This morning, as an assignment for my American Culture class, I had the great fortune of attending a panel discussion at the Michigan Union, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the of the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally.” Among people speaking on this panel were members of the White Panther Party, which was a prominent activist socialist group based in Ann Arbor. However, the focus of the panel was none other than John Sinclair himself, a Detroit Poet, and the founder of the White Panther Party.
Sinclair was quite the unique character. He dominated most of the discussion, often interrupting and speaking over others in the panel, and spoke freely about his drug use back in the day, his hatred of Republicans and the myriad of failures of the government. What interested me most was his , as well as others on the panel, recap of the events surrounding the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally.” With our recent discussion of Thoreau and civil disobedience, I felt it was necessary to highlight this event , which in so many ways embodies Thoreau’s ideals. Also, I thought it was extremely cool that it took place right here in Ann Arbor.
In 1969, Sinclair was arrested, for what he said was just two marijuana joints, and he was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in Prison. This event sparked a huge uproar that eventually led to, in 1971, the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” a huge concert and rally that took place at the Crisler Arena. Among people that showed were famous artists and activists of the time, like Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsburg and no one more famous then John Lennon himself. The panel mentioned how amazing it was for Lennon to show, because he had recently broken up with the Beatles and at the same time was facing a deportation crisis with the American Government. Even the head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover wrote a letter to the organizers of the rally trying to stop it. This attempt proved futile as the rally went on as planed, with John Lennon and all.
The aftermath of this event is quite fascinating. Just three days after the rally, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the Michigan marijuana law unconstitutional and Sinclair subsequently was released from prison. I found this to extremely amazing how just this rally in Ann Arbor, was able to get a Michigan law reversed in just three days.
Additionally, it was fascinating to hear the panel talk about other times living in Ann Arbor in the 60’s. The spoke how they were able live in almost complete freedom, experimenting with drugs and protesting the wrongs of the day despite countless run ins with the cops, the government and even sometimes the FBI. Furthermore, it was interesting to hear how all of them were still extremely fed up with the government and still stay active in trying to change what they see is wrong with it.
In so many ways did the people present in this panel discussion represent the ideals of Thoreau’s civil disobedience. They had their notions of what was wrong with the government and not only did they not choose to participate in these wrongs, they took steps to actively organize each other and takes steps to make changes. Even though they were not always successful, in many instances like the ” John Sinclair Freedom Rally, ” they were. All in all, it was inspiring to hear these people talk about these times, and I don’t think my brief summary does it any real justice, but I believe there will be a recording of it which I will try to post as soon as it comes available. In the mean here is a clip from the of John Lennon at the festival singing a song he wrote about John Sinclair.