“You Have to Believe in Change…”

by Published: Feb 17, 2010

John Matlock, Associate Vice Provost at the University of Michigan

John Matlock and Ronald Snead were at the cen­ter of two civil rights demon­stra­tions in the spring of 1969 that changed Ferris, and them, for years to come.

There were two major demon­stra­tions at Ferris; one occurred when the Starr build­ing was taken over by a sit-in group and the other was a riot in the park­ing lot near Brophy and McNerney res­i­dence halls.  Both ended in mul­ti­ple arrests.

Matlock arrived at Ferris as a 22-year-old fresh­man who had pre­vi­ously worked in a fac­tory in his home­town of Detroit. Snead came in as a 24-year-old with a wife and two kids. Neither had expe­ri­enced or par­tic­i­pated in the kind of activism that would soon sur­round them and shape the rest of their lives.

In early March of 1969, the first of the two major inci­dents occurred. More than 200 black stu­dents staged a sit-in at the Starr Building, all of whom were arrested by state troop­ers for tres­pass­ing. The Big Rapids jail could not han­dle the num­bers arrested, so some had to be housed in the Light Guard Armory, accord­ing to Matlock.

“We knew that we were going to get arrested…nothing hap­pened until 9 o’clock when the build­ing offi­cially closed and state police came,” said Matlock.

While being held in the armory, din­ing ser­vices had to come in and feed the stu­dents. The charges were dropped for all of those arrested in early March. A few months later, the sec­ond major inci­dent occurred.

On May 20, a riot broke out in the park­ing lot near Brophy and McNerney where glass was smashed, bricks and bot­tles were thrown and around 33 cars were damaged.

Ron Snead, Ferris Alumnus and Trustee

Snead was informed by the then vice pres­i­dent of stu­dent affairs that there was com­mo­tion in the park­ing lot near Brophy and McNerney halls. Upon arriv­ing at the scene, Snead saw what was going on and quickly called his father and told him to call the state troop­ers. Snead, along with nine other stu­dents, was sub­se­quently arrested.

“The pres­i­dent at the time, [Victor] Spathelf, came down and inter­viewed me and wanted to know why I was there. I told him that I had been asked by the vice pres­i­dent of stu­dent affairs to go down and try to help break it up and when I saw how bad it was, I called my dad and he called the state troop­ers,” said Snead.

Nine of the stu­dents arrested that night were kicked out of school, Snead being the only one who was exonerated.

This inci­dent had a major impact on both Snead and Matlock. There were no major riots or demon­stra­tions after that spring, and these two stu­dents were inspired to make an impact through other forms of involvement.

Matlock became the edi­tor in chief of the Torch, while Snead became the vice pres­i­dent of stu­dent gov­ern­ment. Jerry Nielsen, the pres­i­dent of stu­dent gov­ern­ment, helped Snead in a cam­paign where rib­bons were given out that read, “I’ve HAD it! Let’s start liv­ing and work­ing together NOW!”

Matlock was the first and only black edi­tor in chief of the Torch in Ferris his­tory.  While at Ferris and work­ing for the Torch, one of Matlock’s major influ­ences was jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor and Torch advi­sor John MacNamara.

“The ques­tion that was raised to me by Jack MacNamara was, ‘Now that you had your protest, what’s next?’  He was a strong believer that peo­ple should get involved,” said Matlock.

In regards to han­dling the riots that occurred, MacNamara said, “The impor­tant thing, as far as I was con­cerned, was to not be a fire brand for either side.”

MacNamara also worked with two other black stu­dents who were involved in the demon­stra­tions and were edi­tors at the Torch. Marvin Raglon was the sports edi­tor and Fred Weston was the fea­ture editor.

Having these expe­ri­ences at Ferris had a major impact on the life of both Matlock and Snead. They have been close friends ever since and still talk quite often. The two were also fra­ter­nity broth­ers while in school.

“[Ferris] gave me some confidence…and I thought that we were will­ing to work to make the school a bet­ter place,” said Snead.

Both Matlock and Snead believe the value that activism has and how it is not as preva­lent today as it was back then.

“The issues were jus­ti­fied; it was the thing to do. For a lot of stu­dents it was the first time they had taken a stand on some­thing, and the sol­i­dar­ity was extremely impor­tant,” said Matlock. “Activism is a life-long thing. You have to believe in change and you have to be will­ing to be a part of change. In life you can’t just be some­body who stands on the side and just watches life go by, you have to really believe that you can make a difference.”

Upon grad­u­at­ing from Ferris, Matlock worked for both Congressman Conyers from Detroit and Congressman Ford from Tennessee. While with Conyers, Matlock worked along­side Rosa Parks on a daily basis.

Matlock went on from Ferris to get a Master’s degree in jour­nal­ism and a doc­tor­ate in higher edu­ca­tion. He is cur­rently the Associate Vice Provost at the University of Michigan.

Snead is now retired and liv­ing in Grand Rapids. He is a trustee at Ferris and has kept very close ties to the university.

The activism and change that occurred on the Ferris cam­pus in that fate­ful spring of 1969 changed the cul­ture of the Ferris com­mu­nity. Matlock said that he saw peo­ple become more sen­si­tive to civil rights issues.

