Role of Black Lives Matter Movement in the Resignation of Tim Wolfe: Analytical Essay

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Does social media play a role in activism as many claims? This question has been circulating around African-American communities and classrooms for quite some time now. This research reviews social media’s impact in fighting for justice among Minorities. This paper also looks at the events leading up to University of Missouri president’s resignation. Finally, this research explains why the value of social media is underappreciated, and the next steps to ensure justice for all Minorities on college campuses.

Keywords: social media, activism, Minorities


The University of Missouri’s president Tim Wolfe resigned Monday, November 9, 2015 after months of rising racial tensions pertaining to African-Americans, that he failed to address, according to Green (2015). “The frustration and anger that I see is clear, real, and I don’t doubt it for a second,” Wolfe said at a press conference announcing his resignation. “I take full responsibility for this frustration and for the inactions that have occurred. My resignation comes out of love, not hate.”, which was reported by Green (2015).

University of Missouri’s (UM), home of the tigers, is located in Columbia, Missouri; however, it is no stranger to racism. In 2010, two students were arrested and charged for dropping cotton balls in front of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture center on campus, which was explained by Heaven (2010). To make matters even worse, Amanda (2012) reports that another student spray painted a racial slur on the campus in 2011. He eventually received probation. So UM is very familiar with events like these happening on campus.

Payton Head, an African-American student, said he and a classmate were walking on the sidewalk one afternoon when a random man in a pickup truck yelled a racial slur at both him and the other student. Hayden (2015) reported that The Missouri Students Association president, who is an African-American student, shared this particular story, via twitter, and demanded an apology from Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Unfortunately, Chancellor Loftin did not meet his request, which angered the students even more.

On October 10, during the university’s homecoming parade, the student activist group, Concerned Student 1950, blocked the car of University President Timothy M. Wolfe in frustration about the events mentioned above, as reported by Perry (2015). Wolfe did not budge one bit as he didn’t even give the students the time of day. The Concerned Student 1950 activist groups was eventually bombarded by actual students yelling, “M-I-Z-Z-O-U,” until police removed the protesters (Deere & Addo, 2015). (Deere & Addo, 2015) quotes Jonathan Butler saying: “We disrupted the parade specifically in front of Tim Wolfe because we need him to get our message”.

The Concerned Student 1950 group on October 21 issued a series of demands and complaints to President Wolfe due to the ongoing discrimination against African-Americans, as reported by Genius (2015). Other demands included an increase in African American faculty and staff, and more racial awareness and inclusion for all faculty, staff, and students. David Kurpius, Dean of the School of Journalism, is quoted as saying, “The environment on campus is not conducive to moving forward, resolving issues and trying to make sure that all of our students are in a good learning environment” (Deere & Addo, 2015). The Concerned Student 1950 club finally met with President Wolfe on October 27, with Izadi (2015) reporting that he finally was empathetic towards the student’s wishes. The organization issued the following statement: “Wolfe verbally acknowledged that he cared for Black students at the University of Missouri, however, he also reported he was ‘not completely’ aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus” (Deere & Addo, 2015). The Concerned Student 1950 eventually boycotted the main student hangout spots, such as the dining hall and student center and went on a serious hunger strike. (Addo, 2015).

On November 2, 2015, graduate student Jonathan Butler started a hunger strike and announced that it would continue until Wolfe relieved himself of his duties, which forced the football players to step in and participate, reported by Ford (2015). Wolfe finally issued an apology on November 6 for how he handled the Homecoming protests, acknowledging that:

“My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.” (Deere & Addo, 2015)

Problem Statement

African-American students are clearly the minority at Missouri. The school’s undergrad population is 79% white and 8% black; however, the state is about 83% white and nearly 12% black, according to Thrasher (2015). The downfall doesn’t stop there because one member of Concerned Student 1950 said in a press conference, “the group demands a black faculty presence of more than a few percent and “black psychologists in mental health spaces” (Deere & Addo, 2015). The buck had to stop somewhere after being called racist names by Tim Wolfe during October’s homecoming game that drove students to demand an apology from Wolfe in the first place, according to Green (2015).

UM has non-racial controversy on campus as well. For example, in a report by ESPN (Merrill, 2016), Jonathan Butler met Mizzou football players, who were in the dead middle of a strike, and he not only campus racism but his grief over the suicide of Sasha Menu Courey, who committed suicide in 2011, after enduring sexual assaults by one or more Missouri football players. At the same time, this is the same football club that embraced their teammate Michael Sam’s coming out in the 2013–14 season, which was a brave step in the context of a sport in which dominant masculinity and compulsory heterosexuality are violently policed, as reported by Dubin (2015). And yes, Sam came to support Butler in the hunger strike this too matters.

