At 7 a.m. on Monday, first year Public Health student Dana Greene faced the flagpole and took a knee at the center of the Diag.
On Sept. 16, racist graffiti was found on LSA sophomore Travon Stearns’ West Quad Residence Hall door. The following day, posters stating support of Dylann Roof — the white supremacist and mass murderer, who killed nine people at a historically Black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 and is now on death row — were found on a mural in downtown Ann Arbor.
In a letter to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, Greene expressed his frustration with campus apathy toward the recent racist incidents of vandalism that have plagued the student body since school started just a few weeks ago.
“I will kneel in the Diag facing the flag in silent protest until there is nothing left in me,” Greene’s letter reads. “I am prepared to miss class and work for a simple idea. I am not kneeling in disrespect to our troops or to our country. I am kneeling because we should be better than this. I am kneeling because I am tired of doing nothing. I am kneeling because I want this campus and this country to acknowledge a fact that I know to be true. We are not and have never lived by the idea of our founding that ALL men are created equal. I am kneeling because we our (sic) better than this.”
Hundreds of students joined Greene as the day wore on, pitching tents, providing food and Gatorade and — of course — kneeling beside him in solidarity.
The same morning Greene took his spot in the Diag, a student protest blocked North University Avenue, preventing buses and traffic from following their usual routes.
Throughout the hot day and well into the night Greene continued to kneel. Finally, at about 4 a.m., after 21 hours of kneeling in almost total silence near the iconic block ‘M,’ Greene said “I think I’ve said enough.”
Greene’s activism on Monday did not occur in a vacuum — rather, it was a crescendo within decades of unrest between students and the University administrators along issues of race and inclusion on campus.
Civil rights activism on campus has been central to student social justice activity since 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, prompting the University’s Black Student Union to stage a historic sit-in of more than 100 people in the LSA building until the University agreed to form an African American Studies department and committed to a goal of 10 percent Black student enrollment.
But civil rights activism is just one of many social issues that has brought students at the University together in a campus tradition of fighting for progress and social change. Greene’s ability to command the attention of our campus to the Diag recalls the days a man named Alan Haber empowered his peers to participate in strikes and protests on the very same Diag in protest of the Vietnam War.
When Alan Haber arrived at the University in 1954, he didn’t look particularly different than the average freshman — hardworking and from a respected family. Haber’s father, William, was a renowned New Deal economist who served in the Roosevelt administration, helping to establish the U.S. Social Security Administration. Later on, the elder Haber became a dean at the University and an eminent Economics professor.
By his own admission, Alan was not very politically engaged when he first stepped foot on campus, nor did he have big plans to study politics — instead, he intended to pursue a degree in chemistry.
But within six years of his matriculation, Haber would lead one of the most consequential student movements in American history.
In the decade following World War II, most Americans were content to return to the traditional social order of the pre-war era. Wartime “Rosies” left their jobs, which were then filled by men — many of whom returning veterans. African Americans, who were once able to carve economic niches for themselves in the defense industry — as a result of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 and the Fair Employment Practices Committee — were once again relegated to second-class economic status when attempts to permanently codify these groundbreaking laws were thwarted in 1946 by Southern segregationist Democrats.
During the ’50s, America became fixated on the consumerism and traditional gender and race relations, as portrayed in such works as “Catcher in the Rye.” Conformity was king — until it wasn’t.
Almost every facet of the 1960s youth counterculture was a wholesale rejection of their parents’ values from the ’50s, and there is almost no place where this was more on display than in Ann Arbor. On the University’s campus, a reimagining of leftist politics took place with the emergence of the “New Left.”
Austin McCoy, a postdoctoral fellow who studies progressive political movements in the upper Midwest, noted that the University’s campus climate at the time was ripe for political and social activism.
“Michigan, at the time, had a decent cohort of students who were thinking more radically in their politics and were capable of launching a student movement,” McCoy said. “They were thinking about the limitations of the old left, of Communist politics and of organized labor.”
These limitations were particularly important on campus at the time, given the context of how entrenched liberal institutions were in state politics. If cars were king in Michigan, labor unions were queen. And many of the early adherents to the “New Left” were the children of blue-collar factory workers.
Haber’s political engagement began in the late ‘50s when he made friends his freshman year with a group of politically active students. He soonafter created the since-defunct Political Issues Club — then a forum for students to discuss political matters without attaching themselves to a political party.
“Within a short time, my friends had said to me: ‘You know there’s no political discussion on campus,’” Haber said. “So my friends told me that I should start a club that was focused on talking about political issues.”