Matlock said, “My major advice [to stu­dents] would be to respect and honor the past and those who came before, the sac­ri­fices that were made…you can’t just live off of other people’s accom­plish­ments, there is a legacy or cir­cle that every gen­er­a­tion has to be a part of.”

Various headlines regarding the events and aftermath of racial tensions on Ferris' campus and Snead's campaign ribbon (far right) for Student Government. Images courtesy FSU Archives. Web graphic by Brandon Martinez/FSU Torch Web Editor

Various head­lines regard­ing the events at Ferris State and Snead’s cam­paign rib­bon (far right). Images Courtesy FSU Archives, Web Graphic by Brandon Martinez/FSU Torch Web Editor

  • Facebook User

    40 years after civil right activism right here at Ferris.…

  • Andrew Finnerty

    What was the sit in for? The arti­cle doesn’t say. What changed after the sit in? If noth­ing changed, was it effec­tive? Was Ferris being dis­crim­i­na­tory somehow?

    What was the riot over?

    What’s the spec­u­la­tions for the rea­sons these things don’t hap­pen anymore?

  • Ron Snead

    Andrew, The sit in was to protest that there were no minor­ity fac­ulty or staff at Ferris.
    After the sit in, a minor­ity coun­selor was hired, and the school opened their hir­ing prac­tices to minori­ties. The riot was over a flier that was cir­cu­lated with racially defam­a­torty lan­guage, and that minor­ity females were being threat­ened. The minor­ity stu­dents felt Ferris was being dis­crim­i­na­tory in their hir­ing prac­tices. I do not under­stand your last ques­tion regard­ing spec­u­la­tion that these things don’t hap­pen again.

  • Aletha Muhammad

    Mr. Snead your efforts as well as your peers are appre­ci­ated. As a fresh­man at FSU in 2000, I can still remem­ber there only being four African American pro­fes­sors on cam­pus. However, through the efforts of those like you and cur­rent cam­pus lead­ers like Matt Chaney and Dr. Pilgrim FSU is still work­ing dili­gently to pro­mote and improve cam­pus diver­sity. I am cur­rently a grad­u­ate stu­dent in the coehs and I can remem­ber racial ten­sion being rather high when I returned for grad school in 2007. Still we had inci­dences of a noose being hung on a bed in a dorm, a cam­pus inci­dent report describ­ing sus­pects as hav­ing African American fea­tures, and there was even a cam­pus wide con­tro­versy regard­ing stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions with black in their titles. Even in my day, which included the first few years of the cen­tury, issues of race were still quite ram­pant to say the least. I myself was a part of a peti­tion to boy­cott the FSU Torch after an arti­cle depict­ing a black stu­dent with a gold chain water­melon and eat­ing fried chicken appeared on the front page. As a grad­u­ate of the U of M I am grate­ful as well as hope­ful that lead­ers like you from FSU are tak­ing a mes­sage of tol­er­ance with you and bring­ing the
    to my Alma mater. I am also thank­ful that you all had the courage and dig­nity to open doors for gen­er­a­tions of all stu­dents from all back­grounds to attend FSU. Just know that your pur­pose still lives on. I believe Andrew is cor­rect, I wish the arti­cle would have went into more depth about the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the sit ins and boycotts.

  • Ron Snead

    Thank you Aletha. I believe a more in depth arti­cle will be forth­com­ing in the future. There is a link on the Ferris web site chron­i­cling what tran­spired. It is a com­pi­la­tion of arti­cle and let­ters that my wife kept. I will put that link in my next reply.

  • Ron Snead
  • Nancy Tomakich

    It still exists…the prej­u­dice and hatred…perhaps it is not as overt as it was in the late sixties..early sev­en­ties when I was a nurs­ing stu­dent at FSU…but it is alive and rears it’s ugly head..maybe more discreetly…but still there.

  • Andrew Finnerty

    Student Handbook: Students rights:

    7. Peacefully protest, demon­strate, or picket as long as it does not dis­turb the func­tions or oper­a­tions of the University.

    I think the Starr Building protest would have vio­lated this as it “dis­turbed the nor­mal func­tion.” I am not say­ing it wasn’t jus­ti­fied — but I’m curi­ous what the tip­ping point for jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is when it comes to “dis­turb­ing nor­mal func­tions.” If there is a tip­ping point with a clear line — should that be part of our stu­dent rights? If it hadn’t dis­turbed a nor­mal func­tion would it have not brought enough atten­tion to the situation?

    My vague ques­tion (oops) con­cerns why activism isn’t as preva­lent today. Technology aside, the fact that there are sev­eral things/distractions that keep us from mak­ing effec­tive change in our environments.

    My sec­ond con­cern is the hir­ing of minor­ity teach­ers. Regardless of race, from what I am aware of, the stu­dents do not have a say in who gets con­sid­ered for posi­tions at Ferris. Are these guide­lines in place now? Can stu­dents sit in and voice opin­ion about poten­tial pro­fes­sors? If not (or if so) is it because the cur­rent fac­ulty wants this — or is it because it has become some law built into the char­ter — requir­ing a stu­dent panel for new hires based off some cri­te­ria (senior sta­tus, etc).