Thirteen days in 1970: The BAM strike

A troubling letter

Shortly after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, U-M President Robben W. Fleming received a troubling letter from the regional director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in the nearby city of Jackson, Mich. His name was Harry W. Wright Jr. Wright told Fleming he had been helping a highly promising Black high school senior apply for admission to U-M.

“She has drive and motivation,” Wright said, and “real ability, which is now ready to fully express itself.” But no one had urged her to take college-preparatory courses. Her grades were low. Her family was poor. She had decided late that she wanted to attend Michigan.

Wright had learned about U-M’s Opportunity Awards Program, which offered help to underprivileged students. But when he saw the admission requirements, he realized his young friend’s case was hopeless.

“The problem is enormously difficult”

Profile of caucasian man with gray hair and glasses in foreground with student protesters in the background

President Robben W. Fleming at a student demonstration in 1969 (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Many Black students he knew had “great potential,” Wright told Fleming, “but due to a basically racist educational system, their creative possibilities are not fully realized  . . . It seems to me that a public university has the responsibility to compensate for this, in ways beyond business as usual.”

Fleming investigated the girl’s case. His background was in labor law, and he tended to favor the underdog. However, he also was devoted to the meritocratic standards of prestigious universities like Michigan.

He replied to Wright: “Our present program is inadequate in a number of respects. We must, and will, do better. But our critics must also understand how thorny the problem really is.”

Wright’s young friend would likely fail in U-M’s demanding curriculum, he said, creating only “further frustration.” Remedial courses for such students, which U-M had considered, would put the students at risk of feeling inferior.

“I must repeat that the problem is enormously difficult.”

The strike begins

Crowd of protesters gather on the steps of Hill Auditorium carrying signs. Vintage autos on the street, circa 1970.

AM picketers form a crowd in front of Hill Auditorium at March 1970 convocation. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Two years later, in February 1970, U-M students calling themselves the Black Action Movement (BAM) presented Fleming with a list of demands, chiefly: A binding commitment to increase Black enrollment from 3.4 percent to 10 percent, comparable to the state’s Black population, by 1973; more financial aid for Black students; more Black faculty; more support for Black studies programs; and a center for Black students.

Fleming’s aides already had calculated that the University could reasonably hope to increase Black enrollment to 7 percent in the next three years, though not without finding considerably more money for financial aid. He and the regents told BAM they would aim for 10 percent as a goal, but not as a binding commitment.

With that, BAM’s leaders called students to join a boycott of U-M classes. It soon shaped up as the largest student protest in the University’s history.

What followed over the next 13 days was, at base, an effort to change Fleming’s mind about the position he had taken with Harry Wright. The president’s views, undoubtedly shared by most administrators and faculty, were:

a) African-Americans certainly ought to have greater access to higher education, but:

b) Most were badly taught in underfunded schools, so few could meet U-M’s admission standards, and:

c) If U-M changed its traditional standards to admit underprepared Black students, many would fail, thus defeating the purpose of admitting them, and U-M’s elite reputation would suffer.

Fleming and his allies believed the University could not, by itself, change the racist social structures that trapped Black students. They could act only in small increments — a response that many Black students (and a fair share of white ones) interpreted as no more than racist resistance to just demands for equity.

A shift in tactics

In the first days of the strike, most students kept going to class. Support for the strike was highest in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), the Residential College, and the School of Social Work. In other units, such as the Engineering College and the School of Business Administration, most students were attending class as usual.

Then BAM’s leaders and their white supporters became more disruptive. They interrupted lectures, banged garbage-can lids in classroom buildings, hassled students on their way to class. Five days in, attendance had dropped to 40 percent.

“It wasn’t just a Black strike or a white strike,” Madison Foster, a BAM member, told the journalist Alan Glenn years later. “It was a student strike.”

Behind the scenes, Fleming was staving off pressure from two sides.

Critics of BAM were demanding that he call in the National Guard to ensure that students could attend class if they wanted to. Fleming asked for patience. He meant to avoid the sort of police/student melees that had marred other campuses if he possibly could. At the same time, he demanded that BAM keep its picketing peaceful, and he privately asked Black leaders in the state to urge BAM leaders to keep things cool.

Gardner Ackley’s protest

Black and white photo of balding caucasian man with glasses, white shirt, and tie, circa 1970.

Gardner Ackley (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Some faculty leaders were furious. The most outspoken was the economist Gardner Ackley, just back in Ann Arbor after service on the Council of Economic Advisers to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, then as U.S. ambassador to Italy. His credentials as an old-school liberal were well-known. But he was appalled by the BAM strike.

Ackley said that for student militants, “the desires of the overwhelming majority of students, who only want to learn — and of the overwhelming majority of the faculty — who only want to teach and investigate — count for little or nothing.” And now he feared “we will submit . . . to all the demands of the BAM. In so doing, we will admit, explicitly or implicitly, that we are indeed a repressive, racist institution. But that is still a lie!

