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The 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. exacerbated racial tensions in the state and thrust the nearby University of Missouri (Mizzou) into the national spotlight.

Recently, the institution has been surrounded by student protests, a hunger strike, the football team’s threats to boycott all practices and games and additional threats by faculty to stage a campus-wide walk-out all in an effort to fight systemic racism experienced by African American students.

“These students are part of a rich legacy of protest on campuses. For generations, students have used campus space to organize against racism, imperialism, sexism, sexual assault and more,” said Dr. Kirsten Gardner, UTSA associate professor of history.

According to some students, the flagship-campus in Columbia, Mo. which is about 120 miles away from Ferguson – has been plagued with racially charged incidents, forcing black students to choose between their sense of safety or their education.

Recently, a swastika smeared in feces was found on the wall of a dormitory, and black students were threatened on the anonymous posting app Yik Yak.

Dr. John Reynolds, UTSA history professor, describes forums like Yik Yak as a venue for “insensitive comments to be voiced in the void.”

The intimidating social media posts resulted in the arrest of a white 19 – year-old male, in a town 90 miles away.

Due to these incidents, some classes were canceled and many students decided to avoid campus. Many accused the university’s administration of being slow and ineffective in addressing African-American students’ concerns.

Bigotry, however, is not isolated to Mizzou.

Jessica Reyes, junior kinesiology major and vice president of UTSA’s NAACP chapter, can relate to the social media speech.

Reyes recalls a time in the spring 2015 semester when her student organization held a “die-in” to raise awareness for the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases.

“We received more negative than positive feedback on many social media sites from UTSA students and alumni. We were called many discriminatory names and told things like, ‘This is why black people will never succeed in life, because they’re too busy laying on the ground rather than being in class.’”

In Missouri, the student activist group Concerned Student 1950 (in homage to the year the university admitted its first black student) criticized Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s response to the plight of black students and drafted a list of demands they believed would alleviate racial hostility at the institution, including Loftin’s resignation.

Reyes is inspired by Concerned Student 1950’s approach and their willingness “to stand together and push to be heard,” because universities “like to pretend racism doesn’t exist… but the students in Missouri have shown we will not be ignored anymore,” she said.

Another focal point of Concerned Student 1950 was its call for the resignation or termination of the university system’s President Tim Wolfe; before his ousting, Wolfe presided over the four institutions that comprised the University of Missouri System.

Throughout the year, Loftin held town hall meetings, and he appointed a faculty committee to address the state of race relations on campus, but many students were not pleased with the pace of change.

Dissatisfaction with Loftin climaxed at the homecoming parade. Protestors confronted the chancellor in his car during a parade, but he refused to address them.

Frustration with Wolfe peaked when he responded to a student’s question with, “ Systemic oppression is because you don’t believe you have the equal opportunity for success.” In response, more than 30 Mizzou football players refused to participate in any practices or games until Wolfe and Loftin were ousted. Meanwhile, graduate student Jonathan Butler refused to eat until the two men were removed from their positions.

Ultimately, both administrators resigned causing many to wonder if students ­— or at least student athletes — have gained a new sense of empowerment.

According to UTSA Department Chair and Professor of Political Science and Geography at UTSA, Dr. Daniel Engster, the football team’s involvement is the most distinctive element of the U. of Missouri protests — with money and visibility as key elements. —

“College athletes can potentially have a huge impact on campus policies,” Engster said. “If other college sports teams decide to follow the lead of the U. of Missouri football team, it could lead to a new era of student activism, but with a very different style from the past.”

According to the contract signed last November, if the Mizzou players boycotted and were forced to cancel their game against Brigham Young University (BYU), Mizzou would have been fined $1 million plus any attorney’s fees resulting from attempts to collect liquidated damages.

Jarveon Williams, junior running back for the UTSA Roadrunners football team, agrees that student athletes have the potential to influence their peers on campus and supports the tactics the Tigers used.

“If you want to be respected and show respect, too, you’re going to have to stand up for what you believe in. I’m glad they stood up for change,” Williams stated.

Reynolds agrees that the college athletes, “played a leading role in galvanizing opinion on campus.”

However, Gardner is wary of attributing the student’s success entirely to the Tigers. While she explains that the football players provided a critical tipping point that empowered the protest, it was inspired by generations of students, activists, critical dialogue and scholarship years in the making.

“That legacy is as much a part of this story as the successful coalition among students and the powerful strategies student athletes have included,” Gardner said.

Reyes appreciates the ripple effect the Missouri student protests have caused across other universities nationwide, but said that the events only prove the need for activism.

“We just want others to understand that we support black lives matter, not because all lives don’t matter, but because, in reality, black lives are not valued in society as much as white lives are,” she explained.

Similarly, Reynolds said that white students should not place all responsibility on minority students to call out injustice, but he appreciates the openness of the dialogue.

“Universities should be spaces where different opinions — sometimes hurtful and offensive ones — will be expressed, and that seems to be happening more today than in the past.”

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