The Hidden History of Ann Arbor, Michigan: A Small Town's Big Impact on the Sixties

By Alan Glenn

Most cities of a certain size and age will have at least some interesting tales to tell, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, is no exception. In fact, Ann Arbor sits on a story brimming with drama, excitement, and historical significance, one that is generally unknown but cries out to be heard—especially today, when it's perhaps more relevant than ever.

The story in question isn't from the nineteenth century, or even the early twentieth. There's no need to go back that far. Little more than a generation ago, Ann Arbor was regularly making national headlines—not as one of Money magazine's best places for the rich and single, but as a key center of radicalism during the turbulent 1960s that rivaled Berkeley, Madison, and Columbia. Ann Arbor's contributions to the sixties were crucial and greatly influenced the course of events during that momentous decade.

Curiously, however, these contributions go mostly unrecognized, even by scholars in the field, and the city's radical past remains largely unknown, except to the curious few, and those who were there.

Of course there is awareness of some of the bigger events from Ann Arbor in the sixties—such as John F. Kennedy's late-night speech on the steps of the Michigan Union which set in motion the chain of events that led to the Peace Corps. It's also generally accepted that Students for a Democratic Society, probably the most influential activist group of the period, got its start at the University of Michigan. And music fans the world over know that ex-Beatle John Lennon came to town to sing for the freedom of jailed cultural revolutionary John Sinclair.

But there's more to it than that. Much more.

The Start of Something Big

The history of Ann Arbor's radical era has roots going further back than the sixties, although it's hard to know exactly where it all began. In the late forties university students picketed local barber shops that refused to serve African-Americans. ("Operation Haircut," it was called.) In the fifties, following an appeal by Albert Wheeler, leader of the local chapter of the NAACP, the city established a Human Relations Commission to investigate growing complaints of racial discrimination in employment and housing. There was also a minor uproar following the dismissal of two university professors for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

But the activist spirit didn't really come alive until early 1960, when young black demonstrators began sitting in at lunch counters throughout the South. In Ann Arbor a coalition of university students and townspeople picketed the local Kresge's and Woolworth outlets as a show of solidarity with those involved in the southern struggle. The pickets soon expanded to include hometown businesses that discriminated against African-Americans. Such activities weren't well-received in many quarters—the picketers received no coverage in the Ann Arbor News, had little if any support in city government, and were regularly harassed by unsympathetic students, citizenry, and police. Nevertheless, the protests continued, every Saturday, for nearly nine months.

The pickets brought long-closeted social ills out into the open and stirred—or perhaps shamed—the city into taking action. But more important was the way the demonstrations brought together Ann Arbor's people of conscience. In the wake of the protests came the formation of a number of activist groups, including a vigorous chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, that took up the banner of civil rights on both a local and national scale. The collegiate side saw the creation of a political party—Voice—to promote progressive causes on campus, including greater student participation in the running of the university and the elimination of racial discrimination in fraternities and sororities.

Voice soon became the University of Michigan chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. The Ann Arbor branch of SDS was one of the country's largest and most active and had a powerful influence on the evolution of what would become perhaps the most important radical group of the sixties. The first president of SDS was U-M student Alan Haber, whose tireless organizational efforts almost single-handedly turned a loose confederation of young dissenters into a cohesive national group dedicated to the promotion of peace, freedom, and equality.

For the first half of the decade most of the SDS leadership was concentrated in Ann Arbor. Tom Hayden, Dick Flacks, Paul Potter, Rennie Davis, Todd Gitlin, and Carl Oglesby all lived and worked in town, usually while attending the university. Tom Hayden was working toward a graduate degree at U-M in 1962 when he drafted the document that became known as the Port Huron Statement (because it was ratified at an SDS convention in nearby Port Huron), a milestone expression of the nascent youth movement's percipience, determination, and optimism.

War Cry

Although in the first half of the sixties most of the focus was on civil rights, the Ann Arbor activist community also contained a strong component of anti-war sentiment. Believe it or not, in those days the University of Michigan had a school devoted to peace research. Led by Professor (and Quaker) Ken Boulding, it was organized around the university's Center for Conflict Resolution and had a profound influence on the early SDS leaders.