Many Minority students don't feel welcome and included on predominantly white campuses and some students feel a sense of “onlyness”, according to Jaschik (2015). Students can try to speak on certain issues, but the framing of African-Americans being passionate might have negative connotations, according to Yancy & Feagin (2015). When it comes to racial incidents, there are plenty of them. Students aren't just speaking out about stereotyping by fellow students, but by faculty members as well.

Media Framing is the way the message is perceived. Different media outlets frame people of different ethnicities all the time, to fit the quota. While some media outlets view a story as a shining star that needs to be explored, other media outlets seem to find the negative in every story, Zurawick (2018). These students paved a way for more Minority students to express grievance that they feel while attending a predominantly white institution. Although they did the grassroot work, the question that remains is, Was there any outside influences? Tim Wolfe did, however, complain about the lack of support he received from the administrators in an email, according to Jackson (2016). This paper will explore all the different types of factors that were in play for the president to resign.

Based on the problems I identified, these are my research questions:

  • RQ1: How did the Social Movement Theory play a role in the resignation of Tim Wolfe?
  • RQ2: Did social media, specifically Twitter, have an impact on the resignation of President Tim Wolfe?

Literature Review

Collective identity is a term that I think should be plugged into this situation. Collective identity is a vital part to social movements and the success surrounding them. It is one of the components that unites the people in a movement together. Collective identity has a plethora of definitions. According to Polleta and Jasper (2001), “collective identity is located within the individual, defining it as, “an individual’s cognitive, moral and emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution” (p. 285) (Fominaya, 2010, 394). An alternate term from Whittier (1995) is that “collective identity is located in action and interaction-observable-phenomena-rather than in individual self-conceptions, attitudes, or beliefs (p. 16)” (Fominaya, 2010, 394). Melucci (1996) observes collective identity as ‘an interactive and shared definition produced by a number of individuals concerning the orientations of their action and the field of opportunities in which such action is to take place’” (Kavada, 2015, 874). All these definitions for collective identity are spot on. However, Melucci’s definition is the one definition that will be the focus of this paper. This explanation is the closest to explanation to Social Movement Theory. The movement is composed of a massive number of individuals that feel as an entire race of people have been oppressed in the past, the present and will be in the future, if the current situation continues as it always has. Black Lives Matter has taken the unfortunate culmination of the oppression they have felt through the multiple killings of unarmed, black teenagers by white police officers as their opportunity to shed light on the systemic racism that is present in this country.

Black Activism and Link to Professional Athletes

Athlete activism and feedback to athlete activism have always been a part of the sports community generations ago. In the 1960s, African-American athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos were severely scrutinized for their stances opposing racial injustices (Agyemang, Singer, & DeLorme, 2010). While black activism was common during the Civil Rights Era, there has been a long list of critics against black athletes who chose not to stand for opposition to racial injustices (Agyemang, 2012; Powell, 2008; Rhoden, 2006). Today’s athlete cares more about the “brand” and how the brand can take a hit if they decided to stand for something greater than themselves. Kaufman (2008) said that black athletes who take on activism often receive “intense backlash” for their efforts (p. 234). Additional reasons for lack of advocacy among Black athletes include the perception that issues such as racism are less prevalent today, a focus on athletic achievements as opposed to social advocacy, and the fear of financial repercussions in response to activism efforts (Cunningham & Regan Jr., 2012). Scholars also suggested that for Black athletes, the culture of sport precludes activism, as engaging in social justice and other issues can bring financial ramifications that damage the idea that sport is a way out of poverty and economic hardship (Cunningham & Regan Jr., 2012; Khan, 2012). Consequently, this creates an environment where activism among Black athletes is both frowned upon and wrought with potential long-term career altering consequences.

Barbara Reynolds Interview

On August 24, 2015, for example, Barbara Reynolds, who described herself as a “septuagenarian grandmother” and “activist in the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” penned a powerful opinion editorial in the Washington Post that urged BLM activists to embrace the “proven methods” of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “The loving, nonviolent approach is what wins allies and mollifies enemies,” Reynolds argued in her piece, “but what we have seen come out of Black Lives Matter is rage and anger justifiable emotions, but questionable strategy” (Reynolds 2015).

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Researchers have only just begun to study the emergence and structure of #BlackLivesMatter and its associated movement. To date and to the best of their knowledge, Freelon et al. have provided the most comprehensive data-driven study of Black Lives Matter. Their research characterizes the movement through multiple frames and analyzes how Black Lives Matter has evolved as a movement both online and offline. Other researchers have given attention to the beginnings of the movement and its relation to the events of Ferguson, Missouri.