By 1960, after a few years leading PIC, Haber became a well known student activist. Riding on his reputation, Haber was elected vice president of the Student League for Industrial Democracy — a national organization linking labor and socialist groups. Not long after his initial election to the board of SLID, Haber pushed for a change in name and strategy.
“I told them that I wouldn’t do it because SLID had definitely ‘slid,’” Haber said. “And if we were going to make a national student ‘change the world’ organization, we had to be called something else. … And at that meeting, we decided upon a new name — Students for a Democratic Society.”
SDS proliferated to campuses nationally by attracting a primarily northern, mostly white cohort interested in civil rights and anti-war politics. At the crux of the movement was participatory democracy and advocacy for America’s youth. During the ’60s, there was no singular issue that presented a greater threat to the youngest generation than the Vietnam War.
By 1962, SDS had grown to be influential in Ann Arbor and on dozens of other campuses around the country. Its leaders — many of whom were based at the University — concluded it was time to create a political manifesto that provided a synopsis of the organization's official views. The Port Huron Statement — after which the Daily's Statement magazine is named — became one of the seminal political documents of the era.
The Statement was primarily authored by Tom Hayden, a former Daily editor-in-chief and later national president of SDS.
The Port Huron Statement outlined a bold vision of leftist American politics for the 1960s. In the document, Hayden highlights the key grievances of his generation: dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s inclusion of southern segregationists, the Cold War arms race and a push for University reforms.
In the massive 25,700-word document, Hayden makes a direct appeal to college students, convincing them of the urgency of his cause.
“As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss,” the statement reads. “First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract ‘others’ we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.”
McCoy said The Port Huron Statement was so prolific on campus because it spoke to such a large part of the student body.
“The Port Huron Statement seemed to tap into the discontent of mostly white, middle class students who wanted to think more radically about changing their society,” McCoy said. “Students were distributing it and sharing it hand to hand. And when I think about the intellectual history of the ‘New Left’ … it really became the most important document because it was written by a group of students and activists who were intentional about trying to create a new form of politics.”
The SDS’s strategy was to incorporate their broader national political goals into localized action directed primarily at university administrators across the country.
In the 1960s, when the federal government announced that eligible students could only obtain draft deferments if they were in the top half of their class, the SDS at the University responded with protest, pressuring the University not to hand over academic records.
“We got together to have a student referendum about whether we should push the University to abandon its practice of calculating class rank so it could not comply with the order,” Haber said. “Not only did the University not want to hear about this, but we also learned that the administration was turning over the names of student activists to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.”
In addition to organizing Vietnam War protests, SDS also engaged in the civil rights battles which shaped the ’60s — promoting racial and gender equality and calling for an end to the overbearing paternalism of the University’s administration toward the student body. Known as in loco parentis, the prevailing philosophy among academic administrators at the time saw themselves as responsible for the moral welfare of students in the absence of parental supervision. This included a prohibition on political speech deemed antithetical to the mainstream values of the University, and — consequently — expelling students without due process. After a riot in front of the police department on February 18, 1970, over 100 students were expelled for protesting.
By the mid ’60s, the Vietnam War escalated and SDS grew in membership on campus, professors began to take action. On March 24, 1965, a group of professors held the first campus “teach-in” — an all-night lecture that covered the topic of “alternative positions to present American foreign policy.”
“The Vietnam War was a very real threat for students on campus, and it seemed to many of these activists that the University was implicated in the war through research and development which fed into the military-industrial complex,” McCoy said. “There really didn’t seem to be a space for students and faculty to have a real conversation about this until the teach-ins.”
McCoy described the all-night teach-ins as a compromise: The University did not want its professors devoting time and resources during the day to educate protesters.
The teach-in movement that began at the University would later expand to campuses across the country and become one of the most powerful weapons in the anti-war movement — 35 other colleges held their own teach-ins within a week. As the national political environment became polarized over the war, campus politics followed suit.
On October 15, 1965, 39 protesters, many of whom were University students, were arrested during a mass demonstration against the Vietnam War draft for trespassing and civil disobedience. The same night, students and community activists staged an eight-hour Diag vigil.
Counter-protesters at each event came out in force. Some destroyed a student float at the demonstration depicting abuse within American POW camps and heckled arrested activists. Right-wing organizations like the Young Americans for Freedom saw an increase in membership on campus as right-leaning students developed nascent fears of Communist sympathies within student groups like SDS.
YAF’s sense of political urgency to resist leftist student movements only intensified as more radical break-away groups split from SDS. One such group, The Weather Underground — started at the University by then-student Bill Ayers — engaged in a domestic terrorism campaign that included a string of bombings in government buildings.
