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Black student struggle, threatened football player strike topple U of Missouri president

Commentary by Michael Sampson |
November 11, 2015
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On Nov. 9, University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe resigned, under intense pressure from Black student protesters and activists at the University of Missouri, Columbia campus. Black students formed the organization, Concerned Students 1950, demanding University President Wolfe step down over his mishandling of racist incidents on campus as well as calling for an increase in Black student enrollment and Black faculty representation at the predominantly white university. Jonathan Butler, an African American graduate student even went on hunger strike, demanding President Wolfe resign. The student uprising and struggled tipped to a boiling point and got national attention when the Black Missouri football players threatened to strike, not playing another game until President Wolfe stepped down. Such a strike would have cost the university at least $1 million dollars in fines as well as a loss in other revenue, negatively affecting their bottom line.

College football at major universities makes millions of dollars of revenue off Black labor in which the majority African Americans football players who make the sport happen getting only a scholarship in return.

Just last April 2014, Northwestern University football players cast a historic vote, calling for a union for college athletes, the first of its kind. Clearly, college football is big money and African American football players are the workers and cash cow for this industry, which makes its profits from corporate sponsorships, television deals and other merchandising.

This is exactly why the threat of the strike of Black labor, in this case the threat of the strike of Black college football players at a prominent college football program and university was so effective. The student organizing of Concerned Student 1950, as well as Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, told a story of national oppression and racism at predominantly white university which was effective in uniting a broad spectrum of support on that campus and national community for change.

We also can’t forget that many of the Black student activists took part in protests against police terror in nearby Ferguson, an event that surely radicalized our generation. However, we have an important lesson in this latest struggle - which is how the threat of the strike by Black labor is an important tool we have in the battle against national oppression.

Black labor built this country. It was slave labor that brought the white ruling class wealth at the genesis of the U.S. Black labor - whether on the shop floors working for major corporations and getting paid minuscule wages or Black labor on a college football field, making millions for college football profiteers - are what continue to make large riches for the white ruling class. That is why as African American activists, we must understand that Black labor is what is gonna be crucial to Black liberation and emancipation, because that is where the power of capitalism lies.

To protesters, the resignation of Wolfe isn’t the end goal but merely an example of what Black student activism can do to win against capitalist institutions like the University of Missouri. Surely, university presidents at other universities with major college football programs are taking note of what happened at Missouri. African American football players at these major universities are often segmented away from other students, treated as celebrities and prized bulls. On top of that, Black student populations are shrinking, and what few affirmative action policies that are still in place are at risk with the upcoming Supreme Court case of Fisher v. University of Texas.

Historically Black universities and colleges face constant attack from state legislatures and the federal government with constant education funding cuts. Even cultural studies programs at universities are getting cut. In this country, Black students are constantly under attack from racists, right-wing policies, and those in power, like a President Wolfe, who do nothing to help.

But history shows us that Black student organizing can change society and build struggle that can fight for equal rights and the liberation of African Americans. We can’t forget about the work of SNCC in fighting for Black voting rights and integration and Black youth in the 1960s. In 1968, it was a student strike organized by the Black Student Union, inspired by the example of the Black Panther Party, which established the first Black studies program at a predominantly white university. Black students can be an important ally to the African American working class and can land huge blows to the system of capitalism.

As a former college football player myself, I hold that college athletes have a powerful voice if organized to fight. The struggle at the University of Missouri shows this. It will be the lessons we take from this struggle of students and student athletes that has the potential to relaunch a student movement in this country. We see that the threat of the strike, or a strike itself, can land real blows on the enemy, as we build the fight for freedom.