The wives of the anti-war faculty had their own group: Ann Arbor Women for Peace. These indomitable ladies organized demonstrations, rallies, and vigils, collected baby teeth to test for radiation, sent valentines to public figures who spoke out against war, distributed origami cranes for Hiroshima Day, were evicted from the local Veterans Day parade for carrying peace signs, and refused to be intimidated when questioned by HUAC.

Early 1965 saw a sudden, massive escalation of the fighting in Vietnam, and with it a huge surge in the national anti-war movement. In Ann Arbor a group of outraged U-M faculty decided to protest by holding a teaching strike. Almost immediately they found themselves the target of loud and vituperative attacks by press, public, and politicos, including the governor. The university also chimed in, threatening disciplinary action if the strike went forward. Some of the younger professors began to have second thoughts, and after a long, exhausting debate the strikers settled on a different approach—instead of teaching less, they would teach more, and hold an all-night "teach-in" on Vietnam.

The idea was an instant success. Those who had been quick to condemn the strike were just as quick to embrace the teach-in. The university did an about-face, pledging its full support, and judges and legislators stated their desire to attend. There wasn't much time to make arrangements, but Voice, Ann Arbor Women for Peace, Guild House, and many others pitched in, and by March 24 all was in readiness.

That night nearly 3,000 people—three times as many as expected—turned out to attend the dozens of lectures and discussions that lasted until sunrise. For most it was an eye-opening experience, for some an intellectual awakening. Students, professors, visiting dignitaries, and ordinary citizens freely debated as equals, concluding more often than not that the U.S. government wasn't telling the truth about what was happening in Southeast Asia.

In the following weeks dozens of campuses across the country held their own teach-ins on Vietnam, and soon other subjects as well. Born as a last-minute compromise in the modest Ann Arbor home of a young university professor, the teach-in spread like wildfire and quickly became the movement's de facto educational instrument, combining protest with learning and discussion in a way that reflects the ethos of the sixties at its best.

Creative Confluence

In the coming years Ann Arbor would witness literally thousands of protests against the war, against militarism, against discrimination, exploitation, and injustice of all kinds. But the sixties weren't just about politics. In those days the city was a confluence of creative energy that included the likes of Gilda Radner, Ken Burns, Lawrence Kasdan, Christine Lahti, Daniel Zwerdling, Cathy Guisewite, and many others. Music, film, art, theater—the purveyors of anything new and exciting found an appreciative audience in Tree Town.

The ONCE Group offered a yearly festival that was recognized around the world as a leading showcase for avant-garde music and performance art. ONCE gave rise to the Ann Arbor Film Festival, first held in 1963 when it was one of only a few such events in the country. The week-long exhibition quickly earned a national reputation and began attracting a wide range of notable talent, including Yoko Ono, Brian DePalma, and George Lucas, as well as Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, who made a personal appearance at the fourth festival in 1966. Back then the festival often featured envelope-pushing live entertainment—rock bands, experimental theater, even Pat the Hippie Stripper.

In the sixties Ann Arbor was also home to a vibrant regional music scene, much as Minneapolis was in the eighties, or Seattle in the nineties. Local concertgoers were treated to an amazing potpourri of styles—the heavy music of a rowdy young Bob Seger, the twanging steel guitars of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the sweet soul of Deon Jackson. Those wanting to trip the psychedelic heights had the SRC, while the Prime Movers offered authentic Chicago blues, the MC5 kicked out the jams, and Iggy and the Stooges were just indescribably weird.

The leading local r&b group were the Rationals, four friends from Ann Arbor High whose garage-rock cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" climbed the charts in late 1966. Released on Ann Arbor's own A-Square label, the record was a big hit in Detroit and may well have inspired Aretha Franklin to release her more famous version a year later.

Complementing the abundance of homegrown talent were the big national acts who came through town—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Dave Brubeck, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Who, Janis Joplin, the Byrds—to play legendary shows at legendary clubs like Canterbury House, the Ark, and the Fifth Dimension. Sometimes they'd even hang out for a while, soaking up the city's potent countercultural vibe.

