The Equable Advocate
University of Missouri Interim President Mike Middleton finds inspiration in his past.
Mike Middleton has spent much of his life and career trying to understand complexities of race in America and working — as a protester on the streets of Mississippi, as a civil rights lawyer, as a teacher and administrator — toward the nation’s promise of equality. If that sounds like the work of more than one lifetime, maybe it’s because Middleton, BA ’68, JD ’71, got started early. Boyhood questions and influences still motivate Middleton, who became interim president of the University of Missouri System Nov. 12, 2015, in the wake of student protests and the resignation of President Tim Wolfe.
As the son of an African-American Army chaplain, Middleton had a rare and sometimes confusing vantage on race. His father, Chaplain (Col.) Richard T. Middleton, an Episcopal priest, sometimes told stories from his service in World War II. Chaplain Middleton’s skin and hair were so light that when the still-segregated Army sent him to a black unit in Africa, the soldiers rejected him. His next assignment was in a white unit, but when soldiers discovered Middleton’s race on his documents, soldiers protested there as well. “I asked my father why he volunteered for the military, and he said, ‘American kids were dying over there, and I wanted to minister to them.’ ” The contradictions puzzled Middleton.
Southeast by Northwest
In 1958, when Middleton was 11 years old, his family lived most of the year in Fort Lewis, Washington, where his father was stationed. “I was something of a privileged officer’s brat,” he says, “and I remember trying to explain to my white friends that the reason they couldn’t come to the officers club and swim with me was because their dads were noncommissioned people. I felt funny about having that privilege and not knowing how to talk about it.”
Then came the four-day drive from Fort Lewis to the Middleton ancestral home in Jackson, Mississippi. The Middletons spent summers and Christmases in Jackson, where much of their extended family still lived. “How the world changed as we progressed down the west coast and across Texas going home,” Middleton says. “And we got home, and I was a black kid in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era.” On Friday nights, Ku Klux Klan members donned robes and rode horses in a park behind the Middleton home. Store clerks in Jackson behaved differently than PX clerks on the Army base. One Jackson clerk, for example, would not allow Middleton to try on shoes before buying them. “I stupidly asked why I couldn’t try them on,” he says. “It didn’t make any sense.” Middleton calls such moments part of his grounding in “how nonsensical this race thing is, how artificial it is, yet how much impact it has on people’s lives.”
But growing up in segregated Jackson had much to recommend it. “When I think back on it, it was a pretty good life,” Middleton says. “I had role models. I knew black lawyers, doctors, business owners, college presidents. Because of the segregation, everything that existed in the white world also existed in the black world.”
Middleton’s family was accomplished and tightknit. When he was an elementary school student in Jackson, four of his first five teachers were relations: mother, maternal grandmother and two maternal aunts. And down the generations his family history was deep and inspiring. Middleton’s paternal great-grandfather was the first black man ordained in the Episcopal church in Mississippi. On his mother’s side, his great-grandfather was among the first black lawyers in the same state. “He had a successful practice during Reconstruction,” Middleton says. “But post Reconstruction, he was essentially run out of the state by resistance forces, the Klan and others. He moved to Chicago, where he began writing poetry and short stories about life in Mississippi. I grew up reading his work.” Middleton’s favorite among the poems was “My Country.” It was also the most puzzling. “Here’s this nice poem about how much he loves America. But laced throughout it were the flaws, the inconsistencies between what America was and what America said it was. And that shaped my love of institutions that have high aspirational values but that have not reached that level of being. I began to see how you could still love an idea even though you are disappointed in the reality. And how important it is to keep working toward that idea.”
In the Jackson of the early 1960s, he was in the right place to join the grassroots movement for racial equality. As a high school student, he was engaged in the civil rights movement during the time that James Meredith integrated Ole Miss and when the three civil rights workers were murdered. He also took part in the “freedom summer” of 1964. He learned a few things along the way, he says with a knowing smile. “It’s not a lot of fun to be out in the street being chased by police dogs, doused with firehoses, rounded up and taken to jail with all your friends.” During those years, he discovered other ways to contribute. “The lawyers who came to my hometown — Thurgood Marshall, Bob Carter, and activists like Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry — they were affecting change by being intelligent. As we say these days, they were speaking truth to power. I met all those people, and I determined that I would be better at that than holding a picket sign.”
The Call of Courtroom and Classroom
And so Middleton came to Mizzou, where he continued his activism, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and then a law degree. As an undergraduate, he helped found the Legion of Black Collegians, which demanded that the university become more diverse, fund scholarships for black students, create a black culture center and start a black studies program. Middleton was also a member of the committee that hired Arvarh Strickland, Mizzou’s first black tenured professor.
Middleton graduated from law school and took a job with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. In 1971, he began a five-year stint of trying cases as the division sued cities and businesses for discrimination on the basis of race, gender and national origin. One of his proudest moments came against his hometown, which employed black Jacksonians only as day laborers. “That case gave me a chance to go into the Jackson city hall regularly. And every time I walked into the city attorney’s office, I patted a plaque that said the building was built by slaves. The case was a great victory that reached across the city government.”
During the next decade, Middleton rose in the federal government, administering programs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the Department of Education. In 1985, he returned to MU’s law school, where he taught courses in employment discrimination, trial practice and criminal law. Before long, he took on a part-time role administering minority affairs and faculty development. Then in 1998 he became deputy chancellor, a high-level position employing his legal and administrative skills in tackling changes in Mizzou’s grievance processes, hospital structure, intellectual property and conflict-of-interest rules. “I saw the university writ large,” he says. “Functioning for 17 years as deputy chancellor, I developed a good sense of how it works, how decisions should be made and how they should not be made. All that helped prepare me to take on this role.”
Steering the Ship
Now as University of Missouri System president, he shepherds the four-campus system in its teaching, research, service and economic development. “Much of what I must accomplish has little to do with the issues that gave rise to the current controversy,” Middleton says of the race protests during November 2015. “I’m determined to handle those things, and I need to get about that business quickly because what this university does is so important.”
Middleton’s passion remains rooted in “how we treat each other as human beings.” He is facilitating conversations with varied groups and trying to calm high emotions. “I want to help everyone understand that we’re all in this together. Nobody is going away. None of us is the other person’s enemy. We are all part of the same human family. So, we need to reconcile differences and move forward. And we can do that.” He also plans to set up a permanent system-wide structure adequately funded to improve the university’s diversity and inclusiveness over time.
Middleton quotes Martin Luther King Jr. as a guide: “ ‘If we don’t learn to live together as brothers, we will perish together as fools.’ It seems to me we need to get on that track.”