BSA storms administration building in 1989, demanded MSU attention to minority issues
Editor's note: This is part three of a three-part series examining important protests in MSU's history. Part one focused on campus activism ramping up during the Vietnam War. Part two looked at how boycotts and a hunger strike helped found the Chicano/Latino Studies Program.
Since being popularized during the civil rights movement, sit-ins have been a go-to form of peaceful protest among many activist groups since the 1950s. MSU students invoked the tactics of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. when they decided to occupy the Hannah Administration Building in 1989.
Roots of the problem
MSU communication alumnus Darius Peyton said MSU’s black student organizations, including Black Student Alliance, the MSU NAACP chapter, residence hall black caucuses, greek life and others started holding summits in 1988 to discuss issues in the community they felt hindered their success. At one of these summits, Peyton was nominated to be the spokesperson for the combined black student organizations.
“They said, ‘well, we need one voice to help to move forward with representing our needs,' and that’s when I was nominated to be the spokesperson for the students,” Peyton said.
A list of demands drafted earlier at a parent’s meeting had gone mostly unaddressed by the administration after a few months, although the university had announced plans to address diversity, Peyton said.
According to MSU Archives and Historical Collections, the demands included the appointment of black faculty, staff and administrators by specific dates, reevaluation of anti-discrimination procedures, more courses in black studies and the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day with an excused class period.
Peyton said out of the group’s demands and goals, everything came back to the issue of lower university retention among black students.
“If you are saying that you are creating this diversity plan for the betterment of the students, but yet you don’t consult the students, then we kind of questioned the integrity of this effort,” Peyton said “When we tried to have dialogue with the university on those things, they were really dragging their feet, and it was leading up into exams, and momentum would die down.”
The lack of progress led to talk to of taking action. Events for students of color were held at Wonders Hall Kiva to address the entire community, Peyton said. Peyton said after students aired their struggles, the students conceived the idea of a "study-in" as a peaceful protest, drawing inspiration from similar protests at colleges nationwide.
“Eventually, the students said ‘you know, we’re tired of talking, we’ve had a list of demands that’s been on the … president’s table for a long time, we haven’t gotten a proper response, and I think we need to do more.”
The students then formed a strategy for their protest. Packing spare clothes, toothbrushes, study materials and quarters to make phone calls, about 40 protesters headed to the administration building on the first night. According to Lansing State Journal, Jeffery Robinson, then-president of the MSU NAACP chapter, announced the group’s intentions after a silent wait.
“The Administration Building is supposed to close at 5:30 p.m.,” Robinson said in the Lansing State Journal article. “But we’re going to stay.”
On the second day, Peyton said the Administration Building opened to business as usual, ignoring the protesters. During the next few days, this changed.
"By the third or fourth day it went from 200, to 300, to almost 400 (students),” Peyton said.
Peyton said when the number of protesters became too high, the protesters locked the building to anyone, regardless of who they were, to keep the situation under control. When students could no longer enter the building, some decided to camp out in front of the building to show their support.
Peyton said outside agitators from other universities tried to participate, but the group kept them out, wishing to keep the protest nonviolent and local to MSU.
“We had a very cordial relationship with the police chief,” Peyton said. “They knew we weren’t in the building doing anything harmful to ourselves or the building, they knew that.”
During the course of the protest, a group of representatives from the black student organizations met daily with former MSU President John DiBiaggio and the administration to negotiate their demands. All the while students studied, listened to motivational speeches and sang songs to pass the time. Peyton gave daily press conferences, updating the public about the situation and being updated about outside situations. When students needed fresh air, they would lock arms when exiting the building.
DiBiaggio could not be reached for comment.
Some students would get sick, and one needed to be taken to an ambulance, Peyton said. Peyton said few protesters thought to bring food on the first night, but the group was sustained and fed by local churches and black faculty.
Finally, after eight days, negotiations were successful. After back-and-forth, item-to-item deliberation, Peyton said, the university agreed to meet all of the group’s demands in some capacity.
“I honestly can’t tell you why it took so many days, even though I was at every single negotiation,” Peyton said. “Maybe the first few days was that they were waiting to see us just disperse and go, ‘well, they’re not really serious about this.’”
Peyton said negotiations were also delayed by DiBiaggio’s absence on one occasion, as his daughter was graduating from college at the time.
Results of direct action
“Some things we knew wouldn’t happen in our tenure,” Peyton said.
Talks between student activists and the administration would continue. According to MSU Archives, 400 students would once again protest the administration's slow progress via a march on Shaw Lane. During the next few years, Peyton said he saw some of the group’s goals take shape, including a dedicated space in the Union. Of any of the progress made by the study-in, Peyton said the protest’s biggest benefit was the leaders it made out of the participating students.
“For the first time, black students on campus felt like it was their university as much as anyone’s, they felt like they belonged there, they had a stake in the university,” Peyton said “I keep in touch with the people that participated, (and) there are some that have done some great things, and I think a large part of it is because they exercised their leadership during that protest.”
However, not everything the protesters stood for has fully came to fruition.
LiberateMSU, a group of student protesters, briefly occupied Kellogg Center during an appearance by Bill Clinton last year, issuing a set of demands Peyton said is nearly identical to, or natural progressions, of those set forth by his peers in 1989.
“Almost all of their demands are the same as we had,” Peyton said.
Though students might face similar issues nearly two decades later, Peyton chalked it up to the nature of activism.
“It’s kind of how things are,” Peyton said. “The fact that the university wasn’t able to sustain some of those initiatives or momentum … it’s something that forces the struggle to continue, and when we struggle we get stronger. It just means we have to keep fighting, and never rest.”