The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part I

The Human Relations Commission (HRC) in Grand Rapids was created based on a study that was called for by then Grand Rapids Mayor Paul Goebel. This commission was established to, “foster mutual understanding and respect among all racial, religious and nationality groups in the City of Grand Rapids, and discouraging and preventing discriminatory practices among any such groups or any of its members.

The HRC was eliminated in 1968 and replaced by what is now called the Community Relations Commission (CRC). The HRC was founded right after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and was changed in 1968, just one year after the 1967 race riot in Grand Rapids.

The HRC, like the Community Relations Commission does some of its own investigation into policies and practices within the city and then makes recommendations based on their own findings or the prompting of other community-based groups.

For instance, in the early 1980s, people in Grand Rapids who were working on an South African Anti-Apartheid campaign, pressured the CRC to propose a resolution for the City Commission to divest from any holdings they had with companies doing business with South Africa. That proposal was adopted and beginning in 1984, the City of Grand Rapids began divesting from South Africa.

During the 1960s, the HRC was tested, as various movements, particularly the Freedom Movement (often referred to as the Civil Rights Movement) swept the country, including Grand Rapids. In 1976, a book was written by Lewis Clingman, entitled, The History of the Grand Rapids Human Relations Commission. What follows is a summary of one of the chapters from that book that dealt with the 1960s, particularly the Mustache incident, linked here

The head of the Human Relations Commission in 1966 was Mr. Eugene Sparrow. One thing that Sparrow was attempting to do was to have joint meetings between the HRC and the Grand Rapids City Commission. Mayor Sonneveldt was not a fan of this initiative and at the first joint meeting, the Mayor of Grand Rapids accused the HRC of attacking the local chapter of the John Birch Society, instead of preparing for the scheduled visit by former SNCC member and Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael.

Such a comment from the Mayor of Grand Rapids was instructive, since the John Birch Society believed that the civil rights movement was a Communist plot to overthrow the US government. Some members of the HRC did object to Sonneveldt’s accusation saying that it was the function of the HRC to combat extremism from all political sectors, whether it was from the left or the right. Clingman goes on to note that while there was police assigned to the Carmichael visit, there was no plan in place to deal with any potential violence coming from the John Birch Society, which had 2 chapters in Grand Rapids. 

In the summer of 1966, the Human Relations Commission decided to host a meeting in the community in an attempt to provide a more neutral environment for people in the community to speak freely about their concerns. A meeting was held at Campau School on August 22nd. People from the Black community were mostly upset with the student that was expelled because of facial hair.

Clingman goes on to discuss the growing tension at South High over what became known as the Mustache Affair. One interesting note in Clingman’s chapter, which referred to an article in the Grand Rapids Times, stated:

“the real issue was that the white majority, and many self-styled Negro leaders simply have not been in contact with the mass of the people in the Ghetto area.”

Clingman later makes the following observation:

In Part II of our look at Clingman’s book on the history of the HRC, we will explore his observations and documentation about the months leading up to, and including, the 1967 race riot.

This entry was posted in Civil Rights/Freedom Movement and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part I

  1. Pingback: The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part II | Grand Rapids People's History Project

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