Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Ypsilanti, Michigan: EMU - The Turbulent Sixties

On October 20, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy's motorcade was stopped at about 1:10 AM by Eastern Michigan University students who jammed W. Cross St in front of McKinney Student Union. Kennedy was on his way to a political rally in Ann Arbor the following day.

He made a two or three minute speech telling the cheering crowd of students that he stood "for the oldest party in years, but the youngest party in ideas." Because of the late hour, President Kennedy asked to be excused explaining he had a difficult schedule planned for the next day.

In his inaugural speech on January 20, 1960, the new president boldly stated that "a torch has been passed to a new generation." Three years later, on Friday, November 22, 1963, at 11:30 AM, an assassin's bullets cut down President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, while he was campaigning for a second term. He was pronounced dead on the operating table thirty minutes later.

At 1:00 PM, the intercom system at Allen Park High School broadcast the sound of Walter Cronkite making the announcement that John F. Kennedy, thirty-fifth president of the United States was dead, then he paused. The principal came on and asked for a moment of silence. 

I was in sophomore biology class. The shocked silence was punctuated first by wimpering and then open sobbing. This was a defining moment for an entire generation. A mourning wind swept over the nation and the world held its breath.

Two years, ten months, two days, and sixty-nine minutes. That's how long Kennedy held office. His torch of optimism had been extinguished.

The President's younger brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, made the trip to Eastern's campus on Saturday, October 29, 1966. He made a brief speech in support of Michigan Democratic candidates to 3,000 cheering students gathered on the steps of Pease Auditorium. He too was on his way to an Ann Arbor political rally. 

Less than two years later on June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy met the same fate as his brother after a political rally in Los Angeles, California. What was going on in America?


The nineteen sixties were a troubled time for our country. Vietnam and the Cold War were international issues, but Civil Rights was a national issue that hit home with explosive force. The United States began to tear itself apart from the inside over domestic issues.

Medgar Evers was shot down in Jackson, Mississippi, on March 25, 1965; Malcolm X met his violent end on February 21, 1965; Viola Liuzzo (Freedom Rider and mother of five) was shot twice in the head while driving her car in Lowndes County, Alabama, on March 25, 1965; and Martin Luther King was murdered by sniper James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

After the murder of Dr. King, urban riots began to break out across America. By the decade's end, growing protests against the Vietnam War rocked every university campus in America.

When the nation watched the live television coverage of the political rioting at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the country became cynical about where we were heading.

America had become a seething cauldron of political and social upheaval. Even on the basic family level, the politics of college aged children were usually different from the politics of their more conservative parents. The term "generation gap" was born. Anti-establishment fervor had not been so pronounced in the United States since the Civil War.


On Thursday, February 20, 1969, students at Eastern Michigan staged a sit-in protest at Pierce Hall, EMU's administration building. The issues were social concerns like race, poverty, equal rights, and peace.

Eastern Michigan's president, Harold Sponberg called the County Sheriff and asked him to clear the protesters out of his building. While that was being staged, the first floor corridor of Pierce Hall was thick with students. 

At the time, I was a junior majoring in English Language and Composition. I was also a volunteer reporter for the campus underground newspaper, The Second Coming, published by Frank Michels. Frank was a journalism major who was thrown out of Eastern Michigan on an exaggerated charge of inciting student unrest on campus. 

His paper ran anti-war articles and counter-culture features, as well as reporting news of interest that the university sponsored paper, The Eastern Echo, wouldn't print.

On the late afternoon in question, I was in Pierce Hall reporting on the sit-in protest. Several people were trying to get the crowd worked up, but it was a weak effort. 

Then, a black guy no one had ever seen before wearing a red Sergeant Pepper jacket, stood on a chair near me, held up a lighter, and struck it. He started saying "Burn, baby, burn." A couple of white students in the crowd began to heckle the would-be fire starter and the lighter was put away. 

I left the standoff in the corridor to see what was going on outside the building. Some students were milling around but not in great numbers. That's when the police moved in

In full riot gear, the county cops cleared and secured the building and broke up the protest demonstration without major incident. The Michigan State Police were called in to surround and protect President Sponberg's home. And that was how it ended, almost as quickly as it began.

Fifteen months later in May of 1970, campuses around the country erupted when it was discovered that President Nixon had secretly ordered troops into Cambodia and Laos. This time, Eastern Michigan students protested in large numbers and were more impassioned and vocal, though most of the protesters were peaceful and held back from the fray.

As night fell, the crowd was getting progressively more unruly. An EMU Ford Econoline van was pushed onto Forest St. from the back of McKinney Union. It was turned over by a group of male rowdies to block the street. Someone took apart a traffic barricade and several of the guys took the wooden cross member, running it through the windshield of the van. Now, it was game on with the police.

The Washtenaw County police drove a police bus full of riot clad officers onto Forest Ave. They jumped out to confront and arrest the protesters. Then, the canine patrol joined the fracas from the opposite end of the street.

The same bus was used as a makeshift paddy wagon. One of the more vocal and violent protesters to be arrested was not an Eastern student, but someone known by police as an "outside agitator." Dave was one of the leaders of the demonstration.

He put up quite a fight before he was apprehended and thrown into the bus. Running to the back of the bus, he kicked out the emergency back window and escaped with many others.

As he fled north through the darkened campus area, he hurled several large rocks through the windows of some buildings along the way before he vanished into the shadows. This I witnessed.

Flying above the turmoil in a helicopter, Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas Harvey threw tear gas bombs onto the crowd. Not long after that, the protest demonstration ended.

When I interviewed Sheriff Harvey last summer for the book I'm writing on John Norman Collins, he told me the helicopter story. I mentioned to the former sheriff that I got a whiff of his tear gas that night. He told me he's heard that from lots of people, and we both laughed, though at the time it didn't seem that funny.