by David Sheridan
This was the semester the Black students at the University of Missouri had 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 Black female student’s dorm door; in another a swastika was smeared in feces on a college building wall.
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Comprising seven percent of the student population, the Black students organized themselves. They held rallies and marches. Other students joined them. They demanded change now. Black graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike.
Inspired by the Ferguson protests, the students wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts, and quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Bianca Zachary, president of the National Education Association Student Chapter at the university, has been 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 has a passion for literature, and she wants to be a high school English teacher. But more than once at Mizzou when Bianca has told a white person she loves literature, she gets that strange, “Really? You?” look. Another Black student at Mizzou notes that these moments of racial put-down, repeated week-after-week, “can wear you down and impact your academic performance.”
Bianca 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 President of the University had resigned, ceding to the number one demand of the Black students, Bianca and another student were walking across campus when a vehicle full of white men pulled up: the men cursed her and her friend.
This confrontation scared Bianca, but it did not keep her from savoring the astonishing victory achieved by the Black student movement. 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!
Not only did the President resign, but so did the Chancellor. And the university named an interim President who once helped organize the Black student government and presented his own list of demands to the administration decades ago. Sweeter still, the Mizzou students are seeing their protests against racism spread to other campuses across the nation.
This summer Bianca attended the NEA Representative Assembly for the first time, and she was awed. In particular, the discussion about New Business Item B on Institutional Racism impressed her. “It’s not easy to have an honest conversation about racism, and yet, here were thousands of educators doing just that.”
She has also been impressed by the NEA support she has 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.”
Bianca 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.”
“We are proud of the students like Bianca Zachary who are standing up for justice and against institutional racism on campuses across the country,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Their courage inspires us all in our fight for racial equality.”