On a raw, cold night in mid-March of 1968, I drove with my mother to Grosse Pointe High School (now G.P. South) to attend a very unusual event in that community. Its uniqueness was evidenced by the small but very vocal group from Breakthrough, a radical-right political protest organization based in Detroit, who were on the sidewalks across from the school. Angry protest demonstrations of any political stripe were unheard of in that quiet, well-to-do suburb. This was going to be a strange night in Grosse Pointe.
What had drawn those angry demonstrators to that particular location on that night was the person who was scheduled to speak inside the school: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..
In the eyes of Breakthrough's founder Donald Lobsinger, King was a Communist traitor and agitator who was sabotaging our military efforts in Vietnam. In the eyes of the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council, the group that had extended the invitation, King was a figure of major importance with particular relevance to the area, which had been convulsed by the Detroit riots the previous summer.
Having grown up in a very liberal household with a deep commitment to the cause of civil rights, our family sympathies with King and support for the civil rights movement was a distinctly minority opinion in the all-white and very conservative Grosse Pointe of that time.
I was only 15, and didn't know what to expect inside, but my mother was nervous about the possibility of violence, and that concern was echoed by the Grosse Pointe chief of police, who basically sat in King's lap as a protective measure during their car ride to the school.
The auditorium was packed, and King delivered a speech that concentrated on familiar themes that he had made the centerpiece of his campaign for civil rights since the 1950s. Breakthrough members interrupted King's speech several times with loud heckling from the crowd, but the most memorable occurence was when a young man began hectoring King about Vietnam. The atmosphere inside the auditorium was already very tense due to the previous outbursts, but King did something amazing to me: he stopped his speech, and invited the guy up onto the stage and gave him the microphone to state his views. He identified himself as a U.S. Naval veteran and made a short rambling statement stating his opposition to Communism. King's non-confrontational approach to him seemed to take the wind out of his sails, and defused what had been a potentially combustible moment.
The rest of the speech proceeded without further incident, and by the time we were making our way to our car, the demonstrators from Breakthrough were gone.
Just three weeks later, King was murdered in Memphis. That event was awful enough, but it was particularly so for my mother and me since we'd just seen him with our own eyes. The unrest his assassination sparked across the country was sadly predictable, and soon I was going to have a small personal taste of the depth of the local hatred for King.
One afternoon close to the end of the school year I was hanging out at the house of a girl I'd thought was pretty hot, and then the conversation randomly turned to King and the fact that I'd attended his speech in Grosse Pointe. She then announced that she was glad he'd been killed since he was a Communist traitor. I was no stranger to the casual racism that was routinely expressed by the people I grew up with in Grosse Pointe and Detroit, but to hear somebody who seemed perfectly nice and normal state their approval of murder so baldly and unapologetically to me was mind-boggling.
Her father then entered the room and then started ranting about how King was a subversive trying to overthrow the government for the Communists. I got the hell out of there since he seemed unhinged. She didn't seem quite so hot any more to me, either.
Given my family's interest in politics and support for the civil rights movement, I was very familiar with the resistance of southern politicians to integration, especially at the university level. Governor George Wallace's symbolic "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" in 1962 in opposition to integrating Alabama was for my Missouri-born parents a symbol of the backwardness of racial attitudes that were part of their own early lives, and it seemed just plain crazy to me that anybody could be so opposed to allowing black Americans to attend the same universities as white Americans.
(Yes, there was plenty of virulent racism in the north back then too, but it didn't have nearly the amount of overt and unapologetic institutional support from politicians and elected officials that it did across the south.)
By that time I was also a young college football fan, and as my grandfather had attended UM during Yost's first four years, rooting for Michigan was natural in our house. While the UM teams then were still predominantly white, they did have notable black players, and I was well aware of the integrated Southern Cal teams of that era since the Big Ten played the Pac 8 in the Rose Bowl each year. It seemed ridiculous to me that it wasn't until the late 1960s and early '70s that the major teams in the south became integrated.
For basic info on King's Grosse Pointe speech:
For information about the integration of major college football:
Northwestern isn't the only conference school to have seen a significant student riot back in the good ole days, and the U-M fraternity numbskulls who trashed the resorts up north last month aren't the only U-M students to have gotten seriously out of hand. On Monday, March 16, 1908, the old Star Theater on Washington Street was the site of the what is probably the worst student riot in U-M history. Curiously, there is more than one account for the origin of the disturbance, and one of them has a connection to Michigan football.
This is the front page account from the Cornell Sun:
"STUDENT RIOT AT MICHIGAN.
Two Thousand Go on Rampage and Demolish Theater despite the Police-Militia Called Out.
