“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).