A house divided

The movement in East Lansing to open housing for blacks

Two years of smolder built to a roar.

Then it cooled down but the fire was just under the surface.

It started with the only visit to Michigan State University by the young pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. on Feb. 11, 1965. Civil law prevented blacks from owning homes or renting in East Lansing.

Tensions ramped up to middle-of-thenight anonymous phone calls with heavy breathing or racial slurs, demonstrations, sit-ins and arrests. The city and real estate agents fought to keep it that way. MSU did not weigh in. And some people struggled to understand why it was such a big deal.

“If they would stop to think, those who were arrested might realize they are doing more harm than good,” the State News wrote in an editorial on May 25, 1965.

History is sending ripples into modern times as communities brace against the racial tension surrounding justice and police killings.

It was nearly 50 years ago that blacks were forbidden from owning property in East Lansing, home of MSU. It’s hard to believe a city heralded for being the first community in the nation to have civil rights for gays, kept its doors closed to blacks until April 8, 1968, four days after the death of King and three days before the federal Fair Housing Act went into effect mandating fair housing nationwide.

The “movement” paled in comparison to the Selmas and Montgomerys. The efforts claimed local headlines and scathed across editorial pages of the college paper or the Towne Courier.

But the history of fair housing in East Lansing offers lessons.


In 1955, Clarence Underwood moved from Fayetteville, N.C., with his wife and baby to attend MSU. He cut it close.

Orientation started in two days and he still had to find housing.

Underwood, who would decades later become MSU athletic director, ran into the same answer call after call: “We don’t rent to Negroes.”

Even before classes started, Underwood learned his first lesson: The long arm of Jim Crow extended far beyond the Mason- Dixon Line.

He ended up renting a room on Butler Street on Lansing’s near west side, in a mostly black neighborhood. Before 1965 Lansing’s black neighborhood generally was west of Walnut Street and between the Oldsmobile plant and the Grand River to the south and Hillsdale to the north.

More than anything, Underwood was mad at himself; he had watched MSU play in the 1954 Rose Bowl and saw black athletes on the team and assumed that things  were different “up North.”

He writes in his autobiography, “I had deceived myself by believing that the numerous black athletes on Michigan State’s football team … represented openness and acceptance in a university setting.”

Things had not changed much since Malcolm X’s family moved to Lansing from Milwaukee 27 years earlier.

In 1929, Malcolm X’s father, Earl Little, was court-ordered to move from the house he purchased in northwest Lansing because it was in a white neighborhood.

The court order stated: “this land shall never be rented, leased, sold or occupied by any other race other than those of the Caucasian race.”

Covenants of this type became common in real estate transactions following a 1926 U.S. Supreme Court decision that disallowed community-wide restrictions against minorities. Negroes, Jews and Mongoloids often were specifically excluded in covenants, but typically the simple catch-phrase “non-Caucasians” was used.

Before the Littles could move the house was burned to the ground.

Beech Street

After graduating in 1961, Underwood was hired as the first black teacher in the East Lansing School District. But he still couldn’t live there because protective covenants were in place.

A local attorney, John Brattin, offered to sell him a home at 1403 Beech Street in East Lansing on land contract. The threebedroom ranch home was built in 1954 and had already been home to Andrew Brimmer, who would become the first black governor of the Federal Reserve.

The house faces Edgewood United Church. Brattin was a member of the church, which was led by Pastor Truman Morrison, founder of the East Lansing Citizens for Human Rights.

Morrison’s daughter, Melanie Morrison, said her parents both had a Southern upbringing, so they were no strangers to racism.

Melanie Morrison, who lives in Okemos, is an author and pastor (Yale Divinity School) and the founder and the executive director of Allies for Change.

The East Lansing Human Relations Commission, established in September 1963, included among its nine members David Berlo, an MSU communications professor; Mary Sharpe, an East Lansing attorney and commissioner for the Fair Employment Practices Commission; Robert Green, a black MSU professor; and a local psychiatrist H.C. Tien who was Chinese.

