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Stand by me photo by BenjiBear Photography

Stand by me

By Deborah Holdship

United we stand

BAM Demonstrators disrupt ceremony, 1970

BAM Demonstrators disrupt a presentation by President Robben Fleming in 1970. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

As a student activist in the late ’60s, Judge Cynthia Stephens, BA ’71, learned a life-changing lesson.

“Unity of purpose,” she says, “doesn’t mean unison.”

Stephens arrived at U-M in 1968, right after what she terms the “red hot summer of ’67” during which 159 uprisings erupted in cities nationwide, including Detroit. Students for a Democratic Society had just been founded at U-M, and African American students were creating a group of their own. Stephens wanted in.

“After a vigorous and interesting debate, which was close to civil, the overwhelming majority agreed we would be the Black Student Union [BSU],” she says.

That was just the first of many vigorous debates Stephens would experience as VP and community outreach representative for the BSU, VP of her sorority, and a member of the student government. She also participated in the first Black Action Movement (BAM 1) in 1970.

“The organizational challenge that stands out is how to manage internal conflict and how to resolve disagreement,” Stephens says. “There has to be someone who is willing to stand up and say, ‘I don’t agree with anything you said, but I understand you honestly feel that way.’”

Stephens is a judge on the Michigan First District Court of Appeals and a past chair of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan. She returned to campus Nov. 16 to share her experience with members of the U-M community during “50 Years of Civil Rights Leadership,” a symposium presented by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Jesse Jackson delivered the keynote lecture “What’s Next for Us? Hope and Reflection.”

Questioning social arrangements

Were you part of a student movement? Share your memories in the comments section.
U-M has long had a reputation as an “activist” campus with students organizing movements around equal rights, voting rights, civil rights, workers’ rights, animal rights, and more. Over the years, U-M students have advocated for religious freedom, peace, divestment, environmentalism, tuition affordability, campus safety, and diversity to name just a few.

Activism tends to be a natural byproduct of the college experience, especially at larger institutions, says Terrence McDonald, Arthur F. Thurnau professor of history and former dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. He is now director of the Bentley Historical Library and teaches the course “22 ways to think about the University of Michigan.”

“The very idea that you take students between the ages of 18-22 and put them together at a university for four years – and you encourage them to think big thoughts about things – leads, inevitably, to people questioning social arrangements,” he says.

Hindsight is 20/20

Student protesters by Adam Glanzman.

Collier (in back) with #BBUM protesters in 2014. (Image: Adam Glanzman.)

Each movement is of its time and has unique characteristics. But during the Ford School event’s “dialogue across decades of student activists at Michigan” a universal theme emerged: Student movements are fragile ecosystems, vulnerable to internal and external forces. Whether it’s BAM 1 in 1970 or Students Allied for Freedom and Equality in 2016, activists must cope with conflicting egos inside the group, the unintended consequences of the group’s actions, and the criticism those actions inspire.

Stephanie Rowley, BA ’92, associate VP for research, is a professor of psychology and education at U-M. She began college life and membership in the BSU in the wake of the successful BAM 3 movement (1987). Things were “relatively good” at the time, Rowley says.

“But in the absence of a ‘big external threat,’ we turned on each other,” she says of her time as speaker (or chief executive) in the BSU. “At the time [the BSU] had an all-women executive board, and a faction of men got together and impeached us.”

Even when a movement is robust it is plagued with obstacles, says Tyrell Collier, BA ’14. He was the speaker in the BSU from 2012-14 and helped launch the Twitter campaign #BBUM (or Being Black at Michigan), which evolved into a powerful movement that generated national coverage by The New York Times, CNN, and more.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Collier says. “There was no blueprint for a social media movement like this, and it took the campus by storm. There were questions about what we were doing, how we were doing it, and who was doing what. That bled into internal conflicts within the group, which is something I didn’t know how to navigate.”

Student activism in the age of social media adds another twist. While it may be easier to mobilize activists using new technology, it also is easier for the opposition to voice criticism, insults, and threats.

“I am glad I grew up in an era before tweet and snap,” says Stephens. “If you are going to respond, my suggestion is to say what is absolutely true. No more and no less.”

Lessons learned

Student activists embrace, Nov. 16.

Student activists embrace, Nov. 16. (Image: Benji Bear Photography.)

Brittney Williams, BA ’16, a master’s student in the School of Social Work, has logged several years advocating for minority students on campus, with a focus on increasing black student enrollment at Michigan. But the self-induced stress of managing her activism, coursework, and family life landed Williams in the hospital. She has since segued from the front lines to a supporting role in order to better take care of herself, and make space for new student activists.

Sometimes you are so invested, says Williams, that you don’t see you’re going to break. “It’s important to be surrounded by people who support and affirm you.”

