On Feb. 2, 1996, Edward Swans, a 40-year-old African American man, died while in the Lansing City Jail. He was arrested and shackled after an attempted break-in. The 225-pound Swan was placed on his stomach in a holding cell and was under video surveillance. He died alone, unable to breathe.
Swan’s death precipitated the formation of March for Justice, a community group seeking justice and changes in the Lansing Police Department. March for Justice, founded and led by the late Rev. Lester Stone, longtime pastor at Friendship Baptist Church in Lansing, conducted several peaceful marches to denounce racism, police harassment and misconduct.
The first march, on September 28, 1996, traveled from Lansing Sexton High School to the State Capitol, where 1,000 marchers listened to speakers for 90 minutes. Stone then led several smaller marches to Lansing City Hall, pledging to keep marching until there was police reform. It was also the beginning of a contentious relationship with then Mayor David Hollister.
This was not the first time the African-American community responded to police harassment. In February of 1964, Richard Letts, director of the Lansing Human Relations Council, told a church group “many of the elements which foment race riots are present in Lansing.”
On Friday, June 19, 1964, a group of young African Americans coming home from a house party near Logan Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) were stopped by the police, according to George Davis, who was 17 at the time. Police reports say officers were responding to a fight at a party on Sycamore Street. One thing led to another and ultimately more than 700 mostly African Americans took to the street. Two police officers, including the police chief, received minor injuries. Seven men were arrested.
Davis said what happened that night was different from what was recorded in the newspaper. Davism who worked at the old Schmidt’s, a grocery store on St. Joseph Street, and remembers standing with others to prevent the store’s windows from being smashed. More than 130 police from area departments were called out.
A contemporaneous news article at the time said: “Hundreds of rioting Negroes resorted to mob violence on the city’s west side Friday night.”
The street in front of East Lansing City Hall was the site of a peaceful sit-in on May 24, 1965, resulting in the arrest of 59 community members, students and professors who were protesting the city’s refusal to take action on an open housing policy. At the time, MSU President John Hannah was head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He provided university buses to transport the prisoners to Ingham County Jail. The arrestees were represented by Stuart Dunnings, a Lansing attorney who had been retained by the Rev. John Duley and Frank Beeman, MSU professor and tennis coach.
On Aug. 7, 1966, an alleged fight on Washington Avenue on Lansing’s north side resulted in a much more serious disturbance than Lansing’s 1964 altercation. Throughout the night the disturbance escalated and more than 300 police officers were called in to assist Lansing Police. The disturbance continued the next night with a crowd of 200 youth being dispersed by tear gas, likely the first time it was used in Lansing.
At least four bystanders were injured by gunfire and two police vehicles were struck by what was called sniper fire. Twenty people, white and black, were arrested for charges including carrying weapons and shouting obscenities. A grocery store on Butler Boulevard was damaged and car windows at Sully’s Drive-In on W. Saginaw Street were broken.
Public officials blamed outside influencers for precipitating the riot, including so-called “night cruisers” who would drive to Lansing to “cruise the gut” on Washington Avenue. Some city leaders proposed the city should build a drag strip for the “cruisers.”
Lansing clergy played a prominent role in the riots, taking to the streets to calm the waters, and in subsequent meetings. Kenneth Faiver of Cristo Rey Church complained that police brutality “puts the officer in a deplorable image as far as the Negro is concerned.”
After a community meeting with Mayor Max Murningham, civic leaders and clergy, held after the first night of the disturbance, police stopped using bayonets for crowd control.
In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, a large group of African Americans peacefully marched to the Capitol, while more than 1,000 marchers led by Robert L. Green at Michigan State University peacefully honored the spiritual leader’s death.
These are only a sampling of race-related demonstrations held in the Lansing area. There are many more, including several actions by a group calling for MSU disinvestment in South Africa a demonstration led by MSU Student and member of the Little Rock Nine Ernie Green at an East Lansing Drug Store in the early 1960s, and several demonstrations and marches by Black Lives Matter.
(Bill Castanier, who is City Pulse’s book editor, is president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.)