COLUMBIA — Students, faculty and staff overflow from the sidewalks onto the streets. Chants are heard, signs are raised and fists are pumped in the air on MU’s campus down Rollins Street, in front of Johnston Hall. They want their message known: The Missouri Civil Rights Initiative is not welcome here. Pedestrians look at the crowd, some taking informational fliers and others trying to understand the purpose behind the protest. Cars honk to acknowledge the growing crowd. Leaders shout into bullhorns. The protest, slowly moving towards Jesse Hall, is peaceful.
Rewind to the days of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Students at universities across the country held protests against the war and for equality. Martin Luther King Jr. led marches in Alabama, Mississippi and other Southern states to express the need for equality for all people, regardless of race, religion or gender. Police met King’s efforts with dogs and water hoses, especially in Birmingham, Ala.
Fast forward 40 years later to April 15. New leaders emerge to guide people down the streets of Columbia. No police or government officials countered the march.
“We are potentially in a new civil rights movement,” Winston Tracy, an MU graduate student, said..
Students marched to defend their civil rights through affirmative action. They were speaking out against the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative.
Introducing the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative
In late 2002, North Central Missouri College’s Director of Admissions Tim Asher noticed a common thread in how the diversity scholarship was being awarded. He said the process was guided by the race or ethnicity of the applicant.
Asher researched the matter further and found that a variety of programs and scholarships in Missouri higher education, public contracting and government employment were based on these preferences. He took action.
Asher called the American Civil Rights Institute to discuss his findings in early 2005. He reached out to Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent, to begin the process of trying to place an anti-affirmative action initiative on the Missouri ballot. Previously, Connerly had led similar citizen-driven propositions in California, Washington and Michigan, and those had passed. In June 2007, Asher submitted wording for a proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution to Secretary of State Robin Carnahan’s office.
The proposed amendment was the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative. The initiative sought to ban statewide and local affirmative action programs granting preferential treatment based upon race, gender, ethnicity or origin in public education, employment and contracting.
The initiative hit a few bumps on the road to the November 2008 ballot.
May 4 was the deadline for collecting signatures. Asher’s group needed to collect 140,000 to 150,000 signatures and hired an army of paid petitioners, which is equal to 8 percent of six of Missouri’s nine districts during the 2004 gubernatorial election, to gather them.
Asher said his petitioners collected some 170,000 signatures to submit to the secretary of state’s office. But Asher hesitated to send them because some signatures might not have been valid.
“We needed 30,000 to 40,000 more signatures to feel comfortable,” Asher said. “We did not feel like it was going to be enough.”
The legibility and duplication of signatures and the confirmation of registered Missouri voters factored into the group’s final decision. When Asher and others dropped an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of invalid signatures collected, they realized they would not have enough to submit to Carnahan.
Still, the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative is not dead. Asher has pledged to get it on the ballot again, and opponents have promised to fight it just as fiercely.
A rival emerges
Tracy, the MU graduate student in education and policy analysis, sits within a rectangle of couches while a San Antonio Spurs-Los Angeles Lakers game plays on TV. Others students perched on the nearby couches face him. He stares as if trying to scramble together a mental checklist.
“OK, let’s go ahead and get started, everyone,” Tracy said.
Tracy is one of three leaders of the Missing Minority Campaign. Several minority student organizations at MU, along with the president and vice president of the Missouri Students Association, formed the group in an effort to stop the civil rights initiative.
On Sunday afternoons, they met to discuss plans for spreading information on campus and in the community about affirmative action and the initiative.
In April, just weeks before the initiative’s signature deadline, they met to finalize preparations for the protest and a panel discussion.
“We’ll walk down Rollins and stop at Brady,” Tracy said. “Our objective there will be to talk to everyone in Brady. People should still be around at that time.”
They confirmed speakers and made backup plans. They decided to pass out T-shirts to the first 80 people arriving at the rally. Danielle Huff, co-leader of the campaign, suggested finding a singer to lead the crowd in the national anthem for the introduction.
They quickly shifted their agenda from the protest to a panel that would follow the next day. The panel-led forum featured members from opposing sides of the affirmative action debate, such as MU’s chief diversity officer, Roger Worthington, who opposed the initiative, and Brian Johnson, field organizer for the civil rights initiative. This presented students, faculty and others a glimpse at the arguments for and against the initiative. The main objective was to educate people about what the initiative would or would not do.
Tracy announced this is the last meeting for the campaign at the moment.
We stand for equality
Protesters flowed into MU’s Speakers Circle chanting “No Justice, No Peace” and surrounded Missing Minority Campaign leaders Anthony Martin, Tracy and Huff. As the crowd calmed to listen to the words of selected speakers, a small group gathered on top of the stairs. About 15 black students encircled two white students, one of whom was yelling, “Let’s build a dialogue, not a monologue.” The other engaged in a heated debate with another student in the group of 15 about the amendment.
“All students should be judged on equal footing,” said Michael Smith, a third-year law school student. “There are people who are denied opportunities who are poor and needy.”
Smith said he thinks race divides and that affirmative action further divides people through race.
“Let’s base it on socioeconomic factors, not race,” Smith said.
In fact, said Asher, who submitted the wording for the civil rights initiative, this is the part of its foundation. He wants people judged for jobs and contracting based only upon their qualifications and character. In the admissions process of universities, applicants’ qualifications come into play. For scholarship applicants, socioeconomic factors and background would be the only determinants for the award.
