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"Free John Sinclair!"
June 17, 2008
At the ragged end of the 1960s, perhaps no slogan was scrawled on more bathroom walls or carved into more classroom desks in southeastern Michigan than "Free John Sinclair!" It was a slogan that eventually pitted John Lennon against J. Edgar Hoover one early morning in December, 1971, at Crisler Arena.
John Sinclair, born in 1941 to an autoworker's family in the little town of Davison, Michigan, took his B.A. in American literature from the University of Michigan—Flint College in 1964. That may have been the last conventional act of his life.
Captivated by jazz and radicalized by Beat poetry, Sinclair became the Midwest's version of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, an outrageous promoter of cultural revolution via drugs, music, and free love. In Detroit, he managed the hard-rock band MC-5—the only band to play outside the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago—and promoted the Grande Ballroom, a haven of psychedelic rock. After highly publicized ruckuses with Detroit police, Sinclair and friends decamped to Ann Arbor in 1968, set up housekeeping in two bright yellow manses at the corner of Hill and Washtenaw, and anointed themselves the White Panthers—shock troops in a "total assault on the culture."
As the Panthers' "Minister of Information," Sinclair was a busted sewer line of words that gushed into endless underground newspaper columns, street fliers and press releases. When a police investigator testified that the Panthers "were working towards obtaining control of young people 'for the primary purpose of causing revolution in this country,'" Sinclair was delighted to confirm the charge. His political program was never terribly specific, but it was loud, and it attracted the fascination of mainstream reporters. They dubbed Sinclair "king of the hippies" and telegraphed his message across the state, to the horror of adults and the appreciation of teenagers.
For over-the-top '60s craziness, nobody could beat John Sinclair. "We are free mother country madmen in charge of our own lives," said a typical Panther pronouncement, which pledged to reinforce Stokely Carmichael's "20 million arrogant black men" with "a generation of visionary maniac white dope fiend rock and roll freaks who are ready to get down and kick out the jams—ALL THE JAMS—break everything loose and free everybody from their real and imaginary prisons…" And so on.
Then, in July 1969, Sinclair was convicted of giving two marijuana joints to an undercover Detroit policeman. Robert Colombo, a tough Recorder's Court judge who was fed up with hippies, sentenced him to nine-and-a-half to ten years in prison. Off John went to the state penitentiary in Jackson. But his energy did not flag. From prison, he directed a remote-control propaganda blitz to reduce sentences for the possession of drugs, especially pot, and so to "Free John Sinclair!" Thus the graffiti.
The "Free John" campaign likely would have faded had it not been for the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would reduce the voting age from 21 to 18. Rumbling through state legislatures on the strength of another slogan—"Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote"—the amendment was ratified on July 1, 1971.
Suddenly, office-holders had reason to take the opinions of 18-year-olds seriously, and the effort to reduce drug penalties no longer looked quixotic. Sinclair and his allies, eyeing the Michigan legislature's calendar, began to organize a benefit event—half-concert, half-rally. It would be held in Ann Arbor in December with the hope of putting pressure on lawmakers at the end of the legislative session.
Meanwhile, Sinclair's cause was gaining attention in radical circles beyond Michigan, and Jerry Rubin, the Yippie leader and Chicago Seven alumnus, smelled an opportunity. The Movement seemed spent. The Yippies hoped to reinvigorate it with a coast-to-coast series of protest rallies that would culminate in a spectacular demonstration at the Republican National Convention in 1972. Music, radical politics, and a chance to register millions of voters under 21—it might turn the tide against the Vietnam war and the administration of President Richard Nixon.
Rubin imagined the "Free John" rally might become the kick-off event in the series. To give it panache and ensure a full house, he went to the biggest radical rock star in the world—John Lennon.
The Beatles had split up the year before. Lennon, sick of celebrity and encouraged by his new wife, the avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, was already embracing a larger commitment to leftist politics. He told Rubin he would help.
When that news was announced, many in Michigan simply didn't believe it. So Lennon made a recording for the radio: Yes, he would make his first concert appearance since the Beatles' breakup at the Sinclair event, now scheduled for the night of Friday, December 10, 1971, at Crisler Arena.
Every ticket vanished.
Harry Hammitt was an 18-year-old freshman that fall, a music nut fresh from Pioneer High School who'd written a few record reviews for the Michigan Daily. He'd heard the White Panthers' schtick at the free concerts they sponsored around town, but nobody he knew took them seriously.
