Michael Middleton said it was just in his bones to be a lawyer.
“Growing up in Mississippi in the ‘50s, that was when the movement was happening,” said Middleton, current interim president of Lincoln University and former interim president of the University of Missouri system.
“I saw lawyers making things happen. I could talk, and I could reason. I wasn’t a big guy, so I wasn’t cut out to be a fighter.”
The long-time professor and administrator at the University of Missouri said he gets his soft-spoken, gentle-mannered way from his father’s ancestors, who have a legacy of being Episcopal priests.
“I got this mix of a sort of subdued, calm priesthood and civil rights lawyer going for me,” Middleton said.
Put that personality in the middle of internationally watched nonviolent protests over racial disparities at Mizzou in the fall of 2015, and the results were what many had hoped.
“It was a time of great challenge for the university,” said St. Louis attorney Maurice B. Graham, who is the chairman of the University of Missouri Board of Curators. “Clearly Mike was the right person at the right time to take over the leadership of the university. He was retired, but the university Board of Curators sought him out and told him, ‘Your university needs you.’”
Middleton replaced then-university president Tim Wolfe, who stepped down following months of racial tension on the campus. During the Homecoming parade of 2015, African-American students locked arms in front of Wolfe’s car and recited historic examples of discrimination on campus and recent incidents of racism. Rather than listening to the students, Wolfe attempted to drive around them and didn’t protect them when parade attendees, who weren’t students, tried to harass them.
After that incident, students demanded that Wolfe resign through various means of nonviolent protest. One student, Jonathan Butler, went on a hunger strike, and some Mizzou football players refused to play in solidarity.
Even before Middleton came out of retirement, he was acting as a mediator between the students and the administration, as he had both groups’ respect.
“He probably is among the best example of courage, grace and class that I’ve ever met,” Graham said. “During the time he served as interim president, he was the spokesperson for the university and traveled throughout the country and state restoring the confidence in the university in those who had heard about the incidents of the fall of 2015.”
On September 23, Middleton will receive the Lifetime Achiever in Education Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship and Awards Gala. The proceeds from the event, held at the America’s Center, benefit the Foundation, which distributed more than $700,000 in minority scholarships and grants last year.
Mississippi to Mizzou
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Middleton entered Mizzou as a freshman in 1964 and was among about 150 African-American students on campus.
“I learned it wasn’t much unlike what our students were protesting in 2015,” Middleton said. “I was isolated.”
The black students and progressive-minded people tended to stick together, he said. He, along with charter members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Zeta Alpha Chapter, founded Mizzou’s Legion of Black Collegians in 1968.
“It wasn’t unusual at all to have someone shout the N-word out of a passing car,” Middleton said. “That happened all the time. It wasn’t unusual not to be called upon in class or to be called upon only to speak for all black people. It was better than it was in Mississippi, so I kind of adjusted fairly well.”
Middleton went on to graduate from the university’s law school in 1971 and went to work as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
“That was probably my most exciting time,” he said. “I litigated with some of the best lawyers in the country. I had the FBI doing investigations for me. It was fantastic. Nothing beats standing up in a courtroom with the United States of America as your client.”
He litigated lawsuits against Jackson, Mississippi and Philadelphia to force them to integrate their fire departments and city employment. He took on discrimination cases against the airlines next.
“I had some good cases where I believe I made an impact,” he said.
He went on to hold director and general counsel positions within the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington. Then in 1985, he joined the Mizzou law faculty, becoming the first African-American professor at the university’s law school.
“It’s always good to see former students who are now seasoned adults with responsible positions,” Middleton said.
Beginning in 1997, he served as the interim vice provost for minority affairs and faculty development at Mizzou. A year later, accepted the position of deputy chancellor, where he “combined being a lawyer with being a university administrator.”
“I served under two great chancellors,” he said. “I had a good amount of influence.”
Chancellor Emeritus Brady Deaton, whose tenure ran from 2004 to 2013, whole-heartedly agreed.
“He was invaluable to me,” Deaton said. “His trust was without question. He did everything and had total integrity in everything he’s touched at the university. He has the ability to negotiate across a wide range of people and get things done.”
Between being a law professor and administrator, Deaton said that Middleton has touched a “tremendous range” of people.
“He’s certainly had an influence on me,” Deaton said.
Middleton said he was “very disappointed” when he saw the protests erupt on the campus of his alma mater.
“I had hoped that we made some progress,” Middleton said.
During the 17 years he was deputy chancellor, he helped lead the university to increase its black student population and establish some “good programs,” he said. Under his guidance, the university established black studies and gender studies programs and built the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center.
“But changing that culture that I experienced back in the ‘60s is a long-term project that requires a significant amount of resources and intentionality,” Middleton said. “And you have to get everyone on board. People figured that I could do it alone, so I never had the kind of resources that I need to really address the problem.”
However, as interim president, he feels that he finally had the power to do so. He was able to direct resources to the four campuses, gather data, form an analysis and design new programs, he said.
“As president, you have a little more power,” he said. “We have a system in place now that will hopefully resolve those problems and make the system a lot better than it was.”
While struggling to bring stability back to the university system, Middleton was also serving was one of the co-chairs for the Missouri Supreme Court’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness. As a response to the Ferguson unrest, the commission is tasked with addressing barriers to access and justice, eradicating bias, and increasing diversity in the judicial system and legal profession.
Then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge said, “His willingness to take a leadership role when the demands on his time were so great underscores his passion that there be fairness and equal treatment for all.”
The 2017 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 23, 2017 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $85 each/$850 table, and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.stlamerican.com and click on Salute to Excellence, or call 314-533-8000.