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Iconic images of student activism on U-M’s campus from the 1960s include photos of JFK outlining what would become the Peace Corps to more than 10,000 students on the steps of the Michigan Union, impassioned protests against the Vietnam War, and a rally on Hatcher Library’s steps the morning after the nation’s first teach-in, which had been held in Angell Hall. Even a casual glance through these images makes one thing clear—the students at U-M, including the activists, were overwhelmingly white.
The lack of diversity at U-M at the time did not go unnoticed. In 1962, after a federal investigation found evidence of a substantial racial bias, the University was urged to improve integration throughout its programs. In response, President Harlan Hatcher created and charged a committee to find ways to accomplish this goal, and the committee proposed the Opportunity Award Program (OAP), which launched in 1964.
OAP aimed to increase diversity at U-M by actively recruiting and admitting underrepresented students, offering financial aid, and providing support services such as advising and tutoring. In its first year, OAP admitted 70 students. By 1969, the number had climbed to 229.
The executive director of the Center for Educational Outreach at U-M, William (Nick) Collins (A.B. 1970, M.A. ’72, Ph.D. ’75), was one of 86 students OAP admitted in its third year. Collins’s was the first generation with access to TV, so, as a sophomore in high school, he’d watched the backlash to integration efforts in the South from his living room. Before he graduated from high school, both Malcolm X and JFK had been assassinated, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Collins and his cohort arrived on campus in 1966.
“There were very few black students on campus,” Collins recalls. “We pretty much stuck together because there weren’t many of us. I would guess there might have been around 300 black students on the entire campus.”
In the fall of 1967, Arthur Thurnau Professor of Psychology J. Frank Yates (M.A. 1969, Ph.D. ’71) came to U-M as a graduate student in the Department of Psychology. That summer, there had been race riots in cities across the country, including Detroit. In addition to his classes and research, Yates wanted to get involved. He joined the Black Student Union (BSU), which was one of the black student organizations active on campus.
Black studies programs were becoming popular on college campuses, and the BSU wanted to bring one to U-M.
“As is common with organizations — especially student organizations — and particularly in that era where there was a lot of talk, you just don’t have a lot of time to waste,” Yates explains. “Out of desperation I took on the responsibility of writing a draft of a proposal. And once we had a document, we decided we might as well use it. In the language of the day I suppose we probably said, ‘We demand a black studies program.’ And, surprisingly, LSA said OK.”
Other campus proposals that focused on black student admissions, enrollment, and financial aid were not embraced as readily. Between 1964 and 1969, black student enrollment had climbed from 2 percent to 3.4 percent of the total student body. The BSU argued the target should be 10 percent, which was proportional to the state of Michigan.
“The University’s answers to our proposals were always no,” Yates said. “Their argument in almost every case was, ‘We can’t afford it.’ Things hit a wall at the end of 1969, and we decided we should march and protest.”