November 16, 2018

The Tigers are Mightier than the Wolfe

Today America witnessed a rare sort of coup – non-violent, swift, and led by perhaps the most apolitical of organizations, a football team. Tim Wolfe, the President of the University of Missouri system, was forced to step down from his position after the vast majority of the Missouri Tigers football squad’s African-American players, later joined by most of the rest of the team, threatened to boycott this weekend’s game against BYU unless he resigned. 

Their reason for this protest was their belief, influenced by graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger-strike, that Wolfe had not done enough to address a series of racist incidents on campus.  American Jews may well feel torn about this issue, as diverging politics have driven something of a wedge between Jews and Blacks in recent years, but they should not.  The victory of the Missouri Tigers football team is a victory for all persecuted minorities who are tired of having bigotry heaped upon them.

The University of Missouri’s problems with minorities, though just now coming to the forefront, stretch back quite a ways and include some truly lurid and shocking events.  Missouri, the State, voted to remain a part of the Union during the civil war, but it was not a unanimous decision and for most of the war Missouri was plagued by another mini civil war within its own borders between those who supported the Confederacy and those who wished to remain with the Union.  Among the participants in these battles were a young Jesse James, and William Quantrill, whose Confederate guerrilla units regularly battled pro-Union groups.

Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas, perhaps the most famous of these skirmishes, saw Quantrill and a band of “Bushwackers” attack Lawrence, the stronghold of the Jayhawkers, abolitionists who wanted Kansas and Missouri to be free states.  Quantrill and his men took Lawrence by surprise, butchered its men and killed boys as young as twelve as they burnt down most of the buildings in town, including a church.  All this goes to say that Missouri has always been a particularly divided state, sometimes violently so.

The University of Missouri emerged from the Civil War years and began expanding.  By the 1920's it had become a thriving campus with the world’s first journalism school among other things.  It built large, limestone buildings in the early 1910's that became known, somewhat tragically in retrospect, as the White Campus.

Missouri was, for all intents and purposes, a White Campus in the 1920's.  Blacks were not allowed as students or visitors, but they were allowed to work as janitors.  One of these janitors was a man named James T. Scott.  In 1923, Scott found himself accused of the rape of Regina Almstedt, the daughter of University Professor Hermann Almstedt.  Despite Scott’s self-proclaimed innocence, and evidence that another inmate at the local jail may have been guilty of the crime, Scott, 35, a married father of a 15 year old girl, was dragged from his jail cell by a mob eight days after his arrest, and hung over the protests of Hermann Almstedt, who begged the crowd to spare Scott, earning him a threat of his own lynching if he didn’t shut up.  Many of those in the crowd at the lynching were students at the University of Missouri.

In 1935, an African American man named Lloyd Gaines petitioned to gain entry to the University of Missouri to study Law.  Gaines was denied because the University would not allow “negroes” to study on campus.  Gaines took his fight to the courts and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1938 in a landmark 6-2 decision that unless the State of Missouri had a public Law School for Blacks, they would have to admit Black students to the University of Missouri Law School. In an act of disgusting cynicism, the State of Missouri converted an all-Black beauty school into a ramshackle Law School for Black students, a charade so boldly transparent that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP were preparing to challenge it in court, when Lloyd Gaines suddenly disappeared in Chicago in 1939, never to be seen again.

Many have speculated about what happened to Gaines, with the leading theories being suicide brought on from the pressure of the court battles or abduction and murder by the Ku Klux Klan.  In either case, Gaines found himself a victim of a racist state. 

The Associated Press quoted Gaines from his final letter to his mother as saying “I have found that my race still likes to applaud, shake hands, pat me on the back and say how great and noble is the idea, how historic and socially important the case (is) but – there it ends,” said Gaines of his fellow African Americans. “Off and out of the confines of the publicity columns, I am just a man – not one who has fought and sacrificed to make the case possible … just another man whose name no one recognized.” In 2006 Gaines was posthumously awarded a Law degree from the University of Missouri.

