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Perspectives of Detroiters on 1967 and Michiganders on race relations in 2017.

Student Activism Spurred Social Evolution in East Lansing

wide view of East Lansing
WKAR File Photo
Before 1968, restrictive covenants barring African-Americans from renting or owning property were common in the city of East Lansing.

All this week, WKAR has reported on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 uprising in Detroit.  The disturbance brought many civil rights issues to the forefront...beliefs and values that extended far beyond Detroit.

On the east side of Lansing sits an auto parts store.  It’s an unassuming building at the corner of Kalamazoo and Charles Streets, not far from the Michigan State University campus.  You can’t tell by looking at it now...but this spot hides a long gone footnote of history.

In 1929, a preacher named Earl Little moved his wife and children into a small house on this site.  The African-American family had lived in Lansing...until the night they awoke to an angry white mob burning their home to the ground.

Earl’s four-year-old son would remember that night for the rest of his life.  It was one of the many formative moments that would ultimately turn Malcolm Little into Malcolm X.

The site is actually in Lansing Township.  The Little family came here because they’d been unwelcome in nearby East Lansing.

Sociologist James Loewen believes East Lansing was a so-called “sundown town.”  The proof, he says, is in Malcolm X’s own autobiography.

“I’m now quoting from Malcolm X,” he says.  ‘In those days, Negroes weren’t allowed after dark in East Lansing proper.”  Malcolm goes on to say, “East Lansing harassed us so much that we had to move again, this time two miles out of town.’”

For many years, African-Americans were prohibited from renting or buying real estate in East Lansing, under a practice known as a restrictive covenant.

“East Lansing was quite a subconsciously white community,” says former Democratic state representative Lynn Jondahl.

Lynn Jondahl has lived in East Lansing since 1966.  He was a campus minister and community activist who spoke out for local civil rights.  In those days, housing discrimination was arguably the city’s most egregious issue.

Students from Michigan State University lobbied hard for an open housing policy in East Lansing.  Jondahl recalls how ironic it was that MSU president John Hannah – who at the time chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – would not step into the fray.

It would have been from the perspective of the organizers a kind of a coup to have someone in that position of leadership nationally to say something about what’s happening right here in the neighborhood,” says Jondahl.  “So it was a disappointment.”

In 1964, East Lansing created a human relations commission to address the housing issue.  The next year, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior spoke at MSU to spur on the effort.  It took three more years of sit-ins, protests and policy battles for the city council to give in.  East Lansing adopted an open occupancy ordinance on April 9, 1968...five days after Dr. King’s assassination.

Student activism continued.  Fueled by a new wave of first time voters, East Lansing adopted the nation’s first ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1972.

It was a bold statement that helped cement a new image for the city of East Lansing.

But is that image still intact today?

“I think I would describe East Lansing as a place that is not quite as progressive as it perhaps considers itself to be,” says MSU professor Jeff Wray.

Wray is an African-American who teaches creative writing and film studies at Michigan State University.  He loves living in East Lansing, but offers there’s a distinct vibe of exclusivity in town.  He noticed it years ago at the community center now named for the former civil rights commission chair, John Hannah.

“I coached basketball there, my kids went there; and it was a place that always felt like it was kind of pushing out and saying to you, ‘well, let me see that you belong to East Lansing before I let you in here,” he says.

While Wray says the community still has work to do, he commends city officials for making strides in other civil rights domains, particularly LGBT issues.

The human relations commission established in East Lansing more than 50 years ago still exists today.  The old prejudicial practices of the past are gone...replaced by a code the city says adheres to a standard even stronger than state or federal law.



Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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