How Campus Racism Just Became the Biggest Story in America

Here’s the chain of events that rocked the University of Missouri and put racial justice center stage.

Jonathan Butler, center, stands with supporters at the University of Missouri after ending his hunger strike on Monday.Jeff Roberson/AP

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Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system, resigned from his post on Monday amid growing pressure from students, faculty, and alumni over a series of racial incidents that have plagued the system’s flagship campus in Columbia this fall. Wolfe’s decision to step down came a week after Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike to demand the president’s ouster, after weeks of protests over university inaction. The issue was thrust into the national spotlight on Saturday when a group of black players on the Missouri football team declared they would refuse to participate in football-related activities until Wolfe was removed or stepped down. The players drew support from coaches and the athletic department, though some within the team were unhappy with the protest.

But the matter escalated remarkably fast from Saturday, with Gov. Jay Nixon and US Sen. Claire McCaskill calling for reform, Wolfe resigning, and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin of the University of Missouri, Columbia, announcing late Monday that he would also resign at the end of the year.

Here’s how the chain of events unfolded since mid September. (For more, check out this timeline from the Maneater, the university’s student newspaper, and one from the Missourian.)

  • September 12: Payton Head, president of the Missouri Students Association, took to Facebook to reflect on the university’s racial climate after a group of people repeatedly screamed “nigger” at him, he said, while he was walking through campus. Head told the Missourian: “I’d had experience with racism before, like microaggressions, but that was the first time I’d experienced in-your-face racism.” (Read his lengthy, impassioned post here.)
  • October 5: The Legion of Black Collegians, the university’s black student government, described an incident of overt racism, when, according to a letter released by the group, an intoxicated “white male” disrupted a group rehearsal of a play on campus and referred to members as “niggers.” That day, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin condemned the incident in a video, noting that “hate and racism were alive and well at Mizzou.” Loftin called for mandatory diversity training for students, faculty, and staff: “It’s enough. Let’s stop this. Let’s end hatred and racism at Mizzou. We’re part of the same family. You don’t hate your family.”
  • October 10: Members of Concerned Student 1950, an activist group whose name alludes to the year the first black student was admitted to the university, took to the streets during the university’s homecoming parade to condemn the university’s history of racism; they blocked Wolfe’s car, demanding a response from him. Wolfe did not acknowledge them or get out of the car, and police dispersed the protestors without an arrest, the Missourian reported. Jonathan Butler later told the Missourian: “We’ve sent emails, we’ve sent tweets, we’ve messaged but we’ve gotten no response back from the upper officials at Mizzou to really make change on this campus.”
  • October 21: Concerned Student 1950 released a list of demands calling for Wolfe’s ouster, and for institutional changes at the university to promote racial inclusion.
  • October 24: An incident in a bathroom in one of the campus residence halls prompted further outcry: Someone reportedly drew “a swastika on the wall with their own feces,” according to a letter released by the university’s Residence Halls Association. The group called it an “act of hate.” 
  • October 27: Concerned Student 1950 met with Wolfe to discuss its demands; according to the Missourian, the group noted that Wolfe “also reported he was ‘not completely’ aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus.” The group said in a statement: “Not understanding these systems of oppression therefore renders him incapable of effectively performing his core duties.”
  • November 2: Graduate student Jonathan Butler announced he would go on a hunger strike, calling for Wolfe’s resignation for failure to adequately respond to the string of racial incidents. Concerned Student 1950 would later call for demonstrations at university events, including Missouri’s football game against Mississippi State. Since November 2, students have camped out at the heart of the university’s campus, Carnahan Quadrangle, in support of Butler’s hunger strike.
  • November 6: Wolfe issues a statement expressing concern for Butler’s health and apologized for his behavior at the homecoming parade. “My behavior seemed like I did not care,” he said. “That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.” He acknowledged that racism existed at the university. “Together we must rise to the challenge of combating racism, injustice, and intolerance.”
  • November 7: Members of Missouri’s football team took a stand. In a statement posted by the Legion of Black Collegians on Twitter, many of the team’s black athletes said they would decline to participate in practice until Butler’s strike was resolved.
  • November 9: In an emotional statement before the University of Missouri Board of Curators, Wolfe resigned, saying he hoped his taking responsibility would heal the campus. “I ask everybody — from students to faculty to staff to my friends, everybody — use my resignation to heal and to start talking again. To make the changes necessary and let’s focus on changing what we can change today and in the future, and not what we can’t change, which is what happened in the past.”

Students flooded onto the university’s Columbia campus following the resignation on Monday, chanting and calling for change. They drew support from those at the university and well beyond, including from congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, and from Michael Sam, the former Missouri football star who became the first openly gay player drafted by a NFL team.

As the day went on, members of Concerned Student 1950 linked arms around the encampment on a campus plaza to create a “no media safe space.”

Video shot on the ground shows supporters, including a Greek life administrator and a mass communications professor, blocking a student photographer from taking pictures on public ground and asking him to back up.

On Monday, Butler addressed a large crowd of protesters: “This is not a moment,” he said, “This is a movement.”

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