Green recalls that when he first began looking for housing in 1962 he was directed by real estate agents to live in certain areas of Lansing. That did not suit him. He wanted to live close to campus and not in Lansing’s racially segregated neighborhoods. Ultimately, he would rent a home at 221 Durand Street in East Lansing, but he recalls working with five or six realtors to buy a home with no luck. When he told MSU President John Hannah about the problem, he replied “I’ll buy the house and resell it to you.” Green said he looked at Hannah and said, “President Hannah what are you going to do when the next black — Negro we were back then — comes along?”

He refused the offer.

Martin, Malcolm, Selma

By 1965 tolerance for sweeping things under the rug was low.

While Hannah was holding Civil Rights hearings as chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, MSU was hosting a rare appearance of King where he spoke to more than 4,000 in the MSU Auditorium. King visited MSU for a fundraiser for the Student Tutorial Education Program, which was designed by the Rev. John Duley and Green to send MSU students and faculty to Rust College in Mississippi to help the college maintain its accreditation.

Later in the month, on Feb. 21, Malcolm X would die under a stream of gunfire in New York City.

As Selma got underway, Green, Morrison and Duley responded to King’s call for a showing of solidarity and the three spent a week in Selma organizing and holding police lines. But they left prior to March 25, when more than 25,000 people marched into Selma.

“Freedom and brotherhood are in the air,” Morrison wrote in an article on the front page of the East Lansing Towne Courier March 21, 1965. “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

“The one thing that people realized,” said Green in a recent interview with City Pulse, was “there were Selmas everywhere.”

Green, a friend of King’s, would become the Education Director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Demonstrations began to pick up locally, catching the eye of national Civil Rights organizers.

James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality, visited MSU May 13 for a Civil Rights teach-in. He blasted city officials, but especially the Lansing Board of Realtors for wanting to “keep the city lily white.”

Farmer told 250 students and faculty members at the teach-in that the Lansing Board of Realtors “are the staunchest supporters of segregation,” the State News reported.

Four days later, the fair housing activists marched from Beaumont Tower to the East Lansing City Hall. There, approximately 70 of the activists went into Council meeting chambers, listened to some of the discussion and then conducted a sit-in.

When they refused to leave East Lansing Police, Lansing Police and members of the State Police carried the demonstrators outside. No arrests were made.

Momentum continued a week later when 75 students staged a sit-in on the steps of Cowles House, the on-campus home of Hannah. Although Hannah refused to sign a petition signed by 119 faculty members supporting fair housing, he said “I am in favor of open housing and my position has been clear for many years.”

The next day, the students met with East Lansing Mayor Gordon Thomas at Beaumont Tower at about 11 p.m., then marched to City Hall, where scores of students conducted a sit-down on Abbot Road. At 12:45 a.m., Thomas read them a city ordinance on trespassing and told them if they did not leave they would be arrested. After one student left 40 state police and 25 East Lansing police officers moved in, dragging the 36 male demonstrators and carrying 23 women on stretchers to the police station where they were arrested.

Hannah’s legacy

Hannah, both as chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a position he held under three presidents, and MSU president, was heralded at the time, and still is, for his efforts promoting civil rights, nationally and on campus. But his actions on campus and in regard to housing in East Lansing showed reserve and less conviction, sometimes contempt.

During the late-night sit-in, Hannah, walked over from Cowles House to watch the demonstration. A State News reporter asked his opinion.

“I think the city has been patient,” Hannah was quoted in the article. “At this point I’d say they have taken more than I would’ve. I’m going home to bed.”

The next morning the demonstrators were transported in MSU buses to East Lansing and arraigned. Three pleaded guilty and paid $10 fines; the remaining 56 stood mute and paid bonds ranging from $25 to $100. The students and eight local residents were represented by Stuart Dunnings Jr., a black Lansing attorney and father of the current Ingham County prosecuting attorney. He had been retained during the early morning by local activists and bail was paid through donations.