Privately, Ackley said he was less frustrated with President Fleming — who he said “confronted an almost impossible situation” — than with faculty colleagues who opposed BAM’s tactics but were afraid to speak up.

“A first substantial step”

Hand-drawn poster declaring victory for the Black Action Movement, circa 1970.

BAM publicized a “Victory Dance” at the Michigan League. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library)

On Monday, March 30, with BAM dialing down the aggressive picketing, attendance in classes crept upward. Some professors relocated classes to churches, homes, or the Michigan Union, but they were teaching.

At 4 a.m. the next day, during another long round of negotiations, a BAM leader took Fleming aside and asked for his best offer.

The president repeated what he had said already — a goal (still not a commitment) of 10 percent; enough financial aid to reach the goal (more than the 5-7-percent funding promise he had made before the strike); plus a commitment to meet most of the lesser demands.

With that, BAM ended the strike and declared victory. In the Union ballroom, BAM leaders addressed more than a thousand cheering students. “That wasn’t the best agreement we could have settled on,” one of them, Dave Lewis, told the crowd, “but it was a first step, a first substantial step.”

The long aftermath

By 1973, the University had kept its promises to create a Black student center (which would become today’s Trotter Multicultural Center); expand Black studies; recruit more Black faculty; and provide enough funding to raise Black enrollment to 10 percent. But in 1973-74, Black enrollment stood at only 7.3 percent — the same figure the Fleming administration had considered a realizable goal, given the University’s admission policies.

More major protests followed in 1975 and 1987. In the latter year, James J. Duderstadt, then U-M’s provost and soon-to-be president, initiated plans that coalesced as a broad initiative called the Michigan Mandate. Its thesis — that cultural diversity and education were not antithetical but intimately linked — was an early forerunner of ideas that soon would be taken for granted in higher education and other spheres of American society.

Michigan drew national attention for its new commitments. By 1995, the new drive brought the total enrollment of Black students to more than 10 percent.

That led to a long series of legal battles that rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — but that’s a story for another time.

(Lead image of BAM picketers at the west doors of Hill Auditorium is courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. This story is adapted from the author’s book, “Sing to the Colors: A Writer Explores Two Centuries at the University of Michigan,” University of Michigan Press, 2021).

Comments

  1. Mike Jefferson - 1980

    My family was highly engaged in the State of Michigan in the cause for civil rights. I have tremendous memories of my parents’ efforts and recall the days of protests and sit ins. Our cause was just and ultimately, we prevailed. Sadly, we’re seeing a resurgence in racism largely financed by Chinese and leftist monies, though this time it is in an insidious form otherwise known as DEI(J). Sadly, the university has embraced these divisive and racist policies as mainstream. They could not be more diametrically opposite to the aims and efforts we embarked on in the 1960’s and ’70s. The DEI(J) movement is more closely akin to Louis Fara-con instead of MLK. It must be rooted out and replaced with a moral and just aim.

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    • Terry Provenzano - 1971

      Mr Jefferson thanks for speaking up about academia mindless rush to make “inclusion” into some kind of saintly word. The movement for inclusion, if it can be called that, has many motives and ramifications that need to be examined. You are very correct in your analysis sir!

      Reply

    • Louise Bocade Doozan - 1973

      Thanks for this reminder of my history at UM. I was one of those students who picketed and marched down State Street. I was proud to have been someone who stood with the black community!

      Can’t wait to read the next article!

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    • Douglas Jean - 1973 BSE & 1975 MBA

      Mr. Jefferson, it is ironic that you support civil rights and oppose racism but you stereotypically blame the resurgence of racism on Chinese. This in itself is racist and divisive. It would have been sufficient to condemn the resurgence of racism without blaming it on Chinese.

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    • K T - 1999

      I am curious about the racist and divisive policies, under the umbrella “DEI(J),” to which you refer. Could you please enumerate some of the specific university policies you find so offensive and destructive?

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  2. Michael Evanoff - JD '71

    I was there. As I recall, the “demonstrations” also included a fair amount of anti-Vietnam War sentiment. Anyway, in my Law School Class (’71) there was only one black student, the daughter of a very prominent Judge in Detroit. Actually, there were very few white ladies, full stop. My class and the entire Law School was probably 90% white male. Or so I remember. But, the Law School like most of the U was quite liberal leaning, and most of my fellow law students were very sympathetic to the demonstrators. Most of us continued to go to class, Law School was very competitive, and I was quite angry when some demonstrators broke into one of my classes to try to shut it down. Most of us law students were in full agreement that minority group enrollment at U of M had to be increased. But who were these (mostly undergraduate students) to tell us Law School students that we should not go to class, rather than trying to engage us as allies in their cause? Honey usually works better than vinegar. By the way, after Law School I went to the bright lights of New York City to practice with a large law firm, but I did a lot of pro bono work and was one of a dozen or so young New York lawyers who went up to Attica Prison following the riots there, to defend inmates and prevent retribution. I lost several conservative friends due to that episode and also attracted the enmity of more than a few partners in the firm.

