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Ypsilanti's Back Pages

Organized activism in Ypsilanti probably began when citizens worked on the underground railroad in the mid-1800's. In several older houses in the depot town section (the area around the railroad station), you can still see old hiding places for runaway slaves.

Townspeople were also active in a concentrated drive for cleaner milk. This 1830's effort was led by the wife of Mark Jefferson, an Eastern Michigan University professor for whom the new science building is named. Ms. Jefferson was by far the leading figure in any progressive movement of that time. After making her name in the cleaner milk crusade, she went on to be an important element in the women's suffrage movement of the middle 1800's, laying the groundwork for ratification of the women's suffrage amendment in 1920.

Group activism in Ypsilanti for the period from 1860 to 1960 is less well known. While isolated individuals probably protested or acted for various farseeing concepts, most of the townspeople were as the rest of the nation: content with the "golden age" of the prospering country and patriotic in support of the many conflicts that were always appearing.

This false satisfaction continued until the late 1960's, when people began to organize skeleton groups in the anti-Vietnam campaign. The bulk of these early anti-war activists were connected with EMU.

A University-affiliated "alternate media" newspaper, The Obsidian, first carne out on Nov. 26. 1968. It was edited by Thomas A. Moors, who would become EMU student body president one year later. Moors, considered a "humanist," put out a paper that was more cultural than political. People who worked on the paper remember it as being the beginning sign of the Ypsi alternate-culture. And yet, because of its University affiliation, the administration actually controlled the contents of the paper. One article in particular, "The Student as Nigger," was blocked by EMU.

Some staff members of the Eastern Echo (the student newspaper) contributed to the Obsidian regularly. but fearing retribution for their participation, wrote under false names. Moors finally quit as editor of the Obsidian, saying he felt his hands were too tied to accomplish anything. Randy Raymond took over the job, and managed to put out two more issues in March 1969. Unable to get advertising, the staff had to pay for printing costs themselves. At several hundred dollars per issue, the paper was forced to disband.


Like thousands of campuses across the country, the school year that began calmly in the fall of 1969 gradually turned the slumbering Eastern Michigan University from a seedbed of apathy to a hotbed of activism.

On October 6, the first issue of The Second Coming appeared on Eastern's campus. Edited by EMU student Frank Michels, the paper had been registered with the administration as a fund-raising activity of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Sale of the issue was relatively quiet, but the second publication on October 20 began a tug-of-war between the administration of President Harold Sponberg and the students over freedom of the press on campus.

An article on the back page entitled "Meat- the Game for Men," featured pictures of the EMU semifinalists for homecoming queen, along with an Atlantic City-type pose of rear-end views of women in bathing suits.

Men who matched up the faces with the right bodies would "get the chance to screw the Homecoming Queen on the Union ballroom floor on national television."

An editorial on an inside page explained the Meat Game was not intended as an insult to the queen contestants: "They are our sisters, and they are trying to survive as best they can."

The following day, administration officials talked with the homecoming candidates. The women reportedly felt that despite their objections to the satirical article, The Second Coming should not be banned from campus.

Sponberg and his cronies had other ideas, however. The second issue of the paper had not been registered for sale on the campus because of a clause inserted into the original agreement after editor Michels signed it. The new clause stated the University reserved the right to recall the paper pending content.

Dean of students Tom Aceto warned students selling the paper outside McKenny Union they were in violation of University regulations and ordered sales be stopped. When vendors continued to sell the paper. Aceto took the names of thirteen students, ignoring faculty members who were also selling the paper.

On Wednesday, October 22, Sponberg issued a statement that The Second Coming was unacceptable to the University. and any prior approval for sale was revoked.

Sales continued throughout that week, and the following Monday, Sponberg, along with Aceto and vice president Lewis Profit, recommended the "Ypsilanti 13" be tried by a special administrative board the next day.

Observers from ACLU and about 100 students showed up for what was described as a kangaroo court, and the special board then decided that perhaps the case should be referred to the Student Court. which normally would have handled the case anyway.

