A boycott’s birth: How the Missouri race protests began

  • Sunday, November 22, 2015 6:37pm
  • News

COLUMBIA, Mo. — On the day he met with black players for the University of Missouri’s football team, graduate student Jonathan Butler hadn’t eaten for six days.

The players wanted to know why. Butler told them: The school’s president, Tim Wolfe, had repeatedly ignored concerns of black students. He’d rather starve than attend a school with a leader who condoned racism.

Surprised and angry, the players decided to launch a protest of their own. They wouldn’t practice or play until Wolfe resigned or was removed. They snapped a picture and tweeted it: Thirty black men standing with another too frail to stand on his own.

“They were literally holding me up,” Butler said.

The image did in 48 hours what student activists hadn’t been able to all semester and what black students before them hadn’t been able to do for decades. It put a national spotlight on black students’ experience on mainly white campuses and set off protests around the country. It was a feat pulled off by two groups of students whose paths, before that week, had rarely crossed.

The roots of the protest began decades ago, when the University of Missouri, founded in 1839, enrolled its first black student in 1950. The first black varsity athlete enrolled in 1956.

Those who came behind them have been fighting ever since for an equal environment. The current activist group, Concerned Student 1950, is named for that first student. Today, about 7 percent of the 35,000 students at the state’s flagship school are black. Revenue-generating teams are nearly 63 percent black men.

Butler first saw and experienced racial tension at Mizzou as an undergraduate. In 2008, he said someone wrote the N-word on his dorm door. In 2010, white students scattered cotton balls onto the grounds of the black culture center.

“Things were continuing to be swept under the rug … to the point where there’s so much under there, you trip over it,” Butler said.

When protests erupted in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, last year after the death of Michael Brown, Missouri students got involved to protest disparate treatment of minority communities by police. Butler returned to campus for his final year looking for a way to channel his feelings into action.

Over the next several weeks, Butler said the group tried reaching out to administration officials, recounting to them their experiences as black students, sharing books, YouTube videos and articles about white privilege.

No response. When a homecoming protest and a meeting with Wolfe didn’t satisfy the group, Butler became convinced a hunger strike was his only choice. He consulted a doctor, a pastor.

Did he think he might die? “I was prepared to do so,” he said.

He made his protest public, setting up a tent on The Quad in the heart of campus.

Mizzou sophomore wide receiver J’Mon Moore was driving on campus when he passed near The Quad.

Moore parked his car and began to investigate. He found his way to Butler, who had only seen Moore before playing football on television.

“I just saw someone in need and wanted to help,” Moore said.

When he got home, Moore told his roommate, defensive back Anthony Sherrils, about the strike. They reached out to sophomore defensive lineman Charles Harris and senior co-captain Ian Simon.

Two days passed, and they contacted the activists to meet. For about an hour, the players and the protesters talked. Poole explained despite also being black, the athletes’ college experience was vastly different from that of the average black student.

“Essentially, they’ve been taken away from the community,” said Ayanna Poole, a senior and another member of the activist group. “We used that time to tell them about our experience as students, not as student-athletes.”

The team huddled and came back with a decision. We’re going to support you, they told Butler. That same night, they shared their plans with their coach.

The boycott would have meant more than embarrassment for Mizzou. Not playing would have cost the school at least $1 million. The players’ scholarships could have been in jeopardy. They knew that. They were willing to take the chance.

They were soon joined by the rest of the team, many who remembered supporting Michael Sam, who told the team he was gay in 2013.

Senior center Evan Boehm, who is white, said on a radio show appearance last week that it was initially tough to understand the situation. That’s mainly because he said being an athlete, players are sheltered and “don’t realize there’s bigger issues out there on campus that are happening.”

“I told them ‘I respect you guys and I’m backing you guys 100 percent,’” Boehm said.

News of their boycott reached the highest offices in the state. Among those intervening on Butler’s behalf were officials from the governor to a U.S. senator. Meanwhile, Butler was growing weaker.

On Sunday, the players took another photo — this time with the entire team and their coach, Gary Pinkel, who tweeted it.

“Coach Pinkel, he made a statement and said that he supported us,” Sherrils said. “That’s the only thing we needed.”

The news rippled across the campus the next morning: Wolfe was stepping down. Butler was in a live interview when he heard. “My body was so weak. I almost fainted. I started crying,” he said.

His parents took him to the hospital, where over several days, he would slowly begin eating again to regain his strength.

The players returned to the practice field. At the end of the week, there was a somber announcement: their coach, who had been diagnosed with lymphoma, was leaving at the end of the season.

Missouri defeated BYU 20-16. Now, the team is grappling with how to use their voice going forward in the debate on campus. They team is not sure it is done.

“Through this experience, we’ve really began to bridge that gap between student and athlete … by connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture,” Simon said.

For now, they are content with a place in history.

More in News

In this Sept. 21, 2017, file photo, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin speaks at a rally in Montgomery, Ala. Palin is on the verge of making new headlines in a legal battle with The New York Times. A defamation lawsuit against the Times, brought by the brash former Alaska governor in 2017, is set to go to trial starting Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 in federal court in Manhattan. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
Palin COVID-19 tests delay libel trial against NY Times

Palin claims the Times damaged her reputation with an opinion piece penned by its editorial board

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID-19 at all-time high statewide

The state reported 5,759 new cases sequenced from Jan. 21-23

Volunteers serve food during Project Homeless Connect on Jan. 25, 2018, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion file)
Project Homeless Connect to provide services, support on Wednesday

The event will be held at the Soldotna Sports Complex on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Schools aim for ‘business as usual’ as cases reach new highs

On Monday, there were 14 staff members and 69 students self-isolating with the virus

Triumvirate Theatre is seen on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 in Nikiski, Alaska. The building burned in a fire on Feb. 20. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Triumvirate construction on hold as theater seeks additional funding

The new theater is projected to cost around $4.7 million.

The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
KPBSD schools to start 2 hours late Tuesday

Due to weather, all but 4 schools will be delayed

Data from the state of Alaska show a steep increase in COVID-19 cases in January 2022. (Department of Health and Social Services)
Omicron drives COVID spike in Alaska as officials point to decreasing cases in eastern US

On Friday, the seven-day average number of daily cases skyrocketed to 2,234.6 per 100,000 people

Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire
Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, stands in front of a ship on May 14, 2021.
Smooth sailing for the 2022 season?

Cautious optimism reigns, but operators say it’s too early to tell.

Former Alaska Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bakalar speaks a news conference on Jan. 10, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska, after she sued the state. A federal judge on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, ruled that Bakalar was wrongfully terminated by the then-new administration of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy for violating her freedom of speech rights. (AP File Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)
Judge sides with attorney who alleged wrongful firing

Alaska judge says the firing violated free speech and associational rights under the U.S. and state constitutions.

Most Read