-word profusely at him.

MORRIS: Head is a public figure here at MU, but day after day went by with no response from university leadership. Then there was another instance of racial epithets being hurled at black students, and tensions began to build.

CLAIR RICHARDSON: It's just crazy to see how this has unfolded, honestly.

MORRIS: Student Clair Richardson says there was change in the air a month ago.

RICHARDSON: I think really the breaking point was at the homecoming parade there was that huge demonstration - not even a huge demonstration. It was like 12 people or so.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: We will be here until people of color and (unintelligible) are protected and feel safe on this campus.

MORRIS: That's when a group called ConcernedStudent1950 stopped the parade, blocking the convertible carrying Missouri University President Tim Wolfe. Wolfe didn't engage the protesters. A week and a half later, the group called for Wolfe's resignation. But Dev Missra says an act of vandalism, feces smeared in a dorm bathroom, was the turning point for him.

DEV MISSRA: Oh, and I read about the swastika being drawn in one of the dorm rooms. I really got interested.

MORRIS: Then on Monday last week, graduate student Jonathan Butler declared a hunger strike. That same day, students set up tents on campus. Butler gradually weakened from lack of food. Last Friday, protesters caught up with Wolfe and asked him for a definition of systematic oppression.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's so simple.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What do you think systematic oppression is?

TIM WOLFE: It's - systematic oppression is because you don't believe...


WOLFE: That you have the equal opportunity for success...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You don't believe?

MORRIS: It's hard to hear, but Wolfe says that systematic oppression is because you don't believe you have an equal opportunity for success - wrong answer. Saturday, some MU football players pledged not to play or practice until Wolfe stepped down. That night, players reached out to their coach, Gary Pinkel.


GARY PINKEL: I got a call later that night about Jonathan. The guys were very, very emotional. They were very, very concerned with his life. I mean, I'm talking to guys that have tears in their eyes, and they're crying. And they asked me if I'd support them, and then I said I would.

MORRIS: Pinkel tweeted a photo of most of the football team, saying they all stood behind the striking players. Amy Simons, a journalism professor at MU, says that did it.

AMY SIMONS: When the football team popped up in this whole thing, a story that had been going on for weeks and really for months here in Columbia, Mo. went and exploded on a national and on an international level.

MORRIS: For one thing, there was suddenly lots of money involved - forfeit penalties, ticket sales, TV revenue and then the precedent that would be set. Student Rodney Davis says it's sad that in the end it appears that the threat of an interruption in the football season may have been what forced two top administrators to step down.

RODNEY DAVIS: They just had too much pressure. They really had no choice.

MORRIS: So while a hunger strike and protests over serious issues of racism on campus got attention, it may have been college football that proved to be the stronger agent of social change. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Columbia, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.