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Community reflects on university's civil rights achievements

January 23, 2014

Project 60/50 is more than a commemoration of two landmark civil rights victories that will celebrate milestone anniversaries this year. It’s a yearlong discussion on human and civil rights issues brought to the forefront in the 1960s and remain relevant today.

This year will mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act being passed and signed into law.

These anniversaries serve as the backdrop for Project 60/50, which also will encompass a broader discussion of 21st-century civil and human rights issues.

The project consists of a series of events, symposiums, documentary screenings and forums that deal with topics of civil and human rights.

“These conversations are not intended to be limited to the borders of our campus,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. “Our students extend themselves beyond the borders of our campus. Our goal is to be a diverse community and have our students explore and understand issues…not be an obstacle in the way of progress.”

The project’s creation spawned from the idea of building upon MSU’s long-standing history of being on the forefront of civil and human rights, Human Resources & Labor Relations associate professor John Beck said.

“We’ve always been an important place where people try to confront issues of human and civil rights,” Beck said. “John Hannah was head of the first Civil Rights Commission … We were the first to de-invest in companies doing business in South Africa. We led the anti-apartheid movement as a university and have always been game-changers in terms (of civil rights).”

Through the discussion of past, present and future civil and human rights issues, Beck said students become aware that not only can they make a difference, but have a responsibility to make that difference.

“None of us knows when we are going to have the possibility of having an effect on society or changing lives,” Beck said. “I mean, Ernie Green didn’t know the effect his parents would have by sending him to Little Rock Central High School.”

Paving the way

Ernest “Ernie” Green is a 1962 MSU alumnus who was one of the nine black students who were integrated into Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957.

He also was the first black student to graduate from the high school.

“During the school year at Central, I got a notice I received a scholarship to MSU,” Green said in a previous interview with The State News. “I was unaware of who the donor was.”

Green went his entire college career without knowing who this anonymous benefactor was.

When Green returned to campus in 1994, he was finally given the name — it was former MSU President John Hannah. Looking for the human element in big issues like this always is better.

In addition to anonymously paying for Green’s college tuition, Hannah also was on the front lines of fighting for civil rights.

As chairman of the first United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1958, Hannah had a hand in investigations, making recommendations for and reporting on issues concerning civil rights.

In referencing the case of a black man who was lynched to death, Hannah made an appeal to expand the scope of the commission to investigate the abuses that were suffered by black Americans in the justice system.

“In our time, people will come to believe as one that when a (synagogue) is bombed, no Christian church is safe,” Hannah told the Lansing State Journal in 1959. “When one school is bombed, no school is steady on its foundations; when one man is lynched, the security of each of us is diminished by so much; when one man is denied the right to vote, our own freedom of decision is compromised.”

Although Hannah was an integral part in the fight for equality, tension was palpable on campus and in East Lansing during that time.

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One major issue that manifested into marches and protests was the passage of an open occupancy law in East Lansing, which prohibited housing discrimination based on ethnicity.

Early in April 1964, MSU alumnus William Smith filed a complaint against a realtor who discriminated against him when he tried to rent an apartment on Abbot Road.

At the first hearing, he failed to appear in court, The State News reported in 1965. Smith eventually testified early on in the school year.

Also in 1965, MSU’s Committee for Student Rights organized a sit-in on Abbot Road to call for an open occupancy law. A report issued by the committee states that as a result, 59 people were arrested.

In addition to activists calling for equal housing, they drew attention to the lack of black faculty and staff on campus.

Assistant Provost for Academic Student Services and Multicultural Issues Lee June was one of the many black faculty members hired on in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Because of the assassination (of Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the Civil Rights Movement, there was a big push to bring a higher number of students of color in,” June said. “The parallel was also true for faculty.”

June said when he was hired in 1973, there were still hints of tension on campus because the university was still trying to figure out how to better serve students and faculty of color.

“There were clear signs of responsiveness,” June said. “Early in the 60s, certain units and offices on campus were established, including the College of Urban Development, to deal with issues in the urban environment and MSU’s response to those challenges.”

Civil rights today

Although he recognizes that MSU has come a long way in promoting diversity and the discussion of civil rights, June said there is still more MSU can do to better accommodate students of color.

“One of the things I think is a major challenge is trying to reduce the graduation gap between African-American, Hispanic and white students,” June said. “MSU also lost some ground when it came to the number of black faculty, we could do better in that regard with more aggressive recruiting.”

June also called for the need to make the African American and African Studies programs more viable.

He noted MSU has some of the better ethnic studies programs, but improving these programs could contribute to the overall environment on campus.

Tyler Clifford, president of MSU’s Black Student Alliance, was more critical of MSU’s programs.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s been a priority as of late,” Clifford said. “Things such as affordable housing closer to campus and trying to have a more diverse campus. Student populations on campus should reflect the population of the state.”

MSU should vigilantly be assessing the climate on campus to ensure that there is nothing interfering with a student’s ability to feel welcome, June said.

“I am complimenting but also challenging MSU,” June said. “We have done a lot, but we still have a ways to go.”

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