Master’s candidate Bryon Maxey, BA ’09, sees activism through an administrator’s lens today, as coordinator in U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation. Institutional relationships with advisers, graduate students, faculty, and staff can keep a movement on course, he says.

An added benefit is that those relationships often evolve into longstanding bonds, says Rowley. “The graduate advisers who were here when I was in BSU were critical in my development as a scholar and an activist. Those folks are still in my life.”

Casting a wide net

Alumni have a role to play as well. When the Being Black at Michigan campaign escalated in early 2014, former student activist Lester Spence stepped in from afar. Spence, BA ’91/PhD ’01, associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, authored a Detroit Free Press editorial supporting U-M students. He also launched an online petition at to demonstrate solidarity.

Collier recalls an encouraging email from Spence that came at exactly the right time.

“He said there’s going to come a time where you’ll go at each other. You’ll wonder if you should be doing the work. People will question the work you’re doing. There’s going to come a time when you feel the movement is going to crack. But know you are doing it for the right reasons. You’re doing it for younger black students who, because of you, will be able to attend the university.”

Sending a supportive email is the easiest thing an alumnus can do, Collier says.

“I still have it. And I just read it again this morning.”

Taking it to the next level

Students march through Michigan Ross on Nov. 16.

Students march through Michigan Ross on Nov. 16. (Image: Benji Bear Photography.)

Activism rarely ends at graduation, says Williams. Before pursuing her master’s degree in social work, she found a way to translate her knowledge and skills into a community role with the Alzheimer’s Association. It is a cause close to Williams’ heart. She lost her mother to the disease in 2013 and served as her full-time caregiver in the final years of her life. Reading up on long-term care policy reignited Williams’ passion for advocacy.

“Being able to speak powerfully on that issue and get people involved is very rewarding,” she says.

Perhaps it’s that reward — and the promise of change — that continues to motivate student activists to strive for progress. As the “dialogue across decades of student activists” came to a close last month, U-M’s Students4Justice staged a campus walkout to “Fight for Racial Justice.” Hundreds of Wolverines gathered in response to what the group described on Facebook as “post-election hatred and violence” that erupted on the nation’s college campuses after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

In response to inflammatory political rhetoric about Muslims, women, and immigrants, students carried signs that read: “We belong,” “Spread love,” and “United against hate.” That same week, non-Muslim students created a human shield around their Muslim classmates who gathered on the Diag to pray. Nearby someone had written in chalk “You are not alone.”

(Lead image: Benji Bear Photography.)

Deborah Holdship

Deborah Holdship

DEBORAH HOLDSHIP is the editor of Michigan Today. She joined the University in 2007 as editorial manager in the marketing communications department at the Ross School of Business, where she was editor of Dividend magazine for five years. Prior to working at Michigan, Deborah was associate director of publications at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. From 1988-2001, Deborah worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, where she was a reporter and editor at Billboard magazine and an associate editor and video producer at LAUNCH media. Follow her on Twitter: @michigantoday.


  • Robbi Duda - '86'97

    No matter what you are passionate about nothing will change until we get the corruption money out of politics. It’s legal now. See how to change this at http:/


  • Douglas Friedman - 2005

    The modern version of these “activists” appear to be searching for something to complain about, and their main objective seems to be to make sure no opposing (e.g., conservative or libertarian) views are allowed to be expressed. They are fighting for the tyranny of political correctness, IOW. There is nothing admirable about their attempts to stifle freedom of speech and it is disgraceful that the U-M administration appears to support them rather than supporting the right of students of any political outlook to express their points of view.


    • James Russell - 1966

      Right on, Douglas.

      I was active in Young Republicans at U of M from 62 to 66. I was chair of Young Americans for Freedom. I was part of the Goldwater movement. I wonder if the administration even realized there were such underground movements in existence. The activists on the right that I knew during those years helped changed the nation as much as any of the left wing organizations. I wonder if the University would have an C interest in highlighting the activities of right wing activists. Or would that melt some of the snowflakes.


      • Sean Phillips - 1986

        Right on, James. My UofM freshman daughter has sat through her mandatory “sensitivity/diversity” lectures, proffered grief counseling pitches, and has just kept quiet during the campus-wide crying (literally!) sessions both pre and post Trump’s election. When I asked her if anybody spoke out on how ridiculous the un-gendering pronouns were, she said her and her classmates did not want to put targets on themselves as “haters,” and kept out of any opposing viewpoints. Most especially a conservative one. Conservatism and open support for our new President are officially banned, subject to swift castigation and faculty supported punishment.


