Revisiting Columbia’s shantytown legacy

The University of Missouri has a long history of protests.

In 2015, a group of students under the banner of “Concerned Student 1950” camped out on the Carnahan Quadrangle to protest racism at the school’s flagship Columbia campus, confronting what they saw as an inappropriate silence from university officials.

Jonathan Butler, a graduate student and leader of the movement, staged a week-long hunger strike. This triggered support from the football team, which began a boycott of all sports-related activity to undergird Butler’s effort.

The national news media caught the story. Soon, the entire country had its eyes on MU.

On the morning of Nov. 9, Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri System, officially resigned, followed soon after by R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the Columbia campus. The protests had succeeded.

But it wasn’t the first time.

In the 1980s, a group of MU students demanded their school divest close to $100 million from businesses with dealings in apartheid-supporting South Africa.

Finding little sympathy from university officials, Missourians Against Apartheid took matters into their own hands. The group constructed plywood “shantytowns” on the Francis Quadrangle, which they hoped would publicly shame the university into action.

After three days, campus police tore down the shanties, arresting 17 protesters in the process.

Students built more. Officers made more arrests—this time, over 40 students.

Later, a slew of shantytown protesters staged a sit-in at the chancellor’s office. Refusing to budge, they quietly did their homework. When they got hungry, some ordered pizza. At one point, a student even answered a call to the office phone.

At the center of it all was the fiery and enigmatic Carla Weitzel.

Weitzel led an extraordinary—and, perhaps, extraordinarily tragic—young life. Before stepping up to become leader of the Shantytown protests at 26, Weitzel had already been married and subsequently divorced. She’d spent two years in the U.S. Army. A heavy drug user, she had even staged her own suicide—twice.

Like Butler, she was a graduate student who engaged in a hunger strike in support of civil rights, camping out on a university quad to support the change she wanted to see.

Also like Butler, she won.

This week’s issue of Vox Magazine details the full history of Carla Weitzel and the Shantytown protests in its cover story, “Campus protests: A retrospective on the unrest during apartheid.”

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Author: Zachary Reger

A graduate of the University of Missouri with degrees in journalism, philosophy and film studies, Zach's primary interests lie in political reporting, media production and social philosophy.

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