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Feature: MSU Leadership Helped To Advance Civil Rights

  • Author:
    David Bailey
  • Published:
    Winter 2014


As MSU celebrates two major civil rights milestones in 2014, an award-winning cultural historian recounts how President John Hannah helped position MSU at the forefront of the nation’s postwar crusade for civil rights, both as university president and as the f first president of the U.S.Commission on Civil Rights.

On a wintery morning in 1979, I made my way to lunch at Kellogg Center. I had never seen East Lansing, but my Canadian indifference to temperatures above absolute zero meant that I walked across the beautiful campus and admired the way it glistened. My wife and I were being considered as potential faculty members, and the lunch gathered together economists For her and historians for me. I sat next to a man in a Hawaiian shirt, convinced that he could not possibly be an economist. I was wrong. My companion was the labor economist Charles Patrick Larrowe, known more commonly as “Lash.”

He asked me what I knew about John Hannah. Larrowe then began to explain what Hannah meant to the university. I only later came to understand that Larrowe had spent much of his time at Michigan State as a self-indentified thorn in Hannah’s side.

What I learned at that lunch, though, was that however much he disagreed with Hannah, Chuck (as he let his close friends call him) understood how important Hannah had been to the university they both loved.

My great good fortune continued when, just before Mary and I were taken to see Magic Johnson and friends play against Ohio State in a crucial game on the path to the national championship, we were hosted for dinner by (former MSU president and economics professor) Walter Adams. While Chuck had been warm and funny, Adams was demanding and challenging. I turned the conversation to Hannah. Adams began to tell what turned into a flood of stories. He and Chuck would continue to add tales of Hannah to our conversations for the next 20 years. I would not characterize these stories as precisely fan’s notes. They both had their issues with Hannah. What they both emphasized, though, is that the university was, in ways both huge and trivial, Hannah’s vision made manifest.

In these and other conversations, I wanted to know how Hannah dealt with the many waves of change that were then flowing through America. I knew about the Vietnam project, and recently my colleague Charles Keith has taken the lead in creating a digital archive of the project’s records, including material on Hannah’s role. My student David Murley wrote a brilliant dissertation on Hannah’s navigation through the shoals of the anticommunist crusade. David Thomas, in his important study of the Hannah years, Michigan State College: John Hannah and the Creation of a World University, 1926-1969 (MSU Press, 2008), does a wonderful job on the move into the Big Ten and the important Role Michigan State undertook in the transformation of college sports.

These were not, in large measure, the stories Larrowe and Adams wanted to tell me. They knew my work was focused on the history of America’s struggles over race. So they wanted me to understand Hannah as a figure of surprising importance in the greatest issue of his era—the postwar crusade for civil rights.

Hannah was born in Grand Rapids and while working in agriculture as a young man, he experienced relatively little of the complexity of American society. He made no major pronouncements on civil rights in his early years as president of Michigan State.

In fact, Hannah wasn’t much for grand statements, at least not in words. He preferred specific actions. In small, practical gestures, he signaled to the administration that the future of the university he imagined would have to include African Americans as part of the transformation he sought. One of his first directives after assuming the presidency in 1941 was to the administration of the residence halls. Black students, who had been forced to live in segregated halls would henceforth be housed throughout the general student population.

Hannah also made it clear that he would not tolerate discrimination in intercollegiate athletics. He supported the Recruitment of black athletes, at a time when the color line, as it was known, still held sway over much of college sports. When Biggie Munn recruited Willie Thrower as the first black quarterback at Michigan State, Hannah enthusiastically supported the decision. Thrower went on to become the first black quarterback in the NFL.

Walter Adams told a story that demonstrated how Hannah dealt with bigotry in athletics. Adams was a member of the Athletic Council in the 1950s, and he was outraged that African American members of the baseball team were not sent south for spring games with the rest of the squad. It was well understood that they would not be able to stay in the same hotels, nor could they play at the still segregated southern universities. Adams wanted to forbid the team from travelling south. The Athletic Council rejected his proposal. (He recalled they also voted to expunge his motion from the record.) Adams took the issue directly to President Hannah.

“Give me 24 hours to think about it,” Hannah answered. The next day he announced that from that day forward the team would only play on military bases in the south. Hannah had been assistant secretary of defense for a brief period in the Eisenhower administration, and his task was to finish the job of desegregating army bases. He used his special knowledge about the military and the troubling problem Adams brought to him and came up with a remarkable and unexpected solution. The team could play in the south and still remain together.

Hannah continued to deal with issues of the civil rights movement in his unique and personal manner, much the way He ran the university as a whole. The State News made a small investigation of the inability of black students to get a haircut in the student union barber shop. Hannah ended this practice by bringing a black student with him to the shop and insisting that they both needed a trim. The barbers had to decide whether they would continue their restrictive practice or listen to the president. They quickly gave in. It was a small gesture, but it was Hannah’s style. Take care of the small fires and the firestorm might never arrive.

The Civil Rights struggle was taking over America in the 1950s, with Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott only two of many great moments of confrontation. Congress had failed to deal with this, facing southern intransigence on any civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was at best a compromise bill. Many viewed it as weak and inadequate for the goal of integration and equal rights in America. One of its features was the creation of a Civil Rights Commission, which would have no enforcement authority, but which could travel around the country, providing opportunities for public discussion of segregation and discrimination. President Eisenhower wanted a serious leader for the Commission, but he also sought a chair who would not immediately elicit southern opposition. After several candidates failed the vetting process, John Hannah became Eisenhower’s choice. He was, in Ike’s view, “a good man.”