Countercultural Mecca

In 1960 a researcher at the university's School of Public Health wrote to the Michigan Daily to complain about the small but dedicated contingent of "circus freaks" on campus, the "bearded, long-haired, sloppy, unsanitary-looking students, who appear to be a refugees from some beatnik cave." He wondered "just what kind of future citizens they will make if they are unwilling or too lazy to present a clean appearance at this early stage of their lives."

Little could the letter-writer have known of what was in store. A few years later the Daily's fashion supplement announced (with more than a little sarcasm) that "the rigid tradition that had girls wearing dresses and boys wearing pants has been broken." The "hippy" had made the Ann Arbor scene, clothed in faded army jacket, blue jeans, open sandals, wire-framed Ben Franklin glasses, and possibly sporting an earring. From that point on there was no turning back. Soon the city would be inundated by a wave of lava lamps, black lights, brown rice, and—most significantly—head shops.

In 1965 the AAPD made its first big dope bust, in which a number of local youths—one the daughter of a university professor—were arrested on suspicion of marijuana trafficking. The raid did little to stem the tide of drugs on campus, but did make the national news. In 1967 an editorial in the Daily calling for the legalization of pot caught the attention of the Washington Post. Ann Arbor was well on its way to earning a nation-wide reputation as a countercultural Mecca.

One of those attracted to the city's growing bohemian sector was Detroit's "head hippy" John Sinclair, who moved to Ann Arbor with his long-haired entourage in the spring of 1968. Sinclair's group quickly took charge of the local countercultural scene, living communally in two stately Victorian homes a few blocks from campus, openly defying drug laws, printing an alternative newspaper, and (much to the chagrin of nearby residents) reviving the free Sunday rock concerts in West Park.

As more hippies (or street people, as they were often called) flocked to the city, tensions naturally began to build between the new arrivals and the unenlightened majority. In response to increased police harassment Sinclair's group became more political, changing their name from Trans-Love Energies to the White Panther Party in homage to the ultra-militant Black Panther Party then making headlines in California.

The Ann Arbor group worked hard to emulate their black brethren, issuing revolutionary statements, distributing subversive literature, and taking target practice with the few guns they had collected. Hardly anyone took this posturing seriously—except, that is, for J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover directed the agents of COINTELPRO—the domestic counter-intelligence program he had established back in the fifties—to destroy the White Panthers.

They did their job well. In July of 1969 John Sinclair was sentenced to nine-and-a-half to ten years in prison for possessing two joints of marijuana. His departure for the state penitentiary forced the Panthers to abandon their "total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets" and focus instead on getting their leader out of jail. Their vigorous and determined efforts culminated two years later in a huge rally at the University of Michigan's Crisler Arena. John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Jerry Rubin, Alan Ginsberg and others all converged on Ann Arbor for one magical night, to sing and speak for Sinclair's freedom—which, astoundingly, he was granted two days later.

The FBI were in attendance at the rally and noted Lennon's participation. For Hoover this was the last straw. He authorized a terror campaign against the outspoken ex-Beatle and schemed to have him deported. Lennon persevered and eventually won the right to stay in the U.S.—but Hoover's scare tactics worked. From that point on, until his untimely death in 1980, the one-time working class hero shied away from political activism.

Keep on Truckin'

The sixties were officially over at midnight on December 31, 1969. But that final tick of the clock didn't bring an end to the turmoil. In fact, the most turbulent year of the sixties was arguably 1970. In Ann Arbor that spring, the SDS "crazies" (those left in charge after the group's moderate faction broke away) were locking war-industry recruiters into their offices in West Engineering, smashing windows in the ROTC building, and skirmishing with police on snow-covered streets. The Ann Arbor Tenants Union, still busy with an extended rent strike against the city's intractable coterie of landlords, was hosting a national conference on tenants' rights that drew attendees from as far away as Berkeley and Boston. Environmentalists were holding a gigantic ecology teach-in—part of the inaugural Earth Day festivities—that attracted an incredible 50,000 people to the dozens of rallies, discussions, and workshops taking place on campus and around town.

But that wasn't all. The Black Action Movement was leading a massive strike involving thousands of students and faculty that nearly shut down the university and ultimately succeeded in forcing the administration to promise a significant increase in minority enrollment. The Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front was holding its first meeting. Radicals were suing Sheriff Harvey for shaving them bald while in jail. Art-house movies were being busted for pornography. The draft board was vandalized. An expended bullet was found in the university president's house.