“We’re getting back to what the ’64 Civil Rights Act was intended to do,” Asher said. “People would not be excluded by certain traits that we have no control over.”
The initiative states it would ban affirmative action programs throughout the state. Asher said he believes it would not end affirmative action for all groups.
“Racial preferences and affirmative action are not synonymous,” Asher said. “This is the ending of assistance to people based on these (racial) preferences.”
For more than a decade, Connerly, founder of the American Civil Rights Institute, has fought to ban affirmative action programs that base jobs, contracts, scholarships and admissions decisions on race or gender. In California, Michigan and Washington, Connerly fought to pass initiatives similar to the one proposed for Missouri. In all three states, he succeeded.
“I was always taught you can judge me on the basis of many things, but not on my brown skin,” Connerly said.
Now, he is seeking to add to his success by placing similar initiatives on ballots in Nebraska and Arizona for a “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights” on Nov. 4. He has already been successful in getting an initiative on the ballot in Colorado.
However, Connerly also withdrew his petition from Oklahoma because of complications in signature collection.
Connerly started the initiative movement in California with Proposition 209 in 1996. He said he sought to make equal opportunities for everyone in public higher education, public employment and contracting.
“The goal was partly to bring about a measure of true equality,” Connerly said. “They gave little attention to students who were truly disadvantaged.”
After passing Proposition 209 in California in 1996, minority admission in the University of California System dropped. Between 1997 and 1998, admission of blacks, American Indians and Hispanics dropped by 316 students, from 7,385 to 7,069. Admission of Asian Americans, however, a group that Connerly says has been consistently discriminated against in the university system, increased from 13,084 to 13,124.
In recent years, minority enrollment has risen above pre-1996 levels. Connerly credits the elevated admission factors with an improved University of California System.
“We moved from race-based affirmative action to socioeconomic affirmative action,” Connerly said.
The most recent similar initiative was passed in Michigan in 2006. Admissions and financial aid departments across the state changed policies in order to accommodate Proposal 2.
James Cotter, director of admissions for Michigan State University, said it is too early to tell the effects of the amendment in admissions or enrollment, but he said he feels assured they will begin to take shape in the next school year.
“There is no doubt of an impact to some degree,” Cotter said. “Anytime you eliminate factors for admission decisions, there is going to be an impact.”
Cotter said there seems to be no effect on applications; minority applications have actually increased.
However, gender-based and race-based scholarships have been prohibited at the university. The admissions committee does not know the race, ethnicity or gender of students when rendering admission decisions.
Cotter said he strives to make diversity plausible on campus while staying within the confines of the law. So, the university has changed some of the factors upon which admission applications are based. This year’s applicants are being asked new questions.
Some of them include:
• Are you a first-generation college student?
• Do you work outside the home to support your family?
• Do you have dependent children?
• Do you receive a free or reduced lunch?
Cotter said these questions transcend all gender, ethnic and racial lines, and allow for better decision-making by the admissions committee.
Effect on MU
If petitioners and advocates of the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative had collected the more than 140,000 signatures needed, voters not only would have voted to determine the next leader of the United States, but also on whether to keep or eliminate state and local affirmative action programs.
If passed, the amendment likely would affect higher education in Columbia.
Socioeconomic factors and background of the applicant would factor heavily into the admissions process.
At MU, four scholarships under the Missouri Assessment Program, funded by the state, would have to undergo changes to conform to the new law. Andre Thorn, assistant director for Academic Retention Services, said the Diversity, the George C. Brooks, Transition and Dr. Donald Suggs scholarships, each worth between $2,500 and $10,000 plus an out-of-state tuition waiver, would be affected.
Diversity scholars such as Danielle Huff do not see a positive future for minority students in Missouri.
“It’s sad,” said Huff, a co-leader of the Missing Minority Campaign. “It’s upsetting. It’s not fair. Our laws were made to make life as fair as possible, and this makes life as hard as possible.”
Huff plans to attend medical school after graduating from MU in May 2008. She foresees struggles ahead as a black woman if the initiative would pass.
Winston Tracy, the MU graduate student, cannot see the initiative passing without national ramifications.
“We’re not fighting for reparations,” Tracy said. “We’re fighting for survival.”
Tracy predicts the initiative would ultimately end affirmative action. He compares affirmative action to a 150-meter race.
“Being an African American, you are running a 150-meter race while others run 100 meters,” he said. “Affirmative action gets you that extra 20 to 30 meters. Affirmative action gives you a chance.”
Although opponents like Tracy cheered victory when the initiative missed the November ballot, supporters vowed to continue their fight.
“Missouri will definitely be in play in 2010,” said Connerly, founder of the American Civil Rights Institute.
During this election cycle, 170,000 signatures were collected for a database, and Connerly believes contacting those people to regain their signatures for 2010 would be a tremendous boost in getting onto the state ballot.
“There will still be a showdown at the O.K. Corral in Missouri in 2010,” Connerly said.
As Asher and Connerly prepare strategies for their next round of petitioning, Tracy and his group plan to do the same.
“We’ll be fighting them before 2010,” Tracy said. “I’m tired of being reactive. I want to be proactive in getting people to talk about the subject.”
Tracy said he hopes to expose such initiatives on a nationwide scale.
“We succeeded in having forums and panels about this,” Tracy said. “We want to educate people in other states.”