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The Beginning (and end?) of My Activism: The 1989 Sit-In at Michigan State University

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Today I saw something on Facebook about the fact that classes would start shortly at Michigan State University, my alma mater. Tears welled-up in my eyes. Ahhhh college…

“1989
A sit-in took place at the Administration Building and lasted for eight days. The students created 20 demands that addressed issues such as recruiting more Black faculty and staff, racism on campus, retention rates among African-Americans, and implementing multicultural affairs in every department. Darius Peyton served as the spokesperson.”
 (from the MSU Black Student Alliance website)

Photo: msutoday

Photo: msutoday

That was all I could find on the internet about the sit-in that my best friend and I took part in during my sophomore year at MSU. I didn’t expect a million hits or anything but sadly I really had to dig for that one little paragraph.

Something about being in college… you feel empowered and you want to make the world a better place, and for whatever reason (it might have had something to do with the fact that I was listening to Public Enemy A LOT at that time) African-American issues were really important to me. Actually, they still are.

As I have said before, my long-term memory is crap, but I’ll do the best I can. All names have been changed.

So when the sit-in began my friend and I marched right over to the administration building. Of course we would take part! Fight the power! We were a little surprised about how we were questioned at the door, “Do you even know what the demands are???” I rattled off a few and we knew some of the other people that were blocking the door, so we were let in.

I would love to tell the real story of the sit-in, the strategies and the end result, but the only story I can tell is mine, because well, my friend and I were dealing with other issues while we were in there (and I’m not talking about the lack of showers… it was the administration building after all).

If you haven’t already figured it out, the sit-in consisted primarily of black students. It seemed that many of them were curious as to what my friend and I (who are white) were doing there.

Some already knew. I don’t think the students that knew us from the dorm really questioned what we were doing there. Although, maybe they did, but didn’t say anything.

One particular incident stands out in my mind. A guy came up and started asking us what we were doing there and did we even know what the sit-in was about. Eventually, we got around to talking about where we were from. I said I was from Grand Rapids. He asked me what high school I went to and then pointed-out that my high school was not in Grand Rapids, but in Cascade. OK fine (the school address actually is Grand Rapids, but I knew what he meant). Suddenly, someone called his name and I realized that he was the brother of a (black, only saying so for the sake of the story) friend of mine from home, and we all had some really close (black, again, sake of the story) friends in common. So I asked him,

“Mikey…is your brother named Matt?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know Vernon and Fred?”

(His face kinda dropped.) “Yeah.”

“Well ask them about Boodie! Those are my boys!”

He didn’t question me anymore after that.

My friend and I really tried, but we felt alienated. There were also quite a few Asian students there and we heard they felt the same way. However, we were still there when the news crew came in to film. The organizers sat us in a huge group (there must have been 200 of us) and said that everyone should look down at the floor as the news crew scanned us. I misunderstood and looked straight at the camera. Can you imagine what they must have looked like?? hahaha What an idiot. I wish I could see the footage.

My friend and I ended-up leaving after 2-3 days (the sit-in lasted eight) but we left a letter explaining why we were leaving and how we still supported them. At least, I hope that’s what it said. How I would love to read that letter right now.

Anyway, I am not writing this because I’m bitter or even because I don’t understand why some people wouldn’t have wanted us there. I have become wiser and realize that I am not black (NEWSFLASH LOL) and that I have to fight racism in my own small “white” way. When somebody does or says something that I can do or say something about, I do. I call bigots out on their bullshit. I have even learned how to do it without getting angry (sometimes).

However, this is not to say that I believe that “black” issues (these issues are actually a problem for all of us) can only be solved by members of the black community. On the contrary, if we know that white society is/was the root cause of many or most of the issues in the black community, then don’t we need to come together to solve these issues? If you are trying to appeal to a mostly white faculty at a mostly white university, wouldn’t it help to have a few (or a lot of) white students join you in your fight? There were a lot of whites involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Anyway, the sit-in at MSU is an experience I have reflected on many times over the years. I learned a lot from it. Like everyone else there, my friend and I were there with only the best intentions.

No regrets.

Fight the power!

Update: I wrote this post in 2010, and last weekend, Darius Peyton, who was considered to be the leader of the sit-in, posted on Facebook asking sit-in participants what they were doing now. This caused me to reflect further on the sit-in and my overall experience at MSU as a white student interested in African-American issues.

During my senor year at MSU, when I was able to take more elective classes, I took many African-American history classes. I loved them, and the higher grades I got in those classes helped to bolster my low grade point average.

I was a very lazy student, and I’d be willing to bet that I skipped more classes than I attended during my 4 1/2 years at MSU, but before graduation, I took the time to write a speech about my views on diversity, a buzzword often used by the administration during my time at MSU. Then, I got up early one cold, snowy, Saturday morning, totally hungover, to audition to give the speech at our graduation ceremony. I wasn’t chosen, but I was happy that I had done it, and the fact that the person who was chosen to give the speech was booed (he/she actually used the phrase “the little train that could”) did make me feel better. I really hope I still have that speech somewhere. I am going to look for it.

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