The University wouldn’t go on to integrate until 1950. It, like so many newly integrated institutions in America, struggled with racial divides. It wasn’t until this year, however, that things finally came to a boil.

This September, Student Government President Payton Head spoke out about issues of racism and bigotry at the school after he was showered with racial slurs by a group of men in a pickup truck while walking around the school.  On October 4th, a drunk White student interrupted a meeting of the Legion of Black Collegians and hurled racial slurs at them before being arrested by campus police.

In an act that should be thoroughly disturbing to American Jews, on October 24th, a Swastika was drawn with feces on the wall of a residence hall at the University of Missouri.  This was sadly not even the first appearance of a swastika at the University THIS YEAR. In April, the word “Heil” was found scrawled on the wall of the Mark Twain residence hall.  When it was painted over, a Swastika drawn in ash was found on the wall the next day with the words “you have been warned.”

At the time, Jewish groups at the school were furious with the slow response by school officials. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that “The organizations sent a letter to Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin Thursday about graffiti found at the Mark Twain Residence Hall. Several students stated in the letter that they no longer felt safe on campus because of the hate message. “We are concerned that several days had gone by before you spoke out publicly on the matter, causing some Jewish students to feel marginalized and ignored,” the letter said.”

In light of these incidents, and others, Black students at the University of Missouri began to speak out about feeling unsafe, and harassed on the predominantly White campus. They charged that the University system’s President, Tim Wolfe, had ignored their pleas on the subject for too long.  In a particularly heated incident in October, student protestors blocked Wolfe’s car during the homecoming parade and tried to voice their concerns to him.  According to witnesses at the scene, Wolfe wouldn’t address the students, laughed at them, and then watched, passively, as campus police broke up the protest.

On October 26th, Wolfe finally met with members of the group Concerned Student 1950, which you now know is an obvious reference to the year of the school’s integration, to address their concerns.  He apparently refused to meet their demands though.

What hasn’t been widely reported is that Concerned Student 1950's concerns encompassed more that just racial issues, they included things like the decision of the University of Missouri to cancel their Planned Parenthood contract, and also end healthcare subsidies for graduate students at the school this year, far right-wing moves that are out of step with the sensibilities of most (though not all) American Jews. These concerns also should put an end to any notion that Concerned Student 1950's actions were entirely self-serving. 

On November 3rd, Jonathan Butler launched his hunger-strike, followed soon after by student protests. On November 8th, Black members of the Missouri Tigers football team decided to go on strike to support Butler.  They were quickly joined by their White teammates, and shockingly, their coaches.  Combined with the threat of faculty walk-outs, and growing student protests, this morning, Wolfe resigned.

Football, which is so rarely used for political good, and if anything, generally serves to support the status-quo, and promote things like the military, and the Presidency, was suddenly used to topple a University regime which was seen as out of touch with students.  This was, however, perhaps the most fitting act of all for the Missouri Tigers, and to explain that, we’ll have to go back to the Civil War, for a minute.

The Missouri Tigers’ name comes from the Fighting Tigers of Columbia, an armed band of pro-union militia members who protected Columbia from racist, pro-slavery militias like those commanded by William Quantrill.  For 150 years the Missouri Tigers failed to live up to their namesakes, until today.

Whether you agree or disagree with the idea that a University President should be toppled by mob rule, or feel that today’s action represents a slippery slope in which Football teams might be compelled to hold their schools hostage for less lofty goals, one thing about the Tigers’ coup is irrefutable.  For too long the rule of the mob in Missouri has been used to terrorize Blacks, to murder men like James T. Scott and Llyod Gaines; today mob rule was used to liberate Blacks, and it’s about damn time.

American Jews should stand firmly behind this action, for it was not only Blacks who found themselves under siege at the University, but Jews as well.  It would be naive to think that today’s actions will erase all future swastikas from the walls, or end the tyranny of racial slurs, in fact they may only exacerbate them, but they show that minorities will no longer take such threats lying down, that we will not laugh them off, or excuse them, or quietly try to blend in.  Today was a victory for freedom, a victory for the voice of the oppressed, and a victory for us all.