According to Grant Strobl, LSA senior and current National Chair of the Young Americans for Freedom, the right-wing organization’s growth was a response to the increasing radicalization of leftist splinter groups.
“SDS and the rise of The Weather Underground were different from previous protest movements because they used violence and they used domestic terrorism to advance their ideas,” Strobl said.
YAF members on campus saw themselves in a unique position during the waning years of the 1960s — a political minority on campus, yet upholding the mainstream political values of former President Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.”
On the national scale, the tenuous coalition of labor Democrats, younger radicals and later, Black nationalists would disintegrate due to internal divisions by the end of the 1960s — as was on full display during the violent clashes outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Riding on a “Law and Order” platform that played on a distaste for political unrest, Richard Nixon narrowly beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and won re-election in an electoral landslide against George McGovern — the Democratic candidate most aligned with the “New Left” — in what was arguably a repudiation of their politics by a silent majority.
While the “New Left” continued to define much of campus activism into the 1970s, the fractious coalition could exercise little power in electoral politics and remained tethered to its roots in the ivory tower.
By the 1970s, Black nationalism emerged as a salient force in campus activism at the University as liberal leaders and students of color became increasingly jaded by the Civil Rights Movement’s painfully slow pace.
The 1968 LSA building sit-in following King’s assassination proved to be a powerful model for civil rights groups on campus because it proved the potential of direct action to attract public attention.
The sit-in proved students on campus could engage in successful negotiation with the University and leverage institutional change. It also foreshadowed activism in the 1970s, which looked to this event as an example for future organizing efforts.
While the BSU was able to win key concessions in the years that followed the historic sit-in, some demands were not met, such as calls for hiring more Black faculty. As a result, the University saw an increase in civil rights activism.
In 1970, the BSU, Black Law Students Association, Association of Black Social Work Students and Black students in the Psychology Department and Medical School launched a campus-wide strike, dubbed the Black Action Movement.
A statement issued by BAM outlined the movement’s demands, including an increase in Black graduate and undergraduate recruiters and a call for 10 percent Black student enrollment by the 1973-1974 academic year.
“BAM was a response to the fact that Black students did not believe that the administration had taken the demands of the (1968) lock-in seriously,” McCoy said. “So some of the students, while in a meeting with the administration became fed up with the conversation and these students decide to not go to class and instead to go on strike.”
BAM’s successful disruption decreased class attendance by 75 percent and closed the University for 18 days. In the end, Fleming agreed to the 10 percent Black student enrollment goal, which the University failed to achieve. This move drew sharp criticism from then-U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew, who insinuated the University would gut its admissions standards in doing so.
A second iteration of BAM — dubbed BAM II — sprouted in 1975 when the University failed to uphold its promises from five years prior but quickly fizzled out after issuing a lengthy list of demands. Calls for 10 percent Black enrollment again failed.
For the most part, the spirit of BAM and BAM II were not recaptured until 1987 when students from United Coalition Against Racism — an organization founded initially to fight for University divestment from the apartheid state of South Africa — organized BAM III in response to racist incidents in residence halls and a controversy in which a campus DJ for then-campus radio station WJJX broadcasted obscene racist statements on air.
UCAR leaders then presented a list of 11 demands to then-University President Harold Shapiro. When they weren’t accepted, BAM III staged a sit-in attended by over 250 students.
Following talks between Shapiro and UCAR leaders, the University agreed to several of BAM III’s policy positions — including the recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the announcement of a six-point plan to increase Black student enrollment, the installation of a vice provost for minority affairs, a budget for BSU and an updated procedure for incidents of racial harassment. Also included in the University’s deal with UCAR were plans to break ground on the now-defunct Baker-Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education.
To McCoy, BAM III signified one of the last times on campus when a united front of Black student activists and their allies were able to extract major concessions from the administration.
“BAM III was very consequential for influencing campus politics but then also for helping to diversify the University by pushing the President to do something more specific, like increasing Black enrollment and minority enrollment in general and hiring more minority faculty.”
The mixed successes of each BAM movement ushered in a new era of progress at the University — one in which Black students were more empowered to take direct action against the institution to correct historic injustices and help improve students’ sense of security on campus.
In 1988, former University President James Duderstadt sought a solution to the years of tension over low minority enrollment. His solution was The Michigan Mandate, which increased representation of minority populations in the student body and among faculty members. The plan more than doubled enrolled minority students from 1986 to 1995.
Following Duderstadt’s resignation as University president in 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the University’s affirmative action policy in 2003 in Gratz v. Bollinger. In the landmark case, Jennifer Gratz claimed the method by which the University administered affirmative action policies was unconstitutional because it gave an unfair advantage to minority applicants.