Imagine—all of this and more, on the cozy, tree-lined lanes of the All-American City of Ann Arbor—and all happening at the same time.

Similar disruptions were taking place in other cities around the country, and to many it must have seemed that the revolution was finally at hand. Then the shootings at Kent State in May brought the mass protest movement to a crashing halt. (Interestingly, if events had unfolded only a little differently, the simmering tensions of the BAM strike might well have exploded into violence and made "Michigan" the unfortunate marker that closed the sixties.)

But the dedicated core of dissenters remained undaunted. In Ann Arbor they moved into electoral politics, and after affiliating with the statewide Human Rights Party were unexpectedly swept into office on a wave of youthful enthusiasm following ratification of the 18-year-old vote. Ann Arbor was once again in the national spotlight as the two HRP city councilmen sponsored radical bills that, oddly enough, were every now and then made into law.

The (in)famous $5 fine for marijuana possession, passed barely a month after the HRP activists took office in 1972, gave Ann Arbor one of the most lenient pot laws in the land. A Republican councilman who voted against the bill complained that its enactment would make the city "the pot capital of the Midwest." He wasn't far wrong. At the time of the law's passage Ann Arbor was already the hub of a thriving marijuana import business that over the next few years would grow to immense proportions.

Most of the pot was transshipped elsewhere, but a good deal of it was smoked right in town. Almost everyone was doing it. At the second annual Hash Bash state representative Perry Bullard toked up for the news cameras—and earned himself a reprimand from U-M football coach Bo Schembechler. Liberal Washtenaw County Sheriff Fred Postill, fresh from his victory over incumbent Doug Harvey, declared that marijuana busts would be his department's lowest priority. It was as if the Age of Aquarius had truly come to life in Ann Arbor, with the city's freak flag rippling proudly in the strong leftward winds of change.

Return to Normalcy

As the seventies passed the halfway mark, however, the progressive breeze began to fail. The HRP collapsed, the hippies and radicals moved away, the university students went back to looking out for number one, and the protests dwindled. In truth, there didn't seem to be much to demonstrate against. The war was over, and important laws had been passed to protect the environment and the rights of women and minorities. For more than a few Ann Arborites the slowdown brought a deep sigh of relief.

In the eighties and nineties the city homogenized and gentrified and, like the rest of the nation, began moving back to the right. Radicalism was bad for business; the sixties became something to be swept under the rug in hopes that it would go away. Which is pretty much what happened.

But what many of those who love present-day Ann Arbor have forgotten—or never knew—is that the city is like it is because of what happened in the sixties, not in spite of it. Liberal and conservative alike benefit from Ann Arbor's reputation as a center of hip creativity. Yet that reputation is based to a great extent on the city's radical past: either from what took place during the sixties, or from institutions that originated in the sixties (like the film festival and the Ark), or from people who were drawn to the area during that time exactly because of what was going on.

Paul Saginaw, co-founder of the world-famous Zingerman's Delicatessen, is today one of Ann Arbor's brightest stars. What brought him to town? "The free love and cheap drugs," he says. That was nearly 40 years ago.

"Ann Arbor was where everything was happening," Saginaw explains. "It's where the excitement was." He was reading Ken Kesey and Ramparts magazine and Ann Arbor was like a Midwestern Haight-Ashbury plopped improbably into his own backyard. The affable restauranteur doesn't go into details, but admits with a chuckle, "I would never claim to somebody that I did not inhale."

Clearly Ann Arbor today would be a poorer place if not for the sixties. The amazing richness of that period of the city's history—of which this article barely scratches the surface—makes it more than worthy of recognition and study. But with so many voices competing to be heard these days, if a given subject isn't regularly brought up and discussed, it will soon be forgotten, and possibly lost forever.

It would be a tragedy if that were to happen with Ann Arbor in the sixties. Which is what makes this Web site, and projects like it (say, maybe, a documentary film, or something like that), so important.


Alan Glenn is presently working on a book and film about Ann Arbor in the sixties. Visit the film's Web site for more information.