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A Dispatch From the College Frontlines

College Students Organize for Racial Justice

University of Missouri Student Chapter President Pledges Lifelong Activism

Fall 2015 was the semester Black students at the University of Missouri had enough. Racism was virulent on the campus, and the administration was doing little or nothing to curb it. In one incident, a drawing of a Black woman who had been lynched was tacked to a Black female student’s dorm door; in another a swastika was smeared in feces on a college building wall.

Comprising seven percent of the student population, Black students organized. They held rallies and marches on the Mizzou campus. Other students joined them. Together they demanded change—now. Mizzou graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike.

Inspired by protests in Ferguson, Mo., where crowds railed against the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, the students wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts, and quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Bianca Zachary, president of the NEA Student Chapter at the university, was in the thick of the revolt. “It’s one thing to read about activism and entirely another to go out there and actually do it. I expect I will be an activist for the rest of my life. I also believe being an activist will make me a better teacher,” Zachary says.

She attended a very diverse high school in Kansas City, and didn’t really look at the world through a racial lens until she went to Mizzou. No more.

After the university’s president resigned, ceding to the number one demand of the Black students, Zachary and another student were walking across campus when a vehicle full of White men pulled up and cursed them both.

This confrontation scared Zachary, but it did not keep her from savoring the victory achieved by the Black students. With a big boost from the Black players on the Missouri football team who refused to play unless things improved on the campus, they had won!

The university named an interim president, who as a Mizzou alumni, once helped organize the Black students on campus. Sweeter still, the Mizzou students saw their protests against racism spread to other campuses across the nation.

Last summer Zachary attended the 2015 NEA Representative Assembly for the first time, she was awed, in particular, by the discussion and vote on New Business Item B – Institutional Racism.

“It’s not easy to have an honest conversation about racism,” said Zachary, “and yet, here were thousands of educators doing just that.” She was also impressed by the NEA support she received during the Mizzou protests. “Both Chelsey Herrig, chair of the NEA Student Program, and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, called to offer their support. “That meant so much to me,” Zachary said.

Looking forward, she is optimistic that things will get better at Mizzou. “We’ve made a good first step, but it’ll take time and continued pressure. The faculty is only four percent Black—that’s ridiculous.”

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