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  3. Doris Rubenstein - 1971

    Was there. Remember it like it was yesterday.

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  4. Nancy Court - 1969 & 1971

    I was there—M.SW. 1971. I was probably the youngest student at the School of Social Work…graduated at age 23. Also utilized an Opportunity grant in undergrad. Guess I was underprivileged. I had moved to Ann Arbor as a high school junior from a southern Indiana “sundown” town with my widowed mother and 4 younger sibs. I knew from observation as a pre-teen that racism was alive and well. My best class in UM undergrad was taught by a teaching fellow. We read 7 books by Black authors. So yes, I thought the BAM was appropriate.

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  5. Luann Davis - 1973

    I was a student there during this time. I seem to recall quite a few bomb scares in the dorms and classes. Vivid memory of doing a chemistry exam out on the sidewalk after several prior classes were cancelled and hanging out in the parking structure across from Markley for an entire evening. I don’t think these events enamored me to join the group. And truthfully, I still don’t see the utility of protests as they usually do not accomplish all that much in the long run.

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  6. Judy Sherman - 1970, 1971

    Thank you for the article on the BAM strike. It was one of the most consequential events for me as a U-M student and for my lifetime career because I am white. What people often miss is that affirmative action and DEI programs don’t just benefit minorities. They also provide exposure to vital knowledge for those not in a minority. Thanks to BAM, I was able to take several Black lit courses. Without them, I would never have read Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright or Malcom X. What I learned from those studies was how to be a better teacher to minority middle school students. I gave one troubled young Black student Malcom X’s book. My first principal and vice-principal were Black. I learned about hidden prejudice from them and how white people don’t recognize it. Because of BAM, my mind was open to learning from them. BAM prepared me for being a better boss when all the employees under me were minority. Today, I teach swimming to students from all over the world. My colleagues are also from several nationalities, religions, and races. When students apply to college or universities, they can factor in a learning environment that meets their needs. That might be a religious school, an arts school, or one that fits their background. It’s Michigan’s dedication to exposing students to diversity that makes it unique and great. Students who do not want this opportunity can apply to other universities I am thankful that the U-M listened to and acted on the requests from Black students. It expanded my world and better prepared me for post-graduate life.

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  7. Arlen Brunsvold - 1966, 1972

    I was there. My recollection of the events is that BAM did not strike the College of Engineering. I did not experience any class disruptions as a student or a teaching fellow, if my memory is correct. It would be interesting to know the details of why there was the College of Engineering exception.

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    • James Pistilli - ‘74, ‘79

      I was in the office of the Dean if Engineering when BAM protesters came marching down the hall of the West Engineering Building. They were making quite a loud ruckus. The Dean ordered the door locked and all inside wondered if the pounding on the office door would take it down! Engineering was not spared disruption.

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  8. Tim Bartholow - 1973, 1974, 1979

    I was an undergrad living in Bursley during BAM. I’ve have remembered this incident from that time all my life. While in no way against equality for all, or black rights, I was disappointed to see the protesters who came to block the central loading dock at Bursley, in an attempt to close down the cafeteria, using UNIVERSITY VEHICLES for their transportation to Bursley and to block the drive. On one hand, if you are protesting, I suppose the thought is to use any resources you can acquire. On the other hand, isn’t it a little bit deceitful to “borrow” the University’s cars to conduct your protest against the University? The questionable ethics I witnessed in that part of the protest have stuck with me since 1970.

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  9. Tom Zaremba - 1973, 1976

    I remember this period vividly, but also as a part of the very divisive period of the Vietnam war, draft protests, and other civil strife. Fleming was adept at negotiation and talking people to near distraction, and that was one reason why Ann Arbor didn’t turn into the pitched battles and rioting on many other campuses. That and the replacement of former Sheriff Harvey and the luck for the University that most of the students were already gone home before the Cambodian incursion was announced.

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  10. Frankie Quasarano - 2011, 2021

    I believe the end of this story is missing context/inaccurate. In 1995, over 10% of first-year undergraduates were Black but the total Black undergraduate population was still under 10% and has never hit 10%.

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  11. William Ahrens - 1971, 1973

    As a student in the College of Engineering, here is what I recall about the BAM strike. An earlier writer in this string wondered how the strike bypassed Engineering. I recall at least one of my professors inviting a BAM spokesperson to come into our class to discuss the issue and “educate” us about the situation. On the one hand, I found myself sympathetic to at least some of their demands. On the other, there is no way I was going to miss my classes; I for one truly was a struggling college student, trying to keep my head above water. One of my roommates was Black and also and Engineering student. I recall that his professors advised him to not come to class; they feared for his safety. He was vocally not happy with that suggestion. I don’t remember if he stayed away or went to class anyway.

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  12. Dave Kurtz - 73

    I was there for the strike. And in the College of Engineering. As I recall, our lecturer at the time allowed one of the BAM representatives come in and address our class, which they did. We sat and listened, and when he was done he asked for questions. There were none, so he left and our class resumed. Probably exactly the response you would expect from a bunch of engineers….

    Reply

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