'It's Time to Say Something': Mizzou Student Speaks on Campus Racism

by Natalie Johnson /  / Updated 

The African-American students at the University of Missouri in Columbia were fed up. They were fed up with being ignored, dismissed, and disrespected: ignored by the president and administrators, dismissed by white students who remained silent amid discriminatory acts on campus and disrespected by racist students on a frequent basis.

While a number of student protesters have identified themselves as “Concerned Student 1950,” there are 11 original members. The name of the collective is derived from the year Mizzou admitted its first Black student.

The group came together to protest at this year’s Homecoming parade in October. The 11 students blocked the car carrying University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe’s car by linking arms and using a blow horn to express to him — and other bystanders — their concerns and their intolerable, racist experiences on campus.

After this demonstration, student action on campus quickly escalated: Concerned Student 1950 made a list of eight demands — including a call to increase the percentage of Black faculty and staff, a grad student began a hunger strike that he would only abandon once the president resigned, and Black members of the football team declared they would not play until the president left office.

Everything changed Monday morning when Wolfe gave a teary-eyed resignation speech after meeting with the Board of Curators that left many validated students parading campus with joy.

To get a sense of the group “Concerned Student 1950” and their activism and principles, NBCBLK spoke to one of the original members, 22-year-old St. Louis native, Storm Ervin. The sociology/Black studies major gave a candid interview about the initial decision to demonstrate and the power of women in the student movement.

Members of black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the university in Columbia, Mo. Wolfe resigned Monday with the football team and others on campus in open revolt over his handling of racial tensions at the school. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)Jeff Roberson / AP

BLK: When was "Concerned Student 1950" founded? What incident took place that made the 11 of you say, “This is enough”?

Storm Ervin: We never really became a formed organization. We’re more of a collective. We later formed because we all wanted to do a demonstration that educated [people] about the racial climate at Mizzou during Homecoming. After the Homecoming demonstration we realized we got a lot of people asking who we were and we didn’t want people to focus on who we were. We wanted people to focus on our story and the words and the things we were saying during that demonstration. So, we just came together and said we are going to be “Concerned Student 1950.” We just gave ourselves a name and since then we have been a collective organizing.

BLK: What made you want to demonstrate during Homecoming?

Ervin: The racial climate at Mizzou. [A month] prior the Missouri Student Association president was called a nigger on campus and that‘s a blunt form of racism. There’s a subtle form of racism that impacts us all of the time—from the fact that we don’t have too many faculty that look like us.

Also, in the decision making process when it comes to who is choosing these leadership positions. Why don’t we have enough Black administrators? We have a black [Deputy] Chancellor [Michael] Middleton, who is our only person of color on the [Chancellor’s staff]. But for the most part, we have white men making our decisions for us and we want representation for us.

Just given the racial climate and how we were talked to, we decided it’s time to say something. We have a lot of demands that outline what we want and after [the demonstration during Homecoming], Tim Wolfe’s resignation and removal became one of them.

BLK: A majority of "Concerned Student 1950" are women. What does it mean to you to have Black women at the forefront of this movement?

Ervin: Black women have been at the forefront of a lot of movements. In most movements we get erased because of patriarchal social structures that are in place. Men are always painted as the heroes, the martyrs and the warriors. However, we were able to be more visible this time and [so people can] see that Black women did take a stand.

Even at MU for Mike Brown, we started a lot of grassroots demonstrations and that collective was created by three Black women. That’s when the Black campus climate of grassroots, organizing, activism sparked, after the Ferguson era because Ferguson is two hours away. Black women have been organizing at Mizzou, especially for the last two years.

BLK: What message do you think it sends the school and the country for them to witness the influence and impact 11 Black youth can have?

Ervin: I hope it sends the message that we are not afraid. That we do not fear these structures and until we feel comfortable, until we aren’t victims of oppression—whether it sexual oppression, racial oppression, or the intersection of both— we will continue to do what we have to do in order to be free.

Even though we are not physically enslaved, I cannot be happy, I can’t live here knowing that my voice doesn’t matter or knowing that I have to perform a certain away because of my Blackness or my Blackness isn’t accepted. Or [knowing] my Black woman’s voice is going to be painted as the angry Black woman strictly for speaking up because I’m not a man. If a Black man is angry, it’s “Oh, he’s just a man.” If a Black woman is angry, it’s “Oh, she’s an angry Black woman.”

Until I can live freely as Storm Ervin or live freely as “Concerned Student 1950,” advocacy and activism are necessary.