As always, Hannah took the position with great self-awareness. As he recalled in a later interview, he told the president, “I really didn’t know much about Civil Rights.” Ike responded that that was why he had been chosen. Hannah’s job was to learn from those who were suffering from discrimination and then explain their plight to the nation. Learning from experts was, indeed, one of Hannah’s greatest strengths. He had known nothing much about honors education when he established the Honors College. He was not a particular expert on football or basketball, yet he enjoyed a string of championships at Michigan State. Hannah’s skill as an administrator was that he trusted the system, and once again, he was given the rare opportunity to build a system, this time of investigation.

He was also extraordinarily fortunate in the decision to appoint Father Theodore Hesburgh to the commission. As Notre Dame’s president, Hesburgh shared some of Hannah’s views on the role of academic Leadership, although Hesburgh was politically much more liberal. At first, they may have been slight rivals, but Hesburgh learned quickly that Hannah was a brilliant tactician as well as a man of remarkable political skills. Many of the commission’s initial hearings in the south were held on military bases, again because the commission could avoid segregation laws. At one, in South Carolina, the black staff members were denied access to the officer’s quarters. “John Hannah blew a fuse,” Hesburgh later recalled. He immediately called President Eisenhower. As Hesburgh tells the story, Ike in turn got the general on the phone. “He said let me tell you something general if they don’t have room and board in the next five minutes, you’re going to be in Afghanistan tomorrow morning. Bang! And that was the end of that.”

Under Hannah’s leadership, the commission began to make proposals for changes in law, based upon the interviews and public forums he had led. By the 1960s, Hannah assumed President Kennedy would want to replace him with a Democrat, but the new president recognized that Hannah was using this commission in a way that built support for the great legal transformation that was to come. In his typically pragmatic view, Hannah insisted that “the commission made a record of the facts as they determined them to be and let the chips fall where the facts dictated.” He knew it was not in his power to change fixed opinions over the time he served on the commission. Instead, he wanted the commission to serve as “a conscience for the American people.”

Now as a national leader, Hannah faced the reality that Social changes of many kinds had come to Michigan State, some of them from the Civil Rights movement. One of the most difficult was the segregation of East Lansing housing. Through informal and formal means, real estate agents refused to show houses to African American buyers, including some of the new faculty recruited in the great transformative years of the 1950s and 60s on campus. David Dickson, a black scholar of literature with a Ph.D. from Harvard, had come to Michigan State in the 1940s. When he attempted to find housing near campus, he was always directed to inferior homes outside the city. Hannah intervened, according to Walter Adams, and arranged for Dickson to buy East Lansing property. Dickson later went on to become president at Montclair State College in New Jersey.

This was hardly a long-term solution. Hannah could not personally intervene each time a black family wanted to buy a house. Yet he preferred to work by changing the system or fixing abuses on a case-by-case basis. Young black activists, members of the campus NAACP, began to insist that he take more vigorous public positions on segregation and discrimination in Michigan. One of these students, Ernest Green, had been one of the children who had desegregated the Little Rock High School in 1957. He was invited, upon graduation to accept a full scholarship at Michigan State. He only later discovered that Hannah had personally paid for the scholarship. When Green received an honorary degree from Michigan State, he looked back with mixed feelings on this discovery, because he had led demonstrations demanding that The university take a stronger stance on civil rights issues. “I bet sometimes he looked out his window,” Green says, “and wished he could get his money back.”

Other activists pressed Hannah to take a stance on the whites only housing practice in East Lansing. Robert Green, an African American professor who was the central figure in the Center for Urban Affairs at Michigan State, recalled that he and several other concerned faculty went to Cowles House and convinced Hannah to issue a statement repudiating housing discrimination in East Lansing. After a long struggle and a crucial election, the city council finally passed a fair housing ordinance.

Perhaps Hannah was a somewhat reluctant activist on civil rights, as some of his critics insisted. Or perhaps he viewed his role as guiding the university and the community toward a gradual end of official bigotry. He would have insisted that the best way to judge an institution is not by what it says but what it does. Equally important, in his view of academic leadership, he believed that his personal opinions mattered less than those actions which advanced the cause of Michigan State, the state of Michigan, the country and the world.

David Bailey, MSU professor of history specializing in American cultural history, has won numerous teaching awards since joining the MSU faculty in 1979. A native of Canada, he graduated from SUNY-Buffalo and received his Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley.


In 2014, MSU will launch a year-long effort to commemorate, remember and explore the post-war American focus on civil and human rights. Project 60/50 will celebrate two transformative events—the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. The Topeka Board of Education, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—and will extend the conversation beyond these milestones to include a much broader perspective.

“At MSU we welcome a full spectrum of experiences, viewpoints and intellectual approaches because it enriches the conversation and benefits everyone, even as it challenges us to grow and think differently,” explains President Lou Anna K. Simon.

The conversation will involve faculty, students and the community, and include ground-breaking experiential activities and programs in support of the theme. Some planned activities include an educational conference, resource fair, museum displays, special concerts and musicals, law symposia, live and broadcast lectures and a commemorative march.

Project 60/50 is coordinated by the MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives.

For more information, visit