Ann Arbor, Mich., March 17.
Two thousand Michigan undergraduates battered down the Star five-cent theatre here last evening, avenging an attack on a student in the College of Forestry there Saturday night and ending their attack on the building with a riot in which police, firemen and finally the militia took part. Twenty-two undergraduates spent the night in jail.
News of the 'trouble on Saturday night, when a special policeman inflicted painful wounds on a student who was said to have been the cause of slight disturbances, spread among the undergraduate body on Sunday and Monday and last evening reprisals against the theatre were planned. Marching through the student rooming district shouting "All out for the Star Theatre," the procession of students were joined by hundreds of others who poured out of the houses on the line of march. A crash of glass, as a brick tore through the front doors of the theatre, announced the arrival of the students and with a fusillade of rocks and clubs, pandemonium broke loose. Rails completed the destruction of the front of the building, the piano, seats and moving picture machine went by the board with the rest of the wreckage while the police, powerless in the hands of the mob, were not even able to retain possession of their helmets and uniforms.
In the height of the uproar, President Angell and several of the University deans appeared upon the scene but their pleadings for quiet could not be heard above the roar of the turmoil, and seeing that protest was useless the faculty members retired. With the police put to rout, the fire men were ordered out but had no sooner coupled their hose to the hydrants, than the students swept them off their feet, made away with the hose and reduced the fire chief to abject terms, as he feared to leave 'the city unprotected without the fire apparatus.
A hurry call was sent to Governor Warner asking that the militia, who were in readiness in their armory, be called out, and bugle calls aunouncing their preparation to march marked the end of the disturbance. Minor injuries were reported among police, students and firemen but no one was seriously hurt. The theatre, however, is a complete wreck.
Later—All the University of Michigan students arrested Monday night are at liberty. Fifteen of them had to furnish $1,000 bail each, after being led into Justice Doty's court and back to their cells handcuffed and under a heavy police guard. Three students pleaded guilty to a charge of loitering and were fined $4.65 each. The fifteen, for whom bail was furnished by Ann Arbor businessmen, will be given a hearing on Friday. There is no indication of a recurrence of Monday night's disturbance."
The Ann Arbor News printed an account of the event 34 years later on March 17, 1942:
This version differs from the Cornell account in several instances. The date of the riot is given as Tuesday, March 17, and the origin of the incident did not involve a "special policeman," but an usher at the theater. Moreover, the assault on the student which was supposed to have happened on Saturday, March 14, in the Cornell account occurred on the day of the riot in the AA News account.
In general, though, the overall nature of the incident in the two accounts is the same: there was an assault on a student for some alleged misbehavior by an employee of the theater, and a destructive student response followed, in spite of pleas by President Angell and other faculty members to halt the disturbance.
However, the online history section about the AA police department contains a very different telling of the event:
"One of the biggest events in the early years of the Ann Arbor Police Department was a student riot at the Star Theatre. This riot took place on March 16, 1908.
The riot occurred as the manager of the theatre and a pool room operator, approached a “star” University of Michigan football player and asked him to “throw” a game. The two men would bet heavily on the opposing team, therefore winning a great amount of money, of which the player would receive a share.
The football player refused and this information was kept quiet until the following spring. Somehow students learned about this and told the manager to close the theatre for good. Evidently the students felt so aggrieved that they did not want the theatre operating. The manager did not heed their warning and one week later the theatre was still in operation.
On the evening of March 16, the students assembled downtown and walked to the theatre. When they arrived, they demanded that the manager come outside and speak with them. The manager obviously felt the students wanted to do more than “talk” and ran out the back door of the theatre.
When the manager did not appear, the students began to throw bricks at the windows of the theatre. A building across the street from the theatre was under construction and there were truckloads of bricks sitting in front of the structure.
These bricks were promptly used to destroy the outside of the theatre and once this was done, their anger was turned on the interior. The riot lasted all night and futile efforts were made by police, fire and university officials to stop it. Sixty-two arrests were made and numerous officers received injuries along with torn, damaged and lost uniforms."
This is the only source I've come across for the story that the riot was precipitated by an attempt to bribe a U-M football player, and there's no verifying information provided in the aadl.org account, either. Given that the alleged bribery angle doesn't appear in the contemporaneous account in the Cornell newspaper or in the AA News version, I doubt it's the accurate explanation.
Regardless, it's a historical fact that on a mid-March night in 1908, several scores of Michigan students went on a violent rampage and essentially demolished a prominent local business. The fact that they were apparently let off from prosecution after they paid a then-subtantial amount of damages is interesting in light of the ski resort damage earlier this winter season.