Lest we forget: White supremacist speakers at MSU

A history of controversial campus speeches


A crusading judge, a white nationalist, a marijuana advocate and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer will provide plenty of opportunity to challenge the mind, as February gives way to March and the hope of spring.

Richard Spencer, a white supremacist, will speak on the MSU campus 4:30- 6:30 p.m., Monday, March 5. MSU first refused to let him speak due to concerns about violence, but following a lawsuit MSU agreed to let Spencer speak at the auditorium in the Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education although students will be on spring break at the time. The event is ticketed and arrangements were not available at this time, but will be handled by MSU.

Former President Lou Anna K. Simon in announcing the agreement said, “Michigan State is wholly dedicated to freedom of speech, not just as a public institution, but as an institution of higher education. Here, ideas, not people, are meant to clash and to be evaluated based on their merits.”

This is not the first clash MSU had with a white nationalist wanting to speak on campus. On May 23, 1967, George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, spoke to 4,500 students at the MSU Auditorium. According to media accounts at the time, Star of David stickers were distributed to the audience to wear and the audience was “reserved.”

Rockwell told the audience of primarily students that college campuses were the only place he could speak without violence. To ensure peace, police guarded every door at the Auditorium. A complete video of his MSU talk is available on YouTube.

Rockwell’s speech was one of the first times MSU allowed controversial speakers on campus. Less than a year earlier the San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was banned from speaking on campus. His event was quickly moved to the State Theater in East Lansing where more than 800 students, faculty and townies listened to his Beat poetry.

Ferlinghetti wasn’t the first speaker MSU banned. On May 17, 1962, the MSU Board of Trustees took a straw vote to ban Robert G. Thompson, the former head of the Communist Party, from speaking on campus. At the time, the campus was split, with student government voting to allow him to speak while a faculty group voted “no” to his appearance.

In an enlightened move the fraternity Delta Sigma Phi, on Grand River, allowed Thompson to speak in their “backyard” which fronted the Red Cedar River.

The audience, reported to have exceeded 2,000, was not supportive, but there was no violence. The fraternity was chastised by the university and fined $500 by its national parent organization.

The Board of Trustees issued this statement: “the decision re-emphasized the long-standing policy of not allowing a Communist to preach his treatises on our campus.”

Soon after the Ferlinghetti blow-up MSU changed its policy and began to allow more controversial speakers on campus. A speaker’s series was sponsored by the Associated Students of MSU (ASM- SU). With that change, the floodgates opened to include speakers like Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Rockwell.

UPCOMING AUTHOR APPEARANCES: Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who needs no introduction, will be at Schuler Books in Okemos at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 8, to discuss her new mystery book, “Triple Cross Killer.” Judge Aquilina recently exploded on to the national scene when she allowed more than 150 victims of MSU physician Larry Nassar to make witness statements at the sentencing hearing.

The gut-wrenching stories of the women were often lead the evening news and front pages of every major newspaper, here and abroad. Due to the expected high level of interest, tickets must be picked up at the bookstore, in advance.

Finally, Amy Goldstein, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The Washington Post and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Janesville: An American Story” will make an appearance at 12:15 p.m., Monday, March 26, at the MSU Museum Auditorium. The event is free.

“Janesville” tells the story of the closing of a General Motors facility in Janesville, Wisconsin and the tragic impact on the community. Goldstein follows the closing and its aftermath from 2005- 2013 with her eye on the devastating impact on individuals.

John Sinclair, who almost needs no introduction, will join artist Casey Loren, Saturday, March 31, 4-6 p.m. at the MSU Erickson Kiva, 620 Farm Lane, for a wide-ranging conversation about art and creativity with maybe a little radical politics thrown in. Sinclair who is mostly known for his advocacy for marijuana reform was also the founder of the Artists Workshop Society (now known as the Detroit Artists’ Workshop), the manager of the MC5 rock band, founder of the White Panther Party, along with founding the Ann Arbor Hash Bash. The event is free.

Sinclair also is the author of the book, “Guitar Army,” which explores his marijuana conviction and his role in the White Panther Party.

In addition to curating, Loren provided artifacts for the current MSU Broad exhibition, Detroit Artists’ Workshop, on view through May 18. The exhibit includes photographs by Leni Sinclair and writing by John Sinclair, Loren is an artist, musician, writer, and archivist and was a founding member of the Destroy All Monsters collective in 1973, along with Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw and Niagara. His work has been shown worldwide including the Whitney Biennial of American Art in 2002. He is co-owner of the Book Beat bookstore in Oak Park, Michigan, and serves as Chairman of the Detroit Artists’ Workshop steering committee.

Book Club meets March 1

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that watershed year, City Pulse is sponsoring a monthly book club that will run through all of 2018.

Each book club meeting will be held at Schuler Books in the Mertidan Mall on the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. Exceptions come when the Thursday falls near a holiday, when the book club will meet on the second Thursday of that month.

March 1 - My Lai by Howard Jones.

“Slouching Toward Bethlehem” by Joan Didion, which was scheduled for March, has been moved to November, replacing “House Made of Dawn.”


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