Professor Aerni-Flessner's Malcolm X in Greater Lansing proseminar explