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.
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.”