Supporters of Concerned Student 1950 celebrate following University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe's resignation announcement Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the protest movement's camp area in Columbia, Mo. (Nick Schnelle/Columbia Daily Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDITNick Schnelle / AP

BLK: Has Mizzou always had a racism problem?

Ervin: Since I’ve been here, yes. Even the subtle and the blunt forms. My freshmen year nigger was plastered over Hatch Hall [dormitory]. [I go] to Greek Town seeing Confederate flags in the houses, I’m like I’m not coming back here knowing that a lot of time the Black people cannot get into Greek houses.

There’s a very big racial problem in Greek Town, especially the IFC [Interfraternity Council]. Going to Greek Town, you definitely experience racism. The reasons they are able to act like that is because our higher ups don’t challenge it. They don’t deem it a problem and, so students get away with being called a nigger. I have friends who were denied access to Greek parties and they were with their white friends, too. So, since I’ve been here I’ve seen and experienced racism myself.

BLK: What are your hopes now that the president has resigned? I see you want to meet with the Board of Curators and the Governor to discuss “shared governance to create a system of holistic inclusion for all constituents.”

Ervin: We don’t like the selection process of our curators and president. We want it be an election process. A more democratic process of how our leaders are chosen because we have to live under their leadership and we have to pay them for their leadership. But, we don’t get a say in who those leaders are. So we want to have those meetings, so it can be more inclusive.

There’s one main person of color on the UM Curators, [David L. Steward]. But as far as chancellor of the university system, we want to have a say-so in who that person is because that’s how democracy works. Our leaders are a representative of their population, but if we can’t even choose them then they are not a representation of us.

BLK: Students formed a ring around the protesters' encampment of tents. I was wondering, was media becoming a problem on campus. What was the issue?

Ervin: Where the tents are, yes we are in a public space; however, we wanted to respect the sacredness of what happens in those tents. So a lot of times people are having genuine conversations. Anyone is allowed in that space, so we don’t tell anyone “no” besides media.

What happens is people get in those spaces and they have some story they want to pitch, and people don’t want to have their lives documented. This isn’t a reality show. This is not the “Concerned Student 1950” reality show.

We’re raising awareness so we’re putting ourselves in a position to have these hard conversations or we’re putting ourselves in a position to celebrate as Black students on campus or just to commune with each other because it does feel lonely going to class. It does feel lonely walking around a PWI, but we’re not here for the media to scoop that up. It’s not for that. The movement is and we don’t mind talking to the media, but there’s a way to go about it. And we put signs up days before the football players made their announcement saying “No Media.”

The strategists behind Concerned Student 1950, which are the original 11, are not always out there and we can’t really protect the people and we don’t them them feeding [the media] biased stories. You know they’re conservative stories who want to paint us as “whatever.”

If you’re not educated or you haven’t strategized or you haven’t been there since Day 1, you can’t fully answer those questions. Also, Jonathan Butler just came off a hunger strike. I don’t think the media respected his health state. We didn’t want cameras in his face. We didn’t want people bombarding him. He was weak. This man hasn’t eaten in a week. No nutrients have been in his body for a week. We were trying to protect him. We wanted to protect ourselves and we felt the media didn’t protect us. We wanted it to be a safe space.

BLK: Do you think the president stepped down because of the football team? If so, do you care or are you elated that he’s gone?

Ervin: I don’t think he would have left without the football team using their platform. I say that because that would have been a very big fine on Mizzou if the football team had not played. So, of course, Tim Wolfe’s a businessman, he’s not an educator. You realized if you would stay in this position it would hurt the university.

Even though faculty members didn’t say they wanted him gone, they said they stood in solidarity in what we were saying and what we were saying was we don’t want Tim Wolfe as president. So, you are getting a bad rap, a lot of bad media and a lot of bad press. The Boycott UM was a real thing. We were urging [potential] students to not pay your tuition here if you can’t have president who looks at your identity or values. He had a chance to apologize earlier and he didn’t. So, he doesn’t value us.

And I care. It’s sad that all the work the activists do — it didn’t seem to matter until the football players came on. The conversation we had with the football players was excellent. We were concerned about them. They were concerned about us. And they really didn’t want to make the story about them at all. And that’s what I really respect about them.

It’s just sad the public perception is like, “It’s serious now because the football players are involved” and that rubbed me the wrong way, but that isn’t the football players’ fault. It’s just how the world works.

Money is valued. Of course, Black men are valued over Black women and this is a strong team of Black men. Men are, in general, valued over Black women, so they used their privilege to help us lift our platform and I respect them for that. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.

[Editor's Note: Storm Ervin's responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.]