Missouri football and the second civil rights movement

To students of American history, it should come as no surprise that University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe resigned this week amid escalating protests by black students, a hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler and last, but certainly not least, a boycott by the football team.


The Show Me State has been ground zero for racial angst ever since August 2014, when an unarmed Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. The subsequent protests, which have been organized and led mostly by millennials, have captivated Americans of all races.

These protests, often referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement, arguably can be considered a second civil rights movement, one that has become a source of discussion, debate and derision for its ideological opponents.

But the truth of the matter is that Wolfe's resignation may not have happened but for the actions of the black members of the Missouri football team, whose decision this past weekend to boycott practice and games until he resigned could have cost the university millions of dollars in game cancellation fees, gate receipts and television revenue. Like the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott that was inspired by Rosa Parks's arrest and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s wise leadership, once those young black football players were joined in their acts of civil disobedience by their white teammates and Coach Gary Pinkel, the proverbial writing was on the wall for Wolfe.

Wolfe, in his hubris, failed to heed the demands of black students who have complained about myriad acts of overt racism, ranging from racial epithets to having swastikas made of feces drawn on a university wall in defiance of the black student's demands. Wolfe's insensitivity to this racial climate, if not the climate itself, caught many who are unaware of the state of Missouri's putrid history with respect to race completely off-guard.

Indeed, during the most recent round of major college football expansion, the fact that Missouri was offered and accepted admission into the Southeastern Conference (SEC) surprised many who thought that the university had more in common with respect to location and academic profile with prestigious midwestern state universities such as the Universities of Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

What these onlookers seemed to forget, however, was that Missouri was admitted as a slave state in 1820 to balance Maine's admission as a free state that same year. In their insouciance, they also have forgotten that while Missouri was deemed a Border State during the Civil War in that while it never joined the Confederacy, many pro-rebellion Missourians fought and died for the South. More pertinent to the events this week, when Reconstruction ended in 1877, Missouri, like many of its Southern neighbors, enforced Jim Crow laws that segregated education on behalf of race.

From 1935 to 1950, 70 black men and women, led by Lloyd Gaines, sought admission into the University of Missouri's undergraduate or graduate programs. This date comprises the rationale behind the now-trending hashtag "Concerned Students 1950," one that pays homage to the year when Missouri enrolled its first black students. In 1958, Missouri admitted its first black football players, Norris Stevenson and Mel West, and they and other black players to follow would have to listen to the Missouri marching band play "Dixie" while fans waived rebel battle flags — as was also custom at the time at the University of Florida and, until the last two decades, at Ole Miss.

Over the past few years, Missouri has fielded football teams that have won the SEC Eastern Division twice, and has had players who earned all-conference honors before pursuing professional careers. As such, Missouri football is a big deal for the university and state coffers, and anything that would prevent such a cash cow from yielding profits would certainly prove untenable as now-former President Wolfe learned this week.

But the next question that begs to be asked is: What will the university stakeholders and state politicians do to ensure that the demands that the young students made — such as a less hostile learning environment, greater emphasis on multicultural curricula and the appointment of more talented minorities to faculty and staff positions — come to fruition? How these demands are met will be quite telling as Wolfe's resignation is but one battle that has been won in a war for mutual respect regardless of race.

More ominously, this one battle — much like the Montgomery bus boycott did in the mid-1950s — could spill over to other major colleges, where school administrations may fear the repercussions of black football and basketball players on their majority black teams risking risking scholarships to ensure equal treatment under the law and by custom. To that end, most administrators would be wise to get out in front of issues involving race and diversity, lest they suffer the same fate as Wolfe.

Hobbs is an award-winning writer and trial lawyer based in Tallahassee, Fla. Follow him on Twitter @RealChuckHobbs.