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Middleton: The Black man in the middle

The Black Man in the Middle:  Mizzou throws its racism in the lap of Michael Middleton

Published by, November 19 , 2015

Mizzou protestThe University of Missouri at Columbia has had plenty of time to get its racist act together. The university received a decade’s notice that change was inevitable when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1939 that Lloyd Gaines would be attending law school there. Gaines would never step foot on the campus; he vanished from the face of the earth shortly after receiving word that he was about to make history as the first African American at Mizzou.

The University of Missouri reluctantly accepted its first African American students in 1950. Black students protesting racism on Mizzou’s campus remind us of this fact with their name #ConcernedStudent1950. I always appreciate it when history is appropriately connected to the present. I also appreciate it when protests come with demands and strategy. It was a brilliant move to get the solidarity of the esteemed football players to help focus a spotlight on Mizzou’s race problems.

The campus protests led by #ConcernStudent1950 and supporters recently forced the resignations of Mizzou’s Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and Missouri university system President Tim Wolfe. These two are links in the long chain of campus keepers of racism.

Wolfe, Loftin and other university officials obviously ignored lessons from the Ferguson uprising just like they’ve remained oblivious to the institutional racism and racists acts of white students against black students. Ignoring the long and painful history of white supremacy has finally caught up with Mizzou in a big way.

University officials blocked the enrollment of Lloyd Gaines to attend law school in 1938. After the 1939 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in this favor, Gaines disappeared never to be seen or heard from again (his family speculated he had been murdered to prevent his enrollment).

Then there was the racist backlash against Elson Floyd who endured four torturous years as the university system’s first African American president. The threats against him and family were so vicious that a high tech security system had to be installed at the president’s on-campus residence. As in the case of similar threats against the first black U.S. President, the quantity and brutality of the threats and hate mail went under-publicized.

Then there are the hangings and beatings over the years, most not categorized as lynchings to save face for the university and the town–except maybe for the declared lynching of James T. Scott in 1923 for the alleged rape of a professor’s daughter.

Then there’s the track record of recruitment and retention of black students and faculty. Black students represent 8 per cent of the 35,000 student population with a high percentage of them leaving after their first year. The black tenured faculty is a measly 3.2 per cent, way under the national average. This brings me to the demands of #ConcernedStudent1950.

There’s nothing radical about the demands that cover issues from diversity in students, faculty and curriculum as well as increases in funding in key areas such as counseling.  The protesters demands are reasonable and doable. They could’ve demanded that the black faculty numbers be brought up to the same representation of black employees in the university’s service/maintenance area – a whopping 25 percent – but they didn’t.

The demands can provide a blueprint for the university’s plan of action (emphasis on “action”). It would’ve been encouraging to know that the system dumped its top officials to make way for racial progress and not because it would face a $1 million fine had the football team forfeited the upcoming game.

The reins of the university system president have been temporary turned over to Michael Middleton. Middleton has a long and storied history with Mizzou. He helped found the Legion of Black Collegians while a student at Mizzou back in the 1960’s. He was the third black to graduate from the law school and is a professor emeritus of law. Middleton previously served as vice provost for minority affairs and faculty development, along with other positions of prestige.

Mizzou student activists have praised the interim appointment of Middleton. Other observers aren’t that optimistic. They question how aggressive Middleton was in addressing the institutional racism that plagued the university during the 30 years he held the various positions of authority. Doubters agree with Middleton’s own self-assessment when he was recently interviewed.

Middleton wondered if he had been a total failure, “…failure to convince all to who I reported … of the magnitude of the problem and the need to address it.”

We’ll know soon enough–in the weeks and months ahead–if Dr. Middleton is the right man to bring the University of Missouri system into the Twenty-first Century.

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