In short, these critiques suggest that the Black Lives Matter would be more successful if they emulated African American movements that brought in what the sociologist John Skrentny (2002) calls the “minority-rights revolution” of the 1960s.

What Kind of Movement is Black Lives Matter?

Ms. Reynolds’s and President Obama’s skepticism about the Black Lives Matter movement’s tactics and impact are technically accepted in the African American community. On the contrary, the movement receives very positive appraisals from African-Americans on public opinion surveys. A national probability survey conducted by Pew Research in 2016 found that 65% of African Americans express support for the movement (Horowitz and Livingston 2016). Similarly, a nationally representative internet survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University found that 82% of African Americans believed that the Black Lives Movement was at least moderately effective at achieving its stated goals (Tillery 2017). At the same time, there is evidence in these surveys that African Americans do share some of the concerns about organizational structure that the critics of the movement have raised. Indeed, 64% of the respondents to the Northwestern University survey stated that they believed that the Black Lives Matter movement would be more effective if it had a more centralized leadership structure (Tillery 2017).

The organizational and tactical differences between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement are also at the center of the burgeoning scholarly literature on the subject. However, academic researchers have largely set aside the question of the movement’s long-term impact on policy what both Ms. Reynolds and President Obama describe as “winning” to focus on building knowledge about its internal dynamics and representations in the public sphere through detailed case studies and narrative accounts (Harris 2015; Lindsey 2015; Rickford 2016; Taylor 2016). Thus far, three points of consensus have emerged within this nascent scholarly literature on the Black Lives Matter movement. The first point is that BLM activists are intentionally rejecting the “respectability politics” model that animated the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (Harris 2015, 37-39; Rickford 2016, 36-37; Taylor 2016, 153-191). Second, BLM activists tend to utilize frames based on gender, LGBTQ, and racial identities to describe both the problems they are combatting and the solutions that they are proposing through contentious politics (Harris 2015, 37-39; Lindsey 2015; Rickford 2016, 36-37). Finally, there is consensus within the book that the BLM activists do not define their aims in terms of linear policy objectives and that they see intrinsic value in the disruptive repertoires of contention that they utilize to draw attention to their causes (Rickford 2016, 36; Taylor 2016).

Black Lives Matter: Toward a Modern Practice of Mass Struggle

The portrait of the Black Lives Matter movement that emerges from the scholarly literature resembles more closely the “new social movements” that have emerged in Europe and the United States since the 1980s than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Indeed, several studies of the Black Lives Matter movement make this point. Harris (2015), for example, has argued that “the spontaneity and the intensity of the Black Lives Matter movement is more akin to other recent movements, such as Occupy Wall Street and the explosive protests in Egypt and Brazil than 1960s African-American activism” (35). Rickford (2016) even goes as far as to say that the Occupy Wall Street protests were a “precursor” to the Black Lives Matter movement. In short, the scholarly literature on the Black Lives Matter movement makes the case that critics of the movement should not expect it to look and feel like Montgomery, Selma, and the other iconic campaigns of the 1960s movement with their focus on respectability, rationally purposive action, and negotiation with political elites (McAdam 1982; Morris 1981; 1986).

This is not the first study of how BLM activists use social media. On the contrary, there is a growing literature on this question within the fields of communications, African American Studies, and social movement studies. These studies have almost exclusively focused on the hashtags that drive conversations between BLM activists and their supporters and opponents on Twitter and Facebook. We have learned through these analyses that hashtags raise the profile of the BLM movement and spur action within the African American community (Cox 2017; Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark 2016; Ince 2017). These studies have also demonstrated that using of hashtags gains the attention of political elites and sometimes encourages them to take positions in support of the movement (Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark 2016b). What has been missing in this literature on social media usage is an account of the reasons that BLM activists use Twitter to mobilize resources, communicate with political elites, or simply to convey their emotional states and the types of frames that they construct and deploy within their tweets. The core argument made in this paper is that understanding these two dynamics will give us a greater sense of how BLM activists see their movement and facilitate our ability to make fine-grained classifications of the movement based on the rubrics provided by social movement theory.


Social Movement Theory is the theory, termed by Jay Blumler and Elitz Katz, that explains why mobilization is in occurrence, how it occurs, and what type of consequences it has (Katz, Haas & Gurevitch, 1973). Unlike other media theories, this theory explains the four steps it takes for it to be mobilizing. The steps to this theory are Emergence, Coalescence, Bureaucratization, and Decline. Several factors are going to be kept in mind while explaining this theory (Katz, Haas & Gurevitch, 1973).

For example, The Concerned Students of 1950 would be considered a Social Media Organization because they’re working for the greater good for a larger group of people. The purpose of this to unite people who experience similar issues to find the media to confirm their worldview. There’s actual research that focuses on the friend-networking website users among students indicates that students use such websites to meet their personal and social needs including meeting new people and finding about events (Raacke, J., & Bonds-Raacke, J., 2008).