"Most people just saw them as Black Panther wannabes," Hammitt remembered. "You couldn't figure out what the hell their agenda was besides smoking dope all the time. Students certainly weren't going to the concert to pay their respects to John Sinclair.
"But then there was this announcement that John Lennon was going to play, and that made people's eyes bug out. You thought, 'Wow, this is what going to college is all about!' I mean, how many times do you get to see John Lennon play in your neighborhood?"
The Lennon news raised eyebrows in less hip circles, too. For some time, the star's antiwar statements had been followed by the FBI, which had also received word of Rubin's plan for a rolling assault on the Nixon administration. Even the Bureau knew that John Lennon was a superstar—though J. Edgar Hoover needed a helpful reminder, in a report kept in Lennon's secret file, that Lennon was "formerly with group known as the Beatles." So informants were assigned to attend the event and report.
On December 9, the day before the concert, another astonishing bulletin arrived: The Michigan Senate had approved a bill that would cut the maximum penalty for use of marijuana from 10 years to 90 days—with reconsideration of current drug sentences. Governor William Milliken, a Republican, was expected to sign it. So the "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" began amid the realization that Sinclair might actually soon go free.
If any FBI agents themselves attended the concert, no record survives of what they wore. They would have found seating tight, for when the event began—right on time, at 7:15—Crisler was packed.
The opener was inauspicious—the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who, according to Harry Hammitt's review in the Daily, "moaned a few things to guitar accompaniment. Ginsberg is not known as a musician and it was pretty obvious why not."
Soon the playbill improved dramatically—Bob Seger; Teegarden and Van Winkle; the protest songwriter Phil Ochs; the homegrown rockabilly group Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; the great jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp. And there was a stunning surprise: Stevie Wonder, who sang "For Once In My Life."
All this was interlarded with heavy helpings of rhetoric. Rennie Davis promised mass action "to do everything that is necessary to free John now." Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale called for "a people's humane revolution" against "the whole capitalist system of charging people money for things." Via remote hookup, Sinclair himself spoke. His mother spoke. "The level of the music was in many ways astounding," Harry Hammitt recalled, but "it just went on forever."
Do you remember the concert? Tell the story at Your U-M History.
Finally, eight hours after it all began, at 3:20 a.m., Yoko Ono and John Lennon walked onto the stage. When the crowd quieted, Lennon spoke:
"We came here not only to help John and to spotlight what's going on, but also to show and to say to all of you that apathy isn't it, and that we can do something.
"Okay, so Flower Power didn't work. So what? We start again."
Then he sang a "song I wrote for John Sinclair." It was, Hammitt said, "a tossed-off little ditty." The first verse went:
It ain't fair, John Sinclair
In the stir for breathing air
Won't you care for John Sinclair?
In the stir for breathing air
Let him be, set him free
Let him be like you and me.
Not on the level of "Nowhere Man" or "Eleanor Rigby," perhaps, but the FBI included the complete lyrics in Lennon's file.
John sang two more songs, Yoko sang one, and the crowd went home. Governor Milliken signed the bill. John Sinclair went free.
But that was not quite the end of the story.
Several weeks later, Senator Strom Thurmond, a crucial ally of Nixon, wrote to Attorney General John Mitchell. He noted the danger to the Republican Party posed by John Lennon's alliance with radicals to recruit new voters under 21. Lennon was a British citizen with a drug conviction at home, Thurmond pointed out. Deporting him might be an effective "strategic countermeasure."
Mitchell's Justice Department took the bait and moved to deport Lennon. Lennon fought the action for several years, and dropped out of politics. Nixon went on to re-election. The Vietnam war continued for three more years. Jerry Rubin's big idea never happened.
Sources for this article include the John and Leni Sinclair papers at the Bentley Historical Library; Harry Hammitt, "The Lennon Files: The Revolution That Wasn't," Bad Subjects, February 22, 2007, http://bad.eserver.org/, and articles in The Michigan Daily, Ann Arbor News, and Detroit News. The FBI's investigation of John Lennon was revealed by the historian Jon Wiener, who pursued a lengthy Freedom of Information effort to have the Lennon files released. Wiener tells the story in two books: "Come Together: John Lennon In His Time" (1995) and "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." The books were the basis of the 2007 documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." Lennon's remarks at Crisler Arena, and the song "John Sinclair," can be heard on the film's soundtrack.
is an author and historian. His most recent book is To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.