Courtesy of Tribune News Service

Former Mizzou student leader provides hope, inspiration for fight against injustice

Racist slurs written on a classroom white board.

A stuffed animal lynched outside an African-American student's home.

Racially biased policies in Five Points.

And Tuesday, just one day after MLK Day, posters over an African American studies display that honored famous South Carolinians.

 “It’s very difficult when things are constantly going on, especially on the first day of classes," said JaCori Gambrell, the president of the Association of African American Students. "It can really mess with you."

Activist Payton Head, the former University of Missouri's student body president, sparked protests at his own campus and across the country in the fall of 2015 after posting on Facebook about the racism and homophobia he faced. With his talk Tuesday night at in the Russell House Theater, Head provided encouragement for USC students fighting those same issues. Planned jointly by the Association of African American Students, the Leadership and Service Center, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, the event was the first AAAS meeting of the semester and part of the Momentum speaker series.

Elected in the fall of 2014 with record turnout, Head led an especially vocal student government. One of his first actions was to release a statement in support of protesters in Ferguson, where Michael Brown's death had sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. He also brought LGBTQ issues to the forefront in discussions with the Mizzou Board of Curators, similar to USC's Board of Trustees.

"I just wanted people to wake up, because I couldn’t sleep," Head said.

Head retold the months when Mizzou was constantly in the news, whether for his mentor's six-day hunger strike, the Concerned Student 1950 tents or the system president's resignation.

Hearing about Head's struggles to communicate with university administrators resonated with students in the audience.

“People with privilege are not necessarily listening or caring about issues," fourth-year economics student Justin Dreher said. "Not necessarily to their fault, though, they just don’t necessarily know that they exist.”

As part of a wave across the country, USC students led a 2020 Vision protest in November of 2015. They read a list of demands, many of which have since been implemented. In December, the university unveiled two plaques on the Horseshoe recognizing the slaves who lived and worked at USC.

Being able to understand how the past affects the present is different from living in the past, Head explained. With their combination of studying the past and educating the people of the future, universities are uniquely placed to fight systemic prejudices, he said.

“What if we used universities as the hospital to cure racism?" Head asked. "What if we invested in social change and in social justice resources?”

USC Student Body President Ross Lordo attended the talk with his cabinet, nodding along when Head talked about the power of student governments to lead change.

“At its foundation, our university culture needs to be one that every student feels welcome and every student knows that they can call USC home,” Lordo said.

As the posters and the students' reactions have demonstrated, there's still progress to be made. Students that helped organize the event like Gambrell and Tevin Jenkins, vice president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, wanted it to spur the university community to come together like what happened at Mizzou.

"With an event like this," Jenkins said, "I’m looking for the university and the students at the university to kind of practice what they preach.”


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