    • Gerard Freeman - 1950

      D. Friedman, you hit the nail on the head. It’s the far left profs who are responsible primarily for encouraging the “deplorable” activism that is without a logical basis.
      When I read that some of the U of M students were given play doh and coloring books to assuage their sensitive egos because Trump was elected President I was ashamed of the institution for condoning such a display of immaturity.
      It was widely reported and a disgrace to U of M’s reputation.


  • Jon Pack - 1970 throug 1973 Deans list and Hopwood Award Winner

    I would bet that I went to Michigan before the author of this was born. I lived through much of what is written in this article. I have also watched what was once my university that was made great by the welcome of all opinions and ethnicity become a jilted environment of resentment of any other views and experiences in life that would oppose and/or question the ostrich head in the ground consensus on campus today. You really don’t get it. Our family has a heavy Michigan association including my brother (a retired Orthopedic Surgeon), my sister (a retired critical care nurse at Duke plus several degrees from Michigan) and myself, a businessman and corporate owner in northern Michigan. My wife and I have assisted in putting 4 children through Michigan including an Orthopedic Surgeon oldest son, a nurse daughter, a business man youngest son and a youngest teacher at a private school in Pittsburgh with a Masters Degree in History at U M.
    Your infatuation with social guilt has left our country impotent in the ability to solve the very problems that would greatly reduce the problems of which you claim to be the highest of value. Irrelevant is the word of a very now expensive “education” of lambs to the feast of wolves. Sheltered, selfish, gutless, disloyal, unfounded and unsubstantiated opinion wishing to be fact. These are our leaders and best? Really. Your professors should be required to spend at least a year every five years off campus and out of Ann Arbor. They spar with the competition of fools and I am embarrassed of what was once an outstanding institution of learning and vision. Don’t just talk about it. Come out and live, contribute, work, sweat, exchange, experience and think. We wolves are waiting.

    Jon S. Pack


    • John Rubadeau - didn't

      Fuckin’ great comment.

      All best,


    • Sean Phillips - 1986

      Yes! Unfortunately, our fragile snowflakes will only know pampering and how to reach for kleenexes. Everyone who receives less than a 1st Place trophy, or expects that “good” job they don’t have to compete for, better be ready for the agony of defeat as life’s loser. I doubt any current degree program is preparing them for the will to even compete and win in a world of wolves they have no idea they will soon be entering.


  • Darin Stockdill - 1991, 2011

    I transferred into the University of Michigan in 1990, drawn by the activism and political passion on campus. During the two years I was an undergrad here, there was quite of bit of organizing on campus as students took on a wide range of issues. I was involved in LASC, the Latin American Solidarity Committee, and we worked to support movements for social justice in Latin American, focusing on Central America and the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. We worked with larger national campaigns to try to influence US foreign policy in the region in order to promote human rights. A particular focus of our work in Ann Arbor was to stop US government funding and training of death squads in El Salvador.

    I was also involved a bit in UCAR, the United Coalition Against Racism, an amazing organization lead by students of color organizing against racism and other injustices on campus and in the community. UCAR did everything from helping to start and staff an anti-racist education center of campus, the Baker Mandela Center, to running a hotline for victims of police brutality in the community. Many other organizations were active as well, like Act-Up and the Palestinian Student Association, and student organizations came together to support each other and our connected causes. When the first Gulf War kicked off, many students from all of these groups organized together to protest the war.

    In November of 1991, a mass student event took place in protest of the University’s decision to arm the campus police and to institute a new student code of conduct that many student orgs felt went too far in limiting protests and free speech. Students for a Safer Campus formed with the chant of No Cops, No Guns, No Code (and cool T-shirts) , and a group of 16 of us occupied President Duderstadt’s office for 27 hours until the police brought us out, where we were met by over 500 students rallying in support. That effort did not succeed, although we did make it clear that a new student code should not be used to silence dissent. Looking at the many movements that have come since, I’m glad to see that students continue to organize.

    I continue to be politically active in my community and I greatly benefitted from my experiences here on campus. I had many wonderful professors who were supportive, and who taught me at the same time to apply an academic lens to the issues I cared about. I actually work here now, and I’m proud to be a U of M alum, and proud to continue to be at a place where students get involved in working for a better world.


    • Jon Pack - 1971-1973

      And what do you do for a living? How do you pay for the heat, electric, phone and tax bills? Have you ever competed in the private sector? Have you ever had jobs off campus? If all of your education and talents are aimed at the environs of an insulated venue, have you not joined the society of the ostrich?


