A Decade of Dissent: Student Protests at the University of Michigan in the 1960s
John Sinclair, a Michigan native and alumnus of the University of Michigan- Flint, was an influential leader of the 1960's counterculture. Sinclair was heavily involved in the Detroit music and art communities, first helping to found the Detroit Artists' Workshop and later, the Wayne State University Artists' Society. These organizations worked to produce concerts, poetry readings, and avant-garde publications.
In 1967, Sinclair co-founded Trans-Love Energies Unlimited, a group of like-minded individuals whose main philosophy included self-reliance and community responsibility. Originally located in the Warren Forest neighborhood of Detroit, the group was forced to relocate to 1520 Hill Street in Ann Arbor, following two fire-bombings of the group's original location.
Sinclair also co-founded the White Panther Party, along with Pun Plamondon, in November 1968. Influenced by leaders of the Black Panther Party such as Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, the White Panthers advocated economic and cultural freedom.
In July of 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to 9 ½ to 10 years in prison for possessing two marijuana cigarettes. While in prison, he wrote extensively about the counterculture movement and became one of its national symbols. A two-and-a-half year legal battle culminated with a massive Free John Now Rally at Crisler Arena on December 10, 1971. The rally was attended by some 15,000 people, headlined by musical artists like John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Stevie Wonder, and featured speakers such as Allen Ginsberg and John's wife, Leni Arndt. Three days later, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Sinclair be released and later overturned his conviction.
Crowd at the Free John Now Concert,
at Crisler Arena. ©Andrew Sacks.
John Lennon performing at concert. © Andrew Sacks
South University Protests
During the summer months of 1969, the stretch of South University Avenue between south Forest and Church Streets was the scene of repeated gatherings of groups comprised of Trans-Love Energies, White Panther Party members, and university students. The groups advocated the permanent closure of this section of the avenue in favor of a pedestrian mall, an idea that was presented to the City Council.
The gatherings took a violent turn on June 17, 1969 when the local, county, and state police used force to clear some 1,500 protestors from the area. The following day saw similar police action against an estimated 700 people gathered in the ten-block area around South University. The Washtenaw County Sheriff, Douglas Harvey, provoked outrage in the university community with his aggressive handling of the gatherings and his criticism of University of Michigan President Robben Fleming's reluctance to involve the police.