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A Lesson in Nonviolent Resistance

Imagine you lived in a community where thousands of members came together to express that they felt unsafe, hurt, and unwelcome. Imagine that most leaders in this community responded with silence. Imagine that the ones who did respond asked these community members to get over it and move on.

In the year 2015, none of us should be satisfied with living in this type of community.

Likewise, none of us should expect students of color at the University of Missouri and Yale to be satisfied with feeling marginalized in their communities, as disturbing and racially insensitive behavior remain seriously unaddressed on their respective campuses.

In the case of Yale, one administrator sent an email that suggested that students of color either look the other way or assume the burden of confronting and educating the very people who make their community unwelcoming. Though exercising her constitutional right to free speech, this administrator critically failed in her duty to help foster spaces where all students can feel safe at the university.

In response to these high-profile incidents in recent days, thousands of students have come together to demand change at Yale and Mizzou, and they have every right to do so.

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This is not unique to Mizzou, Yale, or any of the other campuses that have seen protests this week. These are not responses to isolated incidents that only occurred in the last two weeks. At universities across this nation, students of color have voiced their frustrations with racism, whether committed maliciously or obliviously, that they have experienced on their campuses—only to have those concerns so often met with silence, disbelief, or disregard.

The reason we are even having a national conversation about institutional racism at this very moment is because courageous students at Yale and Mizzou refused to allow their frustrations to once again fall on deaf ears. This time, these students turned up the volume, and now, the whole country is listening.

To be sure, violence of any sort, including the reports of spitting at Yale and pushing at Mizzou, is objectionable. But these demonstrations have overwhelmingly been peaceful, and for that reason, it would be tragically misguided to condemn them as disproportionate.

We must understand that what we have seen in recent days is not simply a response to a single insensitive email, one racially offensive costume, one racially exclusive party, or a random incident of the n-word being said on campus. What we have seen at both Mizzou and Yale is what happens when a group of people are tired of being marginalized from the moment they set foot on campus. It’s what happens when students of color are tired of carrying the burden of having to educate or confront the very people who make them feel unsafe. It’s what happens when students of color can no longer pretend that quiet dialogue will solve the systemic issues that prevent them from being fully included at these institutions.

In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed a group of clergymen who opposed his participation in the nonviolent protests of the early 1960s. King said something that speaks to the skepticism we see today. “You deplore the demonstrations taking place,” he wrote, “but your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”

Like the students of color at Mizzou and Yale, King was told to wait. He was told to be calm and to engage those who wielded power with quiet dialogue rather than with forceful and visible nonviolent demonstration. Thankfully, Martin Luther King, Jr., did not listen to that advice.

And thankfully, students of color at Mizzou and Yale, too, refused to remain calm in the face of repeated disregard for their full inclusion. For in their audacity to speak up when others preferred that they keep quiet—in one brave team’s refusal to play football when others preferred that they go on with business as usual, and in one student’s daring week without food—these students collectively made possible this full-fledged, national dialogue on race relations. This powerful reminder of just how important nonviolent resistance is for jump-starting social change should be the beginning of a fundamental shift toward greater inclusion at universities across the land.


Dennis O. Ojogho ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.

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