Critical conversations

The Middleton Center is dedicated to scholarly discourse and analysis of race, citizenship and justice.

Published on Show Me Mizzou May 5, 2021

As Stephanie Shonekan watched rioters storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, she sat in shock, but only for a moment. The co-director of the Michael A. Middleton Center for Race, Citizenship, and Justice quickly rattled off an email to fellow co-director and law Professor S. David Mitchell.

“Seeing images of the Confederate flag being waved in the Capitol, it raised a lot of questions — the kinds of questions that the center was created for,” says Shonekan, associate dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of music. Led by a partnership between the college and the School of Law, the center launched in 2020 to help students, scholars and community members engage in conversations about its three pillars — race, citizenship and justice — which are grounded in research and empirical data. “We couldn’t let this moment pass.”

They didn’t. A week after the attack on Capitol Hill, the center convened professors from political science, Black studies, religious studies, communication, journalism and law to offer varied scholarly perspectives in a panel discussion attended by over 200 people. “Academics value hearing from other perspectives,” Mitchell says. “Listening to panelists discuss a particular issue from a different theoretical academic interdisciplinary lens allows all of us to explore how siloed we might be in our own academic world but, more importantly, reach out beyond those bounds.”

The center has since hosted the Democratic Boone County Clerk and Republican Greene County Clerk for a discussion on Missouri’s voting policies and practices as well as jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams’ biographer for a conversation about gender issues in jazz, among other topics. “These are not 140-character conversations,” Mitchell says. “The center recognizes the nuances and the complexity of the issues. It gets us past a reductionist model of what conversations around race, citizenship and justice have become.”

Shonekan hopes the center, with its intellectual roots in the College of Arts and Science and the School of Law, can help Missourians understand the context for race, citizenship and justice and reinforce Mizzou’s role as a land-grant institution: “We can point to the history. We can point to the sociology. We can point to the political science research and legal precedents. These fields allow us to see different experiences and consider the historical trajectory that has led us here. They give us a lens for the discussion. I hope that people can learn, or at least get curious, about the scholarship that forms the foundation for these conversations.”

The center also offers fellowships for faculty, graduate and undergraduate scholars who propose theoretical and applied research projects aimed at helping communities affected by disparities in education, health and economic opportunity. Fellows will meet to workshop their ideas and gather feedback before presenting their findings to the public. The center will also participate in collaborative programs with other units across campus. “We want to start connecting our dots,” Shonekan says.

To read more articles like this, become a Mizzou Alumni Association member and receive MIZZOU magazine in your mailbox. Click here to join.

Illustration by Peter Strain

Living legacy

The center might not exist if not for the man it’s named for — two-time Mizzou graduate Michael Middleton, who dedicated his life’s work to fighting for a more just and equal world. Middleton, BA ’68, JD ’71, grew up in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. In high school, he participated in Freedom Summer and protested for racial equality. As an undergraduate at Mizzou, he helped start the Legion of Black Collegians, fought for the rights of Black students and was instrumental in the creation of the Black studies program. After becoming the third Black graduate of MU’s law school, he worked as a civil rights attorney trying discrimination cases for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Before returning to the law school as a faculty member in 1985, he worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and the Department of Education. At the university, Middleton has served as professor of law and deputy chancellor as well as interim president of the University of Missouri System. “Michael Middleton has really been at the center of trying to move the campus forward,” says Stephanie Shonekan, co-director of the center. “We want to make sure we’re living up to the name.” Sign up to receive Middleton Center news and event invitations at mizzou.us/middletoncentersignup.

Subscribe to

Show Me Mizzou

Stay up-to-date on all things Mizzou when you subscribe to the Show Me Mizzou newsletter. Issues will arrive in your inbox every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Subscribe