The court cleared the thirteen of charges, but Aceto, ignoring the decision, sent the case to the Disciplinary Review Board, claiming the Student Court only had the power to recommend.

In the meantime, the court issued a temporary restraining order against the administration, demanding no order of suspension against the students involved be given.

The following Wednesday, Aceto verbally suspended David Barsky, one of the thirteen, for selling the paper again that day.

Editor Frank Michels reacted by asking an injunction be issued in U.S. District Court which would prevent the University from taking further action until a pending suit against the administration for their actions regarding sale of The Second Corning was resolved. The injunction was denied, however, after the University reinstated Barsky and agreed to give the paper rights equal to any other commercial paper on campus.

Then. on December 2, Michels and two other students were arrested for disorderly conduct after being asked to remove themselves from the "People's Lounge" in McKenny Union. The three students were arrested by campus police officer John Garland more than two hours after he asked them to leave. Garland claimed he was acting on a complaint from the union manager regarding the movement of furniture.

It seems that comfortable sofas had been replaced in the lounge area during the summer, after it became apparent to administrators that long-hairs and hippies were making use of the area- a bad image for EMU. Somehow, the sofas kept mysteriously reappearing in the lounge next to the new, hard plastic benches. After the Christmas break, student body president Tom Moors presented a list of 48 demands to the Board of Regents, including a request for more student voice in decision making, an ombudsman program, restoration of the furniture to the People's Lounge, a clearly stated policy on The Second Coming, and a "receptive, willing ear to our problems as students."

Moors, the former editor of The Obsidian, told the regents, "For you to evaluate [these proposals] on their merits would be paradise in comparison to the run-around we presently endure."

The regents balked at the demands", while the administration was slowly ridding itself of sympathetic faculty members through non-reappointments and outright firings.

After another meeting with the regents on April 15, at which student leaders added the reinstatement of the ousted professors and an increase of blacks to 18 percent of the enrollment to the earlier demands, a new coalition of student senators, blacks and the Student Liberation Action Committee began a strike at the University.

The action resulted in the establishment of a board composed of students and administrators to consider problems of concern to students. At last, some form of formal communication had been established.


The calm lasted a month. News of the murder of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State brought swift response at EMU. Sponberg was forced to cancel classes for two days of mourning to start Thursday, May 7.

The following Monday, mourning turned to anger as Sponberg called in outside police units to break up a sit-in demonstration on Forest Avenue protesting the Kent killings.

As police began molesting demonstrators being carried off to waiting buses for the trip to the County Jail, non-violent acquiescence turned to resistance.

The resistance sparked a street demonstration on Forest that would last the week. That first night, barricades blocked the street from both ends while bonfires and a carnival atmosphere permeated the dark night. Then the pigs came. There is no other way to describe the police action that first night. While County Sheriff Doug Harvey (already well-noted for his brutal tactics at several demonstrations at neighboring University of Michigan) circled overhead in his helicopter, spraying tear gas indiscriminately and beaming his spotlight down upon the scene, a large contingent of helmeted and black-uniformed police from various state, county and local agencies swarmed past the barricades on the west end of Forest, beating anyone in their paths with night sticks.

The police, minus badges, chased and cornered individuals, beat them and carried them off to jail. Cans of tear gas were lobbed into the first floor of Buell Hall, where handicapped students resided. Students were dragged from their apartments as police stormed the buildings beside campus, and Governor proclaimed Ypsilanti under curfew from 8 p.m. each night.

In the three days of violence that followed, officers rounded up anyone, especially blacks and longhairs, and charged them with curfew violations and disturbing the peace. By weeks end, over a hundred people had been arrested. and $50,000 in damages had been suffered by the University.

The school year that began in the fall of 1970 was quiet. The University physical plant busied itself with replacing the many broken windows on campus. The new students listened to people who had gone through the strike tell about it. Sherriff Doug Harvey came out with his usual ridiculous warning to the effect that "going to college is a privilege that should not be abused." And Sponberg and administration leaders called for more "communication" between dissidents and the people with the power.

