At Missouri, the invisible claim a victory

Missouri players ending solidarity strike (1:05)

Members of Missouri's football team declare their intention to return to their normal schedule now that Jonathan Butler has ended his hunger strike. (1:05)

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Despite its complex web of allegiances and rivals, the dynamic that doomed Missouri system president Tim Wolfe and school chancellor R. Bowen Loftin was quite simple: It was the workers versus the owners, the little versus the big, the invisible versus the invincible.

The power of the Missouri football team provided the fulcrum, because money ultimately forced the action. But so much of the uprising was rooted in the frustration of minority students facing years of entrenched racism. They were demanding the ouster of a president and supported by a faculty whose actual preference was to oust the chancellor. It all stemmed from a movement to address major offenses that were deemed too trivial by an administration whose only response had been to advise that those slapped get tougher, have thicker skin, get over it.

On Monday, in an extraordinary day of images, a coalition of the invisible stood victorious for now, elated by the hope that regime change will allow different hands, darker hands to share the controls at long last. At the podium were black students, led by young black women perennially erased by a country of gentlemen who prefer anything, everything, to them standing there. They were aligned with Payton Head, the student body president who leads from the margins as black and gay, supported by former Tigers linebacker Michael Sam, black and gay and famously out, supported both by faculty and by the biggest men on campus with the littlest share of the NCAA pie: the Tigers' football team, whose black players led a threatened boycott of Saturday's game against BYU that could have forced the school to forfeit $1 million. They were galvanized by a 25-year-old graduate student, Jonathan Butler, who decided the lifetime grievance of invisibility was at this moment in his life worth dying for.

Wolfe strengthened the coalition by ignoring it, by being the powerful one who never listened, so that each of the many issues grew in importance. Butler and other students were allegedly glanced by Wolfe's car during a raucous protest. Wolfe did not respond for two weeks. Head, who absorbed racial slurs, was ignored by Wolfe for a week. As pressure increased, Wolfe put out a statement that the university would begin discussing diversity initiatives -- in April, proof that he did not believe in the validity of Butler's hunger strike. His tone-deafness finished him.

"This was entirely a response to the lack of response by the administration," said Stephanie Shonekan, chair of the College of Arts and Science's department of black studies, who was advising key members of the protest.

Loftin won students with his folksy demeanor and by supplying their tent city with heat lamps during the protests, but continued to lose faculty through a series of politically motivated moves, the most recent being the removal of Planned Parenthood on campus. Two departments, English and romance languages, had already given Loftin a no-confidence vote. While the students celebrated, the closed-door administrative session was in the process of finishing Loftin, too.

The protest was inconvenient because a convenient protest is a losing one. The protest was uncomfortable because a comfortable one is a laughable one. The disconnection between the purpose of protest and the anger of many white students upset by the protesters' "disruption" served as a reminder that Wolfe may be gone, but the racial hostilities that have been an undercurrent of this campus remain. As news of Wolfe's ouster filtered out, some students asked, "Now what?" -- the inference being that the students accomplished nothing. It was disconnected and shortsighted, for the elevation of the crisis stemmed from Wolfe's dismissal of it. Through both the threat of death and threat of money, the invisible became visible, and Wolfe became untenable in his position.

Wolfe would say later in the day that the football players' threat had no effect on his decision -- an implausible position. The players exercising a workers' strike saved the university of testing Butler's willingness to die. The players drew the attention and provided the financial imperative to force Wolfe's hand. It sent another message: Should college players choose to do so, they could leverage college football as it is known today. The power of the player -- from the discussion of unionizing at Northwestern, to Ed O'Bannon, to the ouster of Donald Sterling, to Missouri football -- especially the black player as a social force must be considered.

"It comes back to sports," Michael Sam said. "When sports gets involved, things change."

David Halberstam called them "The Children," the black college students of the 1960s who stood up to the power, to Bull Connor and Jim Clark, and were prepared to die. They fueled the civil rights movement, the movement with a capital "M." Those children -- Diane Nash, James Bevel, Andrew Young, John Lewis among them -- changed America, a truth that can be said without hyperbole. Those children understood the power of media, the power of image, the power to transform the hostile into the sympathetic.

These children, born to images over words, clearly did not. The tents were up. The world watched, and the protesters won an extraordinary day looking for a fight.

"Make a wall, everyone, to keep the media out!" said Melissa Click, who ironically is an assistant professor for media studies. "This is very important. Keep the media out!"

In victory, the students, already mistrusting of the attention they solicited, turned aggressive.



These children needed a history lesson in how to make the image-makers work for them -- also ironic, considering Missouri houses arguably the best journalism school in the country. Maybe they were unaware of how the media works -- or perhaps they felt they knew too well. Or maybe the tension between the black students and the student newspaper represented another grievance in a relationship full of them. But Click should be forgotten and the students should be forgiven. They were too busy making history of their own. They were too busy winning. They earned the dancing that followed.

The students are the children of Trayvon and Ferguson, of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, of Sandy Bland and Freddie Gray, born into this life expecting more, told that protest was no longer necessary at this late date, in 2015, and yet find themselves here, sleeping in tents, needing again to prove they matter, even -- no, especially -- on an elite campus.

These children don the T-shirts and force the attention, build the solidarity and promise, but George Zimmerman killed and walked. Darren Wilson killed and was not charged. Neither were the killers of Garner or Rice or Bland. Gray's killers were charged, but convictions are far from certain.

They are the children of Ferguson, but in Columbia, unlike so many bittersweet "Black Lives Matter" protests across the country that end with vigils and caskets, #ConcernedStudent1950 actually won. They pointed at the scoreboard and dropped the mic. The coalition of the invisible toppled a system president and a chancellor.

Wolfe ... out.

Loftin ... out.

It was a victory to be savored, but its true value will not be known for some years to come, when the university either offers people of color a seat at the table or, if the new bosses are as dismissive as the old ones, merely pretend that diversity means a different-colored marionette controlled by the same hand on the strings.

Maybe the football team was improperly cast as the cavalry because it had the power of the money, when the reality is the players connected with the students and certainly not the other way around. But the end result is the same; the reasons are secondary to the result.

Night fell on Columbia. Michael Sam jogged into the training complex, summing up the day with a single word: "Progress." At the tent city, after eight days without food, Jonathan Butler conducted a few interviews and walked wearily back into his life -- a new life, should the campus administration learn from a history-making afternoon.

"I'm tired, yes," Butler said. "But I'm still a student, and I'm hella behind."