  • Barbara Nagler - 1977

    Everyone is working in the dark to an extent, one generation after another dealing with whatever the current conditions and climate are. Remember that school really is too expensive now for the range of students that used to be able to attend. This means a narrower spectrum of experience and background that is brought to it. And the reasons for that connect to conditions of the financial/corporate/social system that are not well understood, are not taught to students until they are old enough and specialized enough that they are often either swallowing the principles whole and attempting to make them work for themselves, or, if more idealistic, wanting to tweak something to work in ways it’s mechanically incapable of. It was designed to uphold a dominating group and put more into fewer hands, and that’s all it knows how to do. It is about 70 to 80 percent out of joint with the real flow of life and exchange on a physical planet.

    I participated in some movements beginning at age 14/15 (peace movement during Viet Nam war.) There was a lot that I felt/sensed but had no information about, having to do with the core mechanics of the banking/corporate system that often works through keeping the world at war and is desperate for the earth’s “resources”. It is a hidden mainspring that affects everything and everyone- globally now, though it began in a smaller way 800 or so years ago in Europe. In the last five-six years I’ve learned so much more about it that I can’t be bitter and blame individuals who are caught in it and trying to sense their way with so little knowledge. Even the ones who seem to be benefiting by it. They’re an unhappy lot, too, by any sane measure.

    The cyber-network does serendipitously help with some things: what Leonard Cohen wrote about, “the magic” will use anything available. It can be wonderful. But on the whole I feel it’s been something of a liability as well. Mainly because there is a real digital divide: not so much perhaps in this country though it’s definitely there, but globally. The environmental and human costs in its manufacture are seldom questioned. I feel that quite possibly students and others decades ago might have picked up on all this and discussed it, but now everyone’s too busy using it, locked away from whatever is immediately present in the environment, connecting remotely instead. Yes, it’s a tool that’s often used well but the overall atmosphere is turned into an electronic grid instead of a flow, one that can be trusted to transmit what’s needed (and it can: people without the digital connection quickly find their own ways to reach out and to sense what needs to be — they always have and they will again when this unsustainable system is gone).

    No one person can do everything. Breathe and connect and follow up any clues that might lead to real info. Study how banking works (rather than emphasizing bitterness against those who are making it work for themselves- see through it all). Study how everything else becomes dependent on that system, and why everyone seems so frustrated, banging again and again into that wall. Dissolve it by looking at things differently and creating alternatives that generate exchange — symbolic credit and actual trade — in ways that adhere to the real flow. That will be a challenge in itself, as there are those who are frightened and can lash out and try to squash alternatives. It may be important to form networks that elude this.

    And listen to the Earth. That will be the real breakthrough. That is the severance that we’re all suffering from — who knows where it originates — the trauma of the Ice Age? Is that where the “dominant” class originated — once beloved guardians with real strength who kept everyone else safer, then gradually calcified into a weakening tyranny, possibly through a misunderstanding of genetics that mandated inbreeding? Maybe science fiction there, but I think it’s possible. “They” really are weak, dependent on keeping everyone thralled & believing in shadows and rainbow bubbles.

    We’re all kids still in the big picture — all students.


  • Gerard Freeman - 1950 Rackham

    I am not accustomed to post twice but since it is Pearl Harbor Day I will say a bit more.
    On 7 Dec 1941 I was in my mid-teens. I can’t recall any significant dissent when War was declared. While the Snowflakes of today would probably have melted or protested most Americans, regardless of race or political party affiliation were supportive of the War Effort.
    At age 18 I and my best friend, Joe Genovese, were inducted into the Army about 3 months after hi school graduation.

    I pay tribute to Joe as he was KIA in October of 1944 at age 19. I’m not implying we were braver than today’s 18 year olds. We lived in a different culture where law and order were respected. We were drafted and we went!

    I pay tribute to the vets at the Pearl Harbor memorial service still alive today. This will probably be their last visit.

    God bless America!


  • John LaPrelle - 1971

    I’m afraid I no longer admit to my degree from this University. My shame is too great. Perhaps someday I can grapple with these feelings, but for now I feel like a collaborator with some foreign enemy. I can only hope that a younger generation will reject the indoctrination into a culture of uselessness and contention and reclaim their right to an education– an education that will empower a life of productive purpose.


  • Natalie Cousin - 2008

    Great peek into social movements within a university. There are a lot of time demands pulling for students’ attention on top of already rigorous academic workloads: jobs, sports, clubs, entertainment options, family obligations, etc. So when they make it a point to include activism in their time at Michigan, I think that dedicating some of their time and energy to make the world a better place is hella respectable.

    Frederick Douglass wasn’t kidding when he said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” The conflicts within groups and movements are something that I don’t often think about but they are present today as well as in the past. Interesting stuff.

    On another note, some of the comments on here have me wondering if I stumbled upon a youtube comment thread. I mean really guys…


    • Deborah Holdship

      Thanks for “getting it,” Natalie. There is so much more than meets the eye. Deborah Holdship