But challenges to the power structure were to continue. John Enlund, a "nonstudent." challenged a section of the city charter, which amazingly enough stated that only those community members who owned property were allowed to run for office. For some reason, the docile non-property owners had allowed this blatantly unconstitutional charter section to exist for years. Enlund challenged it in the courts and it was immediately struck down. This was in 1971, and while an isolated incident, it indicates the archaic political scene of that time.


As with most college towns, Ypsilanti's activism had no real power base until 18 year-olds were allowed to vote in 1972. Yet the new age of majority concept was still so new that few eligible voters actually went out and registered to vote. (Let's face it, many were too busy enjoying the new access to alcohol.)

Some minor skirmishes arose specifically over this point. The Ypsilanti Human Rights Party declared that the city should hold extensive voter registration drives on the EMU campus. The Republican Party and some skeptical Democrats were afraid a large turnout from the University community would cost them their jobs, let alone entirely change the political climate of the city (which has since proved true). They strongly opposed such a move, saying the city had no such obligation.

Another problem preventing activists from gaining political office was the actual system by which members of City Council were elected. There were five . wards, as there are today, but only one member of the Council was elected from each. The rest were elected at-large, and Ypsilanti's Republicans and property owners turned out in droves to make sure their puppets were elected instead of the "radicals."

The students themselves were not as radical as Republicans feared- at least not a majority of those voting. In the student wards, the Ypsi HRP was unable to get a foothold. Instead, "liberal" Democrats were the choice. They stayed away from the stigma of being "extremists," and Ypsilanti went nowhere for two years, precisely what the Republicans (notably the two famous land-owning families, the Quirks and Edmunds) wanted.

It finally took a sympathetic City Clerk, James Ashby, to run volunteer registration drives on campus and vicinity last year. Most HRP members worked on this drive. The marijuana decriminalization issue acted as the biggest incentive for prospective voters. Freaks and fraternity/sorority members alike were smoking the herb, and they didn't like the idea of hiding it. Petitions circulated for a $5 maximum penalty and the 1973 Ypsilanti Marijuana Initiative made sure that signers were registered voters. Parties were held in which beer and joints were available, as well as a table tucked away in a corner at which voter registration took place, as well as the paper work for registered voters who needed to officially change their addresses.

It was slowly becoming evident to voters in the student areas that the Ypsi Democrats weren't really an alternative to the Republicans. There was also a change 'about this time in the city charter concerning the way Council is elected. Each of the five wards now have two elected representatives, and only the mayor is elected at-large.

The five wards themselves can generally be categorized. Two of these, the area on the east side of town and the area on the northeast side of town, are staunch Republican districts, the northeast side being generally where the richer property owners and entrepeneurs live. The south side is the poorer section of the city and the district where most of the city's blacks live. This district has been traditionally Democratic, and its Council representatives have usually been black. However, all too often, they emulated the wealthier Republicans.

The so-called student districts were generally Democratic, despite some weak attempts from quickly deteriorating organizations such as the Young Americans for Freedom. These two wards are, naturally, right in or close to the core of the college community.

Political scientists will probably argue for years on the underlying reasons for the political turnabout in the 1974 spring elections. But whatever the basis, of the five ward seats up for grabs, two were taken by HRP candidates, Eric Jackson and Harold Baize, and with healthy margins. These victories were in the two student wards. Predictably, in the southern ward, another black democrat was elected, and in the Republican wards, the incumbents were re-elected. This left the Council with what would seem to be a majority left-wing coalition- five Democrats. two HRP members, and four Republicans. But while the student-ward Democrats have since April tended to vote with the HRP, the black Democrats have sometimes been disappointingly conservative.

The major thrust of the April victory was the passage of the $5 maximum penalty pot ordinance. Proponents and opponents alike had earlier stated the ordinance didn't have a chance. Proponents said they were laying the groundwork for a future, more insured ordinance. The resulting upset is indicative of the changed atmosphere in the city, and it promised local politics, beginning at the level of City Council, will never be the same again. (Ed. note- for the latest developments on the Ypsi weed ordinance, see the news section of this Ann Arbor SUN.)

-Dan O'Grady & Russell Smith