Michigan State University prided itself for what President John Hannah called an “assault on inequality”. Though, by 1989, racial equality on college campuses was the goal, it was not in fact a reality. Fueled by tensions rising across the nation, and sparked by anonymous phone calls of racial slurs and threats, as well as racism from the police and in the classroom and newspaper, MSU found itself with a student body formed to make significant progress for racial equality. In May of 1989, a group of 200 Michigan State minority students staged a sit-in on the first floor of the Hannah Administration building. For eight days, the students blocked the doorway and crowded the hallway, costing the university a good deal of money as many financial matters were handled in the Administration building.
The events that led up to the sit-in indeed called for action. In February 1989, ASMSU was charged with discrimination during the selection process of its leaders. That same month, the State News published a personal opinion piece by a student who claimed white supremacy was on the rise due to the increase of racial discrimination claims. In April, a MSU Professor wrote in his State News column that minority student enrollment in his courses were low because his material was “too tough” for them (State News). The Black Student Alliance spokesperson and a sit-in leader, Darius Peyton, claimed that the administration had not done nearly enough in response to the obvious racial tensions and discrimination that had built up on campus.
The black students on campus formed a set of demands to be met by Michigan State’s administration, and staged the sit-in to see those demands dealt with immediately, as they had seen previous promises drawn out for too long. Some of the demands included “regular forums on racism” and awareness events, an increase in “black faculty, staff and administrators by specific dates”, reevaluation of current anti-discrimination procedures, more courses in black studies and scholarship for black students, and the observance of MLK day (to include the excuse of students from class).
The sit-in lasted for eight days, when it concluded after a very extensive negotiation period between the student representatives and President DiBiaggio. The President agreed to meet all thirty-six of the formal demands of the students, which ended the sit-in.
Not all Michigan State students agreed on the necessity or the success of the sit-in. A majority student group called No Equality Through Inequality (NETI) fought against those who partook in the sit-in. Their group called for the protestors to evacuate the administration building. Even more notable was their request to have a majority student representative present when the minority policy was to be created.
The fight did not end there. Following the sit-in, different discussions, newspaper responses, and follow-up protest occurred. At the end of May, a panel of students that participated in the sit-in led a discussion, along with a question and answer period, which addressed the event. Most of the crowd was black, but a few white students were present. One white student questioned the intentions of the protestors. The response summed up the need for such a protest; minority students simply needed to demand to be treated the same as majority students and that they wanted nothing more than what majority students already had (State News, “Students learn from sit-in”). Though the administration agreed to the demands and many demands had been met, in September of 1989, the student body once again felt that the slow pace was unacceptable and together 400 black students protested with a walk down Shaw Lane. Their persistence encouraged other minority groups to also confront the administration on accounts they had witnessed of discrimination. Though the MSU spokesperson told the Detroit Free Press in October 1989 that she was frustrated with the disapproval, the administration would continue to work with the students to ensure results. The feeling overall left students proud of the accomplishments of the sit-in and felt that their commitment would show results for themselves as well as future MSU students.
Sources – (The State News 05-09/1989, The Detroit Free Press 05-10/1989)
Written by Laura Williams