Michael Middleton remembers a time when walking through MU’s campus as a young black man often meant hearing racial slurs shouted by other students and dodging objects thrown from cars.
This was during the mid-1960s, the height of the Civil Rights Movement, when Middleton was an undergraduate student at MU.
Today, things are different for Middelton, MU’s deputy chancellor and a professor in the School of Law.
As a civil rights lawyer, Middleton himself was instrumental in much of the work that made that change possible.
“I was sort of an activist,” he said.
In Columbia at the time, there was a lot to advocate for as an African-American student. Fraternities waved Confederate flags at football games and held “slave parades” at Homecoming. Confederate Rock, a memorial to soldiers who died on the South’s side of the Civil War, became a meeting place for white students and a “symbol of racism.”
“When I was here, this town was still segregated,” Middleton said. “I didn’t go into Columbia very much.”
Middleton worked to change that environment, as well as to establish an African-American fraternity, a chapter of the Legion of Black Collegians and hire Arvarh Strickland, MU’s first black professor.
Some of the administration reacted to the efforts with apathy, and most white students, Middleton said, were either hostile, uninterested or supportive but unhelpful.
In an interview with the Maneater as an undergraduate, Middleton was asked what black students wanted from their white peers, to which he replied, “We want you to leave us alone.”
He was describing what he had seen from “well-meaning white kids” who got involved in activism but did not have the background to really understand the issues; these students became the spokesmen who were taken seriously and praised, while black students were not.
“That’s why we formed the LBC,” Middleton said, referring to his role in establishing the Legion of Black Collegians at MU. “... We decided we needed to be speaking for ourselves.”
When it was time for Middleton to choose a law school, he was deciding between MU and Ole Miss, in his home state of Mississippi.
William Murphy, a law school professor, advised to him stay at MU because the political climate in Mississippi would have made it hard for him to focus on anything other than activism. So he stayed, becoming the fourth black student to graduate from the MU School of Law.
After graduating, Middleton’s career took him to Washington D.C., where he became a civil rights lawyer in the Justice Department and then with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group that still works toward eliminating legal discrimination.
When Jimmy Carter was elected to the presidency, Middleton returned to Washington to work in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, working in new areas of anti-discrimination policy, including working with MU faculty to develop a plan for implementing Title IX by evaluating gender equity in sports programs.
“I’m pleased to say that that policy is still being used,” Middleton said.
It was not long, though, before a career in Washington began to feel much less satisfying. The first realization came in 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the presidential election, and Republicans gained control of the government for the first time in nearly three decades.
For Middleton, it felt like most of what he had worked for was suddenly in danger of being undone. The new people in power were against most Civil-Rights-era progressive legislation, were against welfare and were against the Department of Education. He was being asked to implement policy he vehemently disagreed with, and arguing against it did not work.
“It got to the point where I just said I can’t do this,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t worth my while to be in the way of this juggernaut trying to argue reason to them.”
He’d also realized that his work did not allow him to spend much time with his three young children.
“I seldom saw them because I was going to work before they woke up and getting home after they went to bed,” he said.
So he made the choice to leave government — which he calls “one of my better decisions” — and returned to MU, this time as a member of the law faculty. He’s now the deputy chancellor, a position he has held since 1998.
MU today is very different from the campus Middleton experienced as a student. Middleton said one of the changes he notices the most is the number of students of color.
“It was sort of surprising to see somebody that looked like you,” Middleton said, referring to his days as an MU student.
Now, there are more opportunities for interaction and connection.
Other signs of progress include the establishment of Women’s Studies and Black Studies departments, the thriving Black Culture Center, and the faculty, much more diverse than it was when Middleton fought to hire the first black professor.
The U.S. government has changed too. Most of the changes that spurred Middleton’s departure from public policy have been rolled back, and though there are still those whose views he finds regressive — “I don’t want to get too political, but you know who I mean,” he said — he’s reminded of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
It means that though progress will be slow, and face difficulties, equality will win eventually – a statement true of MU, Middleton said.
“I think we could do more to make this university even more accessible to marginalized students,” he said. “The same system that excluded African-Americans from the mainstream still excludes others.”
To those students who do feel excluded on campus, Middleton thinks that the African-American Civil Rights movement’s “dignity and grace” can be a model.
“Approach this with the view that these are who are oppressing me don’t know any better,” he said.
He also thinks that the administration is now much more open to hearing students’ concerns.
“Speak up; speak up,” he said. “You will get a much better reception when you speak up than I did when I spoke up.”