By Abbey Dean
Michael Middleton used to dodge whizzing beer bottles and hear people yell, “Go home, nigger,” as he walked the streets of Columbia. “But that still wasn’t as bad as being kidnapped or lynched, which was what was happening in Mississippi while I was growing up,” Middleton says.
He enrolled in the MU School of Law in 1968 at the height of the civil rights movement, when Columbia was still very much a segregated town. He was the first black student to enroll in and graduate from the law school. Middleton went on to an illustrious career in civil rights law and eventually came back to MU as a law professor in 1985.
Today, Middleton is deputy chancellor of MU, a position in which he aids the chancellor in the day-to-day needs and functions of the university. His office is connected to Chancellor Brady Deaton’s in Jesse Hall, MU’s main administrative building, where Middleton protested for civil rights and against the Vietnam War during his undergrad days at MU.
“I used to sit-in in Jesse Hall, and now I sit in Jesse Hall,” he says, clearly amused.
But for all the progress made since the civil rights movement, racial diversity in schools remains problematic. Almost 60 years after the Supreme Court officially ended segregation in public schools, some American schools are still heavily segregated, according to a September report from the Civil Rights Center at UCLA.
The report also says a majority of African-American and Latino students learn in segregated classrooms. Seventy-four percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students attend schools where the majority student population is white. The study targets charter schools, which fall short of equal education promises nearly six decades after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
The MU School of Law played a nationally significant role in the desegregation process in public education, a history that Middleton helped shape. But Middleton’s story was preceded by a man named Lloyd Gaines. Seventy-four years ago, MU denied Gaines admittance to the law school because he was black. Backed by the NAACP, Gaines took his case against MU to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1938.
In the Missouri case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of equal-opportunity education and said that states providing schools for whites must also do so for blacks, or allow them to attend the same school. At the time, it was illegal in Missouri for any public university to enroll black students.
In 1939, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in his favor, Gaines went out to buy stamps and was never seen again. Much speculation surrounding Gaines’ disappearance remains, but the mystery was never solved.
Middleton enrolled in the law school 30 years after Gaines was rejected and 14 years after Brown v. Board took effect.
From 1970 to 1971, black students comprised 1.7 percent of student enrollment, according to The African-American Experience at the University of Missouri, 1950-1994.
He says he was used to segregation and racism in Columbia both on and off campus. Marching Mizzou used to play “Dixie,” and the Kappa Alpha fraternity on campus would host a slave parade, in which the members would dress in Confederate uniforms and have African-Americans don slave garb and walk behind a truck for Homecoming.
Despite him being marginalized and isolated, his parents taught him to be tolerant. “My parents told me that I couldn’t allow racism to affect your understanding of yourself,” Middleton says. “They made sure I knew that racist Southern whites were unfortunate, misguided and ignorant people. It wasn’t about me; it was about them.”
He was active in anti-discrimination and anti-war protests during college. Along with his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, Middleton helped found the MU Legion of Black Collegians, a group still in existence today.
Middleton landed several dream jobs at the Department of Justice before becoming a professor at MU in 1985. He was also the first black member of the Law School faculty. He stopped teaching 16 years ago and moved up to one of the highest-ranking positions on campus. But still, he doesn’t believe that he has done anything truly significant.
“Every black person or any woman in this country near my age has had the same story,” Middleton says. “Everyone who has had some success has suffered similar marginalization, racism or sexism and has overcome it.”