The Mustache Affair in Grand Rapids, as reported on by the Commercial Media in 1966

(Special Thanks to the Grand Rapids Public Library and the Grand Rapids City Archives for assisting with finding the material sources here.)

Chapter 4 of Todd Robinson’s important and insightful book, A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, focuses on what he calls the Mustache Saga.

The Mustache Saga is really about students, particularly black students asserting themselves around changing school policy and developing greater political and cultural consciousness.

In the mid-1960s, the black community in Grand Rapids and across the nation, was organizing for more rights, more freedom and more power. It is within this context that the Mustache Saga takes place.

The Grand Rapids Public Schools were faced with greater segregation and other inequities in the local school system. The Grand Rapids Press ran a piece as early as 1962 about dropout rates amongst African American students, with the article placing all of the blame on those students and parents. (See pages 1 & 2 in the document GRPS Mustache Saga

Beginning with the 1966 school year, we begin to see students engaged in their own forms of resistance, that were both political and cultural. Responding to an increased crackdown on dress code and appearance, some students protested these standards growing mustaches.

This resistance culminated on November 15, with a student walkout, involving at least 400 GRPS students from South High and joining them were several GVSU students, along with adults from the black community. (see pages 3 – 9

The Grand Rapids School Board spent most of their meeting on November 16, 1966 discussing the matter. You can read the proceedings from that meeting at this link

One other example of local media coverage of the Mustache Saga was an editorial from WOOD TV 8, which also ran on November 16, 1966. The editorial was condescending towards students and demonstrated a clear racial bias on the matter. We are posting the editorial since it is important to read in its entirety.

Lastly, it should be noted that this student led resistance to GRPS school policy was part of the growing anger and frustration that a growing number in the black community were experiencing, which eventually erupted in July 1967, after GR police officers abused and arrested black youth. That incident led to 3 days of rioting, which we have written about. This July will be the 50th anniversary of the race riot in Grand Rapids.

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A Legacy of Pride and Struggle in the Grand Rapids LGBTQ Community

This week Pride celebrations are happening all across the globe. These celebrations are rooted in the Stonewall riot that took place in the summer of 1969.

Pride celebrations have evolved over the years and many believe that it has become more of opportunity for corporations to target “gay consumers” and for the more privileged sectors of the LGBTQ community to minimize the past and current realities of those whom the Stonewall riot owes its legacy, specifically the trans and queer communities of color.

The history of the LGBTQ community in Grand Rapids is presented in the 2011 documentary we produced. The film involved interviewing over 70 people, collecting archival material and conducting an analysis of the way in which commercial media reported on this struggle.

The first Pride Celebration took place in 1988 in downtown Grand Rapids at the Monroe Amphitheater (now Rosa Parks Circle). Someone filmed the event and preserved the historic event, which you can watch below.

While the LGBTQ struggle in Grand Rapids was in no way as radical as it was in New York or San Francisco, the struggle has been very real here and it is important to honor the sacrifices that people made to fight against the hyper-religious and homophobic climate that existed and still exists in West Michigan.

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Student Protests and an Unruly Audience: Earth Day 1970 in Grand Rapids

Earth Day activities were planned across the country on April 22, 1970. Grand Rapids was also included in those communities that celebrated Earth Day.

Based on articles from the Grand Rapids Press, there were three separate activities that received attention in Grand Rapids. 

In the afternoon, there was an event with song and signs on the Calder Plaza, with the featured speaker being Rep. Guy VanderJagt, a Republican from Cadillac. The comments by VanderJagt, as reported in the Grand Rapids Press, spoke of the urgency to take action. However, the representative from Cadillac framed the environmental urgency in terms of how much people would be willing to pay in taxes to get clean air and clean water.

There was also a large community event, with an estimated 1,500 people in attendance at the Civic Auditorium in the evening. The event featured images on the big screen, musicians and speakers.

Senator Philip Hart got the biggest applause from the audience, according to the Press. Hart spoke about not separating humanity from nature and that the “drive to save the environment” will outlast recent crusades such as those of civil rights and the war on poverty.

At one point the image of Vice President Spiro Agnew appeared on the screen, which received a lot of boos from the audience. Representative Gerald Ford spoke, and he too received boos, shouted comments about the war in Vietnam and sometimes loud stamping of feet.

Ford’s comments, according to the GR Press, were limited to personal sacrifices, consumer dollars and taxes. Ford also suggested we “reduce pollution from the internal combustion engine.” He claimed that President Nixon, along with the private sector, would be creating a “virtually pollution-free automobile within five years.”

There were a whole list of other speakers, including representatives from business, the faith community and non-profits.

The other major activity that people took part in on Earth Day in Grand Rapids in 1970, was a protest organized by students from the Grand Rapids Junior College.

Students chose to protest at a meat factory, because of the pollution the business was emitting as a result of how the company cured the meat. The factory had been the target of complaints from neighbors for years because of the pollution.

The owner of the business was cited as saying that he was in the process of addressing the air pollution, but didn’t know what kind of timetable there would be to address the issue.

