COLUMBIA, Mo. — The president of the Columbia, Missouri branch of the NAACP has received a threatening letter amid protests that have gripped the University of Missouri (Mizzou), whose President Tim Wolfe resigned this week after an outcry from black students accusing him and other school officials of long ignoring racial slurs and bias on campus.
Columbia NAACP President Mary Ratliff — a stalwart of the national campaign for civil rights — received a letter Saturday threatening her and President Barack Obama, in what rights leaders say is a reminder that race issues in this urban hub are not confined to Mizzou.
“Die all you dirty devil black n****rs from hell,” said the letter, which was seen by Al Jazeera. It was addressed directly to Ratliff and was postmarked on Nov. 3 in Carol Stream, Illinois.
The Columbia Police Department did not immediately respond to an interview request. Ratliff said that police called her on Monday and said the FBI was investigating the case.
Hate mail at the NAACP is not uncommon, Ratliff said, particularly whenever the town’s black community — about 13 percent of its population of about 115,000, according to July 2014 Census statistics — engages in activism. The local NAACP received hate mail last year when local and federal authorities decided not to file charges against Dustin Deacon, a white man, over the death of Brandon Coleman, a 25-year-old black man.
However, “this letter seemed to take things a little bit further,” said Ratliff, who served on the NAACP’s national board for 12 years, beginning in 1986. During that time she often heard of NAACP local leadership receiving messages of hate amid flashpoints in race relations, she said.
On Tuesday, the University of Missouri Police Department said in an email that it is encouraging people to report incidents of “hateful speech” to its officers.
“While cases of hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes, if the individual(s) identified are students, (the university’s) Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action,” it said, adding that there would be “no arrests and no citations issued; this is just a place to report.”
But the storm is clearly not confined to the campus, where tensions rose late Tuesday night after the university announced it was aware of "social media threats" and had increased security as David Wallace, a spokesman for the student government group Missouri Students Association, said the group asked university officials to cancel classes Wednesday in light of the threats.
Though Saturday's letter appears to have been sent from out of town, Columbia faces a number of race issues in society and particularly in law enforcement, Ratliff said, adding that Columbia is “a conservative town.”
The Missouri director of the ACLU, Jeffrey Mittman, agreed with Ratliff that the tensions at Mizzou are farther-reaching than what students have experienced on campus. One thing that ties the Mizzou situation to the rest of the state and country is a phenomenon often referred to popularly as “driving while black,” Mittman said.
Traffic stop data on released in 2014 by the state’s attorney general showed that black drivers are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped by police — in a city that is about 80 percent white, according to 2010 Census data. That same year, data compiled by Mizzou law professor S. David Mitchell showed that while black residents then comprised 12.7 percent of the city’s population, only 6 percent of the police force was black.
That kind of racial dynamic is still at play, Mitchell told Al Jazeera. And it’s not particular to Columbia or even Missouri, he said, adding, “That’s the general tenor around the country.”
This year the Columbia Police Officers’ Association used a Facebook post to establish “Officer Darren Wilson Day” on Aug. 9, commemorating the day in 2014 when Wilson, a white police officer, fatally shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown, local newspaper the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.
Brown’s death and other police killings of unarmed black people helped spark the "Black Lives Matter" movement, which aims to combat racial inequality and a judicial system that activists say is stacked against black communities.
Ratliff said racial issues like those at Mizzou and the letter she received are particularly troubling under the Obama administration.
“Everything has been done — both in Congress and everywhere — to stop this president from making this country better for all people,” she said. “It’s as if to say, ‘You got a black president. There’s still a lot you can’t make happen.’”