On this day in 1970: U of M students fight for Black enrollment

    University of Michigan campus, March 8, 2020 | Andrew Roth

    University of Michigan students launched a massive protest against their administrators and Board of Regents on this day in 1970. At the center of the dispute was the lack of African-American representation on campus. The protest was led by a coalition called Black Action Movement (BAM). 

    The March 19, 1970, student action was months in the making. Black students had sought to carry out the action one year earlier. BAM was composed of several campus organizations, including the Black Student Union, Black Law Student Alliance, Black Psychologists and the Black Educational Caucus, among others. 

    The group had garnered support from some U of M faculty and staff; other students, including some white and Latino students; and several African-American state lawmakers, including state Sens. Basil Brown and Coleman A. Young, Democrats from Highland Park and Detroit, respectively.  

    “People weren’t going to classes,” recalled Cynthia Diane Stephens, a U of M student at the time. “We were supported.”  

    Stephens, now a Michigan Court of Appeals judge, had arrived on campus in the fall of 1968. The Detroit Cass Technical High School graduate found that most whites on campus didn’t know Black people during their childhoods. 

    As vice president of the Black Student Union, Stephens took the lead in drafting the set of 12 demands that were delivered to university President Robin Fleming and the Board of Regents. 

    They included achieving a 10% African-American student body, an increased number of Black faculty and staff, as well as the creation of an African studies program. Talks broke down after Fleming offered a counter proposal that the 10% student enrollment figure would be a goal, as opposed to a commitment. 

    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens | Ballotpedia

    On March 19, 1970, the Board of Regents voted unanimously to support Fleming’s alternative proposal. That day, students rallied and chanted “Open it up, or shut it down.” 

    Protesters clashed with Ann Arbor and Michigan State Police. The impasse lasted 18 days. 

    Ultimately, a settlement was reached. It included the university agreeing to “aim” toward the 10% Black student enrollment as a goal. BAM carried out similar protests in 1975 and again in 1987. 

    Stephens believes that the effort was important, but isn’t sure whether the student enrollment goal will ever be met. “If the community demands that the university do better, then it will,” she said. 

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.