Am I proud of my alma mater for acceding to the demands of campus activists that attention be paid to repeated racist actions? Or am I saddened by the realization that in 2015 this was even an issue? Or, even more distressing, does the cynic in me acknowledge that in the end it was money – or the anticipated loss of it – that brought an end to the demonstrations at the University of Missouri? Once the football players and their coaches threatened to boycott their program, the potential loss of millions in forfeit fees and television revenues was enough to get the president and the chancellor both to step down. And now, it is hoped, attention is being paid.
Until hearing about the Concerned Student 1950 nomenclature that the activists adopted, I had no idea that I entered the university just six years after the first black students were admitted to Mizzou. Six years! And was I aware of their presence on campus and what a lonely existence they no doubt endured? No, ensconced as I was in my white sorority girl bubble, I had no comprehension of their situation. Or perhaps, as was the case of Gus T. Ridgel, one of the first of those students, there were so few places where they could be seen. In a New York Times article, Ridgel, now 89, recalls entering a café with three white students. “The man looked up from the counter and said, ‘I can serve you three but I can’t serve him.’” Ridgel’s companions retorted, “If you can’t serve the four of us, you can’t serve any of us.” And they walked out.
There were good people even then. Ridgel said classmates made a point of sitting with him for meals and eventually asked to study with him. When one professor gave him his two lowest grades – the two Bs of his academic career there – his study mates thought it was wrong. Things were worse at some of the other academic institutions he attended. As a Ford Foundation fellow at Duke University, The Times writes, “he was barred from going through the cafeteria line and even from dining with other Ford fellows until a partition was erected shielding them from other diners. Nor could he retrieve books from library stacks, something other students routinely did.”
I cannot begin to imagine having to deal with those sorts of injustices. The closest I came was when a journalism professor refused to allow me to enroll in his class “because it’s a waste of my time to teach girls since they just end up getting married.” Whatever words I used to change his mind have been lost to time but I eventually wore him down, entered his class and did well. But then I got married, and he was so angry I almost didn’t graduate.
A few years later in Sacramento Ed and I went to a favorite restaurant of ours with African- American friends. For the first time, we were seated in back by the door to the kitchen and ignored for what seemed like an inordinately long time. As Ed’s temper rose and he beckoned for the maitre de, our friend patted Ed’s arm. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. We were eventually served, though I felt as though many of the other customers spent a lot of time staring at our table. Ed and I never went to that restaurant again.
Many years later in New Jersey I learned from a colleague about the problems that come with “driving while black.” More times than he could count, despite being dressed in suit and tie and driving a nice car, my friend would be stopped by the police and asked to produce license and registration. Has that ever happened to me? Only when I’ve done something stupid like rolling through a stop sign.
The Times writes that unlike black students at Missouri today, Mr. Ridgel felt largely powerless to do much about his situation. “They have available to them means to react to an unfair situation that obviously weren’t available to me in 1950,” Ridgel said. “That [those means] had to be used is unfortunate.” I agree.