In September of 1992, when I was very busy swimming in amniotic fluid in my mother’s office in Memorial Hospital, something rather incredible was happening about a mile away. Over 1,000 students marched from the Pit to South Building to present a letter demanding Chancellor Paul Hardin’s written support for a free-standing Black cultural center (BCC). The students’ letter came with an ultimatum: “Failure to respond to this deadline will leave the people no other choice but to organize toward direct action.” Here’s the incredible bit: the letter, the march, and soon, the further direct action, were in part organized by a coalition of Black athletes and Black activists. Led by four football players–John Bradley, Jimmy Hitchcock, Malcolm Marshall, and Tim Smith–The Black Awareness Council represented a new form of student action on campus: one that united athletics and activism. A week later, Spike Lee spoke in support of the student movement to seven thousand students in the Dean Dome. Lee was most impressed that the “movement is led by athletes,” and devoted his short speech to advocating for Carolina’s football team to strike until the University’s administration had chosen a location for the free-standing BCC.
When I read the message from the University of Missouri’s football team, I thought about Carolina in 1992. “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere.’ We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!” The statements from Carolina’s football players twenty-three years ago read similarly: “The intensity of our involvement will become greater and greater with every minute…We’ve negotiated for fourteen years. We’re not going to negotiate anymore. All [Hardin] has to do is say yes or no.”
The Tar Heels players never went on strike and it would be years before construction began on the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. But Black activists, athletes included, had a victory. It strikes me, as it did one of my students who is researching the history of Carolina’s BCC and shared with me this story, that the feeling on campus in 1992 resonates and hits us now in 2015 in the face, in the gut. We are back–Did we leave?–on the same topic: the systematic network of oppression, of both the university’s built landscape and its culture that works against the civil rights of minority students. And though the topic is the same, there has been an enormous and growing gulf between athletics and activism that keeps the student success of 1992 far away from another story of success for Carolina’s Black activists today. I want to suggest a few ways in which the events at Mizzou are not unlike those happening at Carolina, and outline how activists, who are inspired by Concerned Student 1950, might learn from the actions of students at Mizzou to bring significant institutional change to Chapel Hill.
Catalyzed by the events in Ferguson, Missouri in the fall of 2014, students at the University of Missouri began protesting against the racism and discrimination they saw as part of their campus culture. “The University of Missouri was founded in 1839 as the first public land-grant university west of the Mississippi,” the Student Body President of Mizzou, Payton Head, told the New York Times. “Who was building buildings in 1839? Slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865. But we don’t talk about that history here at the University of Missouri.” Here either, I thought.
At Carolina, student activists were energized by the failure of the administration to acknowledge years of protest and anguish over a campus landscape and experience that silently endorses a white hegemony. After a year of significant protest and struggle, students received a building with a name scrubbed of meaning, an absence of contextualization about the name change, and a sixteen-year moratorium on action about renaming other buildings. In May, I and many other students, felt betrayed and demoralized by the slow and inadequate response from the administration, and I hoped for better in the fall.
Over the course of the past semester in Missouri, there have been numerous racist acts on Mizzou’s campus. Neither isolated or forgettable, these acts propelled activists to seek improved living, working, and learning conditions for students and liability for administrative failures. “That’s the systematic oppression I’m talking about,” continued Head. “We aren’t protesting a single incident. It’s incidents that have happened over time, and our university’s failure to acknowledge these incidents and address these incidents, and make this campus more inclusive through policy.”
The past few months at Carolina have also brought salient events to campus: a pro-Confederate rally in McCorkle Place, a system President who believes identifying as LGBTQ is a “lifestyle” choice, and of course, continued painting of and conversation about the Memorial to Civil War Soldiers of the University. Until this past week, I would argue that events at Mizzou and Carolina have run parallel to each other. Until, of course, thirty members of the Mizzou football team went on strike. Their protest received immediate national coverage, overshadowing organizing and demonstrations from other students, including Jonathon Butler, five days into his hunger strike went folks outside of the Midwest began to learn what was happening in Missouri. The next day, the head coach and remainder of team joined the strike, standing in solidarity with the activists.
The strike threatened the loss of millions of dollars if the football team could not compete in its upcoming games. In their statement, the Mizzou football team showed that they could play politics as well as sports. At a campus like Mizzou, where the football team is 50% Black and athletes comprise a large portion of the 7% of Black students, it was paramount for athletes to realize the place of politics in sports and civil rights. Their actions illustrate a keen awareness of sports as an agent of social change. But this action is all the more remarkable in that it doesn’t fall into the line of protesting the business of sports. This is not about the N.C.A.A. or image rights. It’s about student athletes recognizing their power and refusing to represent a university that rejects its student opposition. It’s about players recognizing that through control of their own bodies and labor they can propel a social movement.
Events at Mizzou are shaking up athletes everywhere. At yesterday’s press conference with the Carolina basketball team, Marcus Paige (#5 on the court, #1 in our hearts), was asked what he thought of, seeing the actions of Missouri’s football team: “If you google UNC’s Wikipedia page, there’s a men’s basketball section. The influence that we have is only rivaled by the chancellor and a couple or other really important people. To be able to take a stand for what we believe is right is very important. People will get behind that.” His teammate, Brice Johnson (#11 on the court, #2 in our hearts), followed up, saying, “If a team here did that, say if the basketball team did that, that guy [administrator] would be out like two minutes after. The Carolina basketball program is very powerful.” Black athletes have, are, and should realize that the difference between student-athlete and student-activist is not one of identity, but of influence, and in fact, a third character–the student-athlete-activist–might hold the most power in the university’s culture.
In early 2015, the N.C.A.A.’s most prominent conferences, including the ACC, passed a reform that reduced the ability of athletic programs to retaliate against college athletes with the removal of scholarship funds. The reform package eliminated the policy that had been in effect for four decades and permitted programs to revoke or not renew athletic scholarships for “athletic reasons.” This policy was used to remove players with both torn ACLs and unruly actions, like, say, standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement or suspending football-related activities until a university president has resigned. There are still other ways programs can punish athletes who do not toe the line: reduced playing time and refusal to connect athletes to professional sports networks. But Mizzou’s athletic administration stood with their players, setting a precedent for collective action that should be embraced by college athletes and their administrators everywhere.
If I was awash in amniotic fluid in September of 1992, it is fair to believe that most undergraduate students are not aware of Carolina’s own history of athletes rallying for social change, though there is an article in The Daily Tar Heel this week on the student actions of ’92. In the fallout of the academic-athletic scandal at Carolina, there has been push for reform. Those reforms are internal, and do not signal to the national, or even the larger university communities that UNC’s academic policies and athletic programs have improved. What if? What if Carolina could use the power of its athletes in tandem with that of its activists to create the kind of university community students want: inclusive, democratic, and nationally respected? What if Carolina’s athletes, who have already recognized that they “can really impact people and [are] really a voice for the university,” used their influence to strike for a new UNC president? For a Carolina that celebrates and accepts its minority students? For university policies that provides a campus community that fosters a “plurality of values,” while maintaining a safe environment? What if Carolina could really come out as an institution that listens to and values its students? And what if we got there by forming an old coalition, led by Black students, that does not differentiate between activist and athlete, that brought us all a new Carolina?