In the end, it always seems to come down to student activists to make some noise and roust the country into social change.
It happened in the 1960s when Ella Baker organized a group of students at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., that resulted in the powerful Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC’s Nashville acolytes — Diane Nash, John Lewis, James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette — staged sit-ins, led marches and rode Freedom Rides to successfully protest segregated facilities in the South. Their stories are featured in a popular Newseum exhibit on student leaders in the civil rights movement.
It happened in the 1970s at the height of the Vietnam War, when millions of students at 450 colleges, universities and high schools shut down their schools in protest. At Ohio’s Kent State and Jackson State in Mississippi, five students were killed by National Guardsmen and state troopers.
It happened in the 1980s and 1990s, when students protested apartheid, racism, sexism, wars, nuclear proliferation and inequality.
And it’s happening now on high school and college campuses from Connecticut to Missouri to California, where racism, racial epithets, and seeming indifference and inaction to both have sparked boycotts and walkouts that are reminiscent of the 1960s but influenced by Ferguson.
In Missouri, which since 2014 has increasingly become ground zero for racial tension, protests at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in Columbia hold national significance for two reasons: Mizzou’s athletes and coaches took a united stand — a rarity in college sports; and student activists’ hardened attitude toward the national media.
For months, students had complained to university officials about the N-word being hurled at them, feces in the shape of a swastika smeared on a dorm wall, and other harassment. Student groups Concerned Student 1950, Legion of Black Collegians, and the Missouri Students Association had been at the forefront trying to get the grievances addressed. Jonathan Butler, a black Mizzou graduate student from Omaha, Neb., was entering the second week of a hunger strike to call attention to the problems.
It wasn’t until a weekend threat by more than 30 black athletes of Mizzou’s 4-5 football team to sit out the rest of the season unless university president Tim Wolfe resigned or was fired that the boycott gained traction and garnered national attention. By Monday, a swift two days, Wolfe and university chancellor R. Bowen Loftin had resigned, and the football team was preparing for an upcoming game with Brigham Young University.
But the end of the boycotts was just the beginning of student clashes with the media. Where SNCC protesters were the “shock troops” of a new American revolution televised on the nightly news, Mizzou protesters jolted the media and First Amendment advocates by refusing their perceived “intrusion” and by “muscling” cameras out of the area.
Tim Tai, a University of Missouri student photojournalist who was hired by ESPN to cover the protests, displayed grace under fire as he was confronted by angry students chanting “Hey hey, ho, ho. Reporters have got to go.” As Tai invoked his First Amendment right to photograph in a public space, the activists claimed that by trying to photograph their tent encampment, Tai had intruded on their space.
“It’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces,” they tweeted. “We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, & sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives.”
It’s the “twisted insincere narratives” sentiment the activists are shielding themselves against that should give the media pause. Since Ferguson, journalists armed with constitutional protection to report the news have increasingly found themselves trapped in a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t universe where they are the enemy. Fifty five years after the SNCC protests, the media should be asking themselves why.