One demonstrator originally from Ionia, Frederic Houghton, eventually became an Episcopal priest.

“I am intensely grateful I was involved and I came away with a different understanding of liturgy acting out an inner belief,” Houghton said in a January interview with City Pulse.

Houghton said after his arrest he ended up in a jail cell with Michael Price and they penned a letter along the lines of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” which was published in the State News.

Later that week, Duley and other faculty members were called by Hannah to a meeting. Duley said when he arrived there was a stack of file folders holding the student demonstrators’ records on the table.

He said as Hannah questioned the faculty they went through the records, discovering many of the students were National Merit Scholars or in the Honors College. Arrest records show the majority of students demonstrating were from out of state. There was a feeling that Hannah would expel them until he learned the students were National Merit Scholars. At the time, MSU had more National Merit Scholars than any school in the United States, Duley said.

By Memorial Day weekend students began studying for finals and momentum slowed. By fall 1965, activism had shifted to the anti-war and anti-draft movements, led mostly by groups like Students for a Democratic Society.

Houghton recalls the criminal case against the demonstrators dragging out for years with the charges ultimately being dropped because of the many delays in trying the demonstrators.

Human Relations Commission

In January 1965 the Greater Lansing Board of Realtors presented to the HRC its 13-point plan for fair housing. It was mostly based on the right of homeowners to sell to whom they wished.

Tien, chairman of the Human Relations Commission chairperson, was outraged and took the plan and ripped it up at the meeting according to reports in local media. News reports quoted him as saying, “It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Tien was censured by his own commission members and was later replaced on the commission.

The Human Relations Commission ultimately crafted a proposed fair housing ordinance which in a close vote passed on May 12, 1964. In June, the City Council passed a resolution supporting fair housing, which does not have the force of law and was meaningless Thomas, a well-liked and progressive politician who attended Edgewood and also was a professor of communications at MSU, found himself on the fence.

Thomas’s son, David Thomas, would write a biography of Hannah, “Michigan State College: John Hannah and the Creation of a World University.” In it, he referred to his father as “cautious” and said he was hoping to avoid the confrontations faced in other communities.

The book quotes Green as saying of Hannah: “You could never call Hannah a racist, but there were times when I became perplexed by his unwillingness to tackle the racial problems with fair housing in East Lansing.”

Green went on: “John Hannah could deal with specific acts of racial discrimination, but he couldn’t deal with broader policy issues.”

Much of the resistance to fair housing came from real estate agents.

Leaders in the fair housing debate have said Walter Neller, a leading area real estate agent, attempted to strong-arm them into dropping the fair housing issue and in 1963, Green sued an employee of Neller for housing discrimination.

Green recalls Neller visiting him at his house on Gunson Street. Green said Neller was aggressive and said, “I just want to see who you are, pup. What are you doing creating all this trouble in East Lansing? I have a house for you in Lansing.”

Morrison said her father received a phone call from Neller in which he said to him: “Morrison, you are no longer an asset to this community. You are destroying property values by renting to black residents.”

Morrison later wrote that he told Neller, “a different tide was moving,” and Neller replied, “Not in my day.”

The 1965 fair housing demonstration was the first major student uprising faced by John Hannah. In April 1966, Ramparts magazine would publish a scathing article on MSU’s secret role in Vietnam and, about the same time, local Democratic officials would write the president asking that Hannah be removed from the Civil Rights Commission for his inaction on the fair housing ordinance.

In what may be considered a symbolic act, the East Lansing City Council finally passed an ordinance guaranteeing fair housing. It came April 8, 1968, just four days after the assassination of King and three days before the federal Fair Housing Act took effect.

Hannah would resign his presidency in 1969 to take a federal position at United States Agency for International Development. In 1969, Blanche Martin was sworn in as the first black member of the MSU Board of Trustees and in 1970, just five years after

the fair housing debate, Clifton Wharton would be named president of MSU, the first black president of a major university. Thelma Evans would be appointed to the East Lansing City Council in 1973 becoming the first black in that post.


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