This last action, organized by students, is more reflective of the kinds of actions people were taking across the country, which focused attention on corporate pollution or structural pollution. In fact, in its early years, Earth Day actions were either to engage in collective projects that would promote ecological integrity or to confront those most responsible for environmental destruction, the corporate/industrial sectors.

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Celebrating the Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike of 1911: Lessons for contemporary organizing and resistance

On April 19, it will be 106 years since hundreds of furniture workers walked off the job in Grand Rapids protesting working conditions, wages and the lack of an 8 hour work day. 

We have been researching this historic event over the years and want to offer the following information for those who want to familiarize themselves with this history, learn from it and think about the significance of working class tactics for todays organizing efforts.

First we highly recommend Jeffrey Kleiman’s book, Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids.

In addition, on the Grand Rapids People’s History site, we have written or republished numerous articles based on our own research over the years as it relates to the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture workers strike.

First is a two-part article written by Michael Johnston, who is know by many as the unofficial labor historian of Grand Rapids. In Part I of his two-part series, Johnston provides important historical context, a context that led to the massive worker walkout on April 19 of 1911.

In Part II, Johnston writes about the role that the IWW (industrial Workers of the World) played in the 1911 strike and how the local power structure and even many of the other unions saw them as a threat.

We also include in this primer on the 1911 furniture workers strike, some articles about other factors that played into the outcome of the strike. First, we look at the role of religion and how Christian Reformed Church members were told not to participate in the strike, while the Catholic Bishop at the time was in full support of the striking workers.

Then there are those who documented the strike at the time. We wrote a piece that contrasted the observations of Viva Flaherty, a socialist, who provides a great reflection on what happened during the 1911 strike, and how one of the Furniture barons (R. W. Irwin) documented what took place.

In another article we have written, we note that there were 10,000 workers marching in the Labor Day parade in 1911. Not only was this an impressive number of workers, but it was essentially about 10% of the entire population of Grand Rapids in 1911. Imagine if 10% of working class people took part in a contemporary Labor Day parade or action.

In yet another piece, we contrast the living conditions of those in the capitalist class – the Furniture Factory owners – and those who actually created the wealth for these men – the furniture workers.

Lastly, we include an article about the backlash from the 1911 furniture workers strike. The capitalist class was not happy about the 1911 strike, even though they ended up winning. However, those in power are never content with just winning certain battles, they want to prevent future attempts to challenge their power. What the Robber Baron class did was to change the City Charter, which resulted in decreasing the number of city wards to just 3 and eliminating a strong mayor position. The result of this charter change would make it harder for working class people to have real representation on the city commission and to make the mayor a glorified commissioner.

Again, it is important that we come to terms with understanding this local history, reflecting on it and thinking about what it means for current struggles against the power structure in Grand Rapids.

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #12 – the struggle for LGBTQ equality in West Michigan

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

This print is by Amelia Cleveland and focuses on the history of the LGBTQ community in Grand Rapids. The print is based on two aspects of the local LGBTQ history. First, the Mayor of Grand Rapids in 1988 was Gerald Helmholt, who refused to endorse the first Pride Celebration in this community. Interestingly enough, in the following year, the Mayor of Holland sent a letter of endorsement of the Pride Celebration in Grand Rapids, even though most people would have considered Grand Rapids to be the more progressive community.

The print by Amelia Cleveland juxtaposes these two very different responses from two elected officials in West Michigan. For more details on this history go to this link

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Interview with Odawa War & Peace Chief 1993

This posting is based on an interview from the independent newspaper, The Fundamentalist in the summer of 1993. The entire interview is linked in the posting, but a summary is what we are providing.

One of the co-editors of the Fundamentalist newspaper conducted an interview with the Odawa War & Peace Chief, known as Black Eagle. To those of us who knew him, we called him Pine.

Pine participated in part of the 1988 Walk for Disarmament in Michigan, which began at the south part of the Mackinac Bridge.

According to one news report, Black Eagle would refuse to drive with a Michigan drivers license, because he wanted to continually challenge the ongoing treaty violations. Around the same time that the interview with Black Eagle was conducted, he was in the process of finishing a book that, “amassed evidence he thinks proves that the 19th Century treaties between Ottawas and Chippewas (he prefers the more traditional names Odawa and Ojibway) and the United States are false or forgeries. He also argues that the 1924 act of Congress making Indians U.S. citizens and the 1943 Indian Reorganization Act, which recognized various tribes, are unconstitutional.” 

One quote from the interview is very revealing. It states:

Pine puts the problem of tribal councils forcefully: “The earth is being destroyed and polluted, and tribal councils are taking part in signing leases to multinationals through the US bureaucracy. Tribal councils have nothing to support the Anishinaabe way of life, but when election time comes around, they are very quick to put on the mask of tradition.”

To read the entire interview, go here

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #11 – Animal Rights Movement in West Michigan

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

This print is by Erin Eastham and it focuses on the 1990s Animal Rights/Animal Liberation Movement in West Michigan, know as West Michigan for Animals. The print specifically draws attention to the anti-vivisection organizing being done by the group and focuses on a former school teacher Dick Mercer, who was integral to the anti-vivisection organizing.

For more articles and interviews with people involved in the local animal rights movement, click here.

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