The first stage of the social movement life cycle is known as the “emergence”. (De la Porta & Diani, 2006). People may be unhappy with some type of campus policy or decision, but they have not taken any action to redress their frustration, or they’re ready to take it upon them to make some sort of change. A person can do things such as constructing a tweet that can go viral, or writing to the school president, or protest like the Missouri students did. In the next stage, these types of movements overcame the scrutiny and criticism that comes along with any progressive movement. In some cases, protesting can be unorganized and not have any sort of guidance. For example, if the students at Missouri chose to complain about how they were being treated but never acted upon it, then it would have never gotten to the place it is today.

The third stage, again, is called Bureaucratization. This stage, known as “formalization”, (De la Porta & Diani, 2006) is characterized by “higher levels of organization and coalition-based strategies” (De la Porta & Diani, 2006). In this stage, higher levels of management have begun to take notice of the issues that were brought to their attention and are closing in to find a solution. Every social movement should have some type of professional to handle all the functions and responsibilities that come with this movement.

The last stage in the movement is the Decline. Decline, in this instance, means that once the goal was accomplished then the movement starts to lose steam. Miller (1999) concluded that there can be four stages to decline: Repression, Cooptation, Success, and Failure. When movements form connections with the mainstream media, then what’s the point of continuing the fight the they will spread the information for you?


Content Analysis was the form of methodology used to gain a better understanding of this event. The Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) studied as much as 40,815,975 tweets in this study (Freelon, Deen, etc 2016). They included tweets posted between September 4, 2015 and November 11, 2015 matching at least one of the keywords in #blacklivesmatter and #Missouri that had not been deleted as of July 20, 2015. Retweets are also counted in this study. Authors and subjects of the tweets were separated into nine different categories. Next, they started to connect each tweet’s owner to the original tweet and the network that they were affiliated with. With that being accomplished, it was estimated that over 80% of the tweets are either retweets or mentions (Freelon, Deen, etc 2016). This piece of content careful in revealing the information of the usernames and locations. They posted links to tweets rather than showing their whole tweets. That would allow people to exit the research without being discovered (Freelon, Deen, etc 2016). The tweet linking post officially ended on November 2015.


Even though the media coverage about the Missouri protests were slow, Shaun King and other activists led the way in delivering justice to these students. Actual news stories about the protests were miniscule compared to commentary, photos, and information from these activist sources. Thus, social media played a critical role in giving conversation participants an alternative to the mainstream media narrative, which some sharply criticized. Critics asked why the story was not being treated as a national news priority on every network while other users tweeted the usernames of top news organizations to request coverage. Some users predicted that the national media, should they ever decide to pick up the story, would probably use protestors own behavior to justify the President being in power. This view would soon be vindicated in some of the top stories about Missouri’s protests over the next few days, including his national outlets like CNN and Fox News.

We purchased directly from Twitter all public tweets posted during the yearlong period between September 2015 and November 2015 containing at least one of 45 keywords related to BLM, Missouri, or Concerned Students 1950 (Freelon, Deen, etc 2016). The keywords consist mostly of the full and hash tagged names of 20 Black individuals killed by police in 2014 and 2015. They counted a tweet as including a name if it contained either the case-insensitive full name or hash tagged name as written below. The resulting dataset contains 10,815,975 tweets contributed by 1,435,217 unique users (Freelon, Deen, etc 2016).

Now the explosion of the Internet and rise of the 24-hour cable news model have led to broader content and more ideological orientations than in the past, argues Shapiro (2011). Search engines, blogs, and social networks allow individuals to look for information on a specific topic and not have to scan news sources. Users have come to expect personalized information rather than accept standardized offerings. This has forced the news media to cater to users’ desires and deliver content that they are looking for. The result is news information that is framed to cater to specific audiences with the objective of increased profits. Many scholars argue “much of today’s partisan news verges on ‘propaganda’ masquerading as objective facts and analysis’” (Pavlik, 2008).

ABC’s coverage of the Missouri protest story is presented by a diverse cast, who uses concerned tones. The segment is two-and-half minutes long; the first half details the riots and unrest resulting from the specific incidents and the second half with more information about the school’s president. By presenting the story in this order, this places more importance on the public reaction to the story rather than the facts of the incident.

With that being the case, there was serious amount of pressure for President Wolfe to resign. This change in leadership and policy was sparked after the millions of tweets and online protest organization released a list of demands in November 2015, that included Wolfe's removal, over the way the university handles racial harassment. News networks started reporting negatively about President Wolfe that he soon found hope in Fox News (Pulse, 2015).

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