While the case did not prohibit the University entirely from using race-based affirmative action in admissions decisions, the decision weakened the University’s preferred methods of attaining a critical mass of minority students in each freshman class.
It was not until 2006, when a statewide ballot referendum, Proposition 2, prohibited public universities in Michigan from taking race into consideration for admission. Ever since, the percentage of Black students on campus has declined, and later stalled at about 4 to 5 percent.
Even today, the issue of affirmative action remains a contentious issue on campus. Some conservative student leaders, like Strobl, feel the ballot initiative removes any unfair advantages in the already-cutthroat admissions process.
“YAF has always been against racial preferences — we don’t call it affirmative action because it is not true to its word, it does nothing affirmative,” Strobl said. “We have always believed that it is more important to judge a man by his talent and his hard work and you should not see color first.”
It is clear that Proposition 2 was a major setback for those advocating an increase in Black student enrollment; however, not all proponents of affirmative action admissions policies feel it can fully account for the nearly 5-percent decline in Black enrollment from its peak in 1994.
“Part of the goal of student activism should be to combat the narrative that the administration is pushing that the reason they can’t do anything about enrollment figures is because of Prop. 2,” McCoy said. “It is important to hold the University accountable for their role too.”
The student activist movement familiar to many current students, faculty and University administrators was born in 2013 when the BSU coined the popular phrase Being Black at the University of Michigan via the #BBUM hashtag on Twitter.
The hashtag quickly became a public forum for Black students at the University to share their experiences with implicit racial microaggressions, encounters with hate messages, racially-motivated verbal assaults and the pressures of often being the only Black student in class.
Former student Jeremy Cook tweeted on November 19, 2013, shortly after the coining of the #BBUM hashtag, his frustration with tokenization.
“That first class when Black culture becomes the topic and you suddenly become the voice of all Black people #BBUM,” Cook tweeted.
Other Black students shared stories about peers assuming they were from Detroit simply because of their racial identity.
Once again, the spirit of BAM was recaptured. The BSU gained a national audience and sought to seize the political moment.
In a 2015 interview, former BSU treasurer Robert Greenfield spoke about repeatedly pushing, albeit unsuccessfully, for the demands made by BAM years earlier.
“Once we gained national attention, we (had) leverage to go back to the U of M black community and ask what they wanted to have done/fixed,” Greenfield wrote. “Many of the demands are lasting agreements that the University never came through on (but agreed to) — this included the 10 percent critical mass of black students on campus.”
It is yet to be seen whether #BBUM had success in swaying the administration. In 2016, Schlissel unveiled the University’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan to address student concerns about racial inequality and enrollment. But many feel the plan isn’t robust enough to boost minority enrollment to the same degree as The Michigan Mandate, and is inadequate as a response to racist and hate-based incidents on campus.
The last academic year alone saw a number of hate-speech incidents, including anti-Black fliers posted on University property and hacking of a University professor’s email to send anti-Semitic messages to students. This comes at a time when hate crimes are also on the rise nationally; according to a recent Huffington Post report, between 2015 and 2016, the number of documented hate crimes increased by about 5 percent.
Many students simply do not feel the University is doing enough to create a safe environment for everyone.
“We want actual action,” LSA senior Jenise Williams said last February after the anti-Semitic and racist emails were sent. “My parents were here 30 years ago fighting for the same things … and (now) I didn’t want my sister to come here because of the shit I deal with here.”
To McCoy, the concern students feel regarding the administration goes straight to the top.
“From my personal experiences, people of color on campus don’t have any confidence in President Schlissel,” McCoy said. “Whenever there are concerns about their safety or about racism, he seems to kick the question back to (the protesters), and he often asks, ‘Well what would you want us to do about this?’ And this could be an honest reaction where he just doesn’t know, so that doesn’t inspire any confidence. Or the cynical view is that it could be a deflection. … And I don’t know if either one is better.”
Last week’s racist vandalism in West Quad cannot be viewed in isolation. Years of student grievances and racially-motivated incidents led Greene to take a knee on the Diag Monday morning.
As of fall 2016, Black student enrollment at the University stood at 4.94 percent — a far cry from the 10 percent demanded by each iteration of BAM, and a significant decline from the 1994 enrollment figures.
No one has been implicated for the racist flyering, rock painting, email hacking or door tag defacing, either.
The past six decades of the University’s protest culture and campus climate have led us to this point. SDS, BAM, UCAR and now #BBUM gave and give a public voice for liberal student activism — each generation passing the baton of social justice on to the next.
This is a powerful political moment on campus, but it is not unique. The student body and administration have both been here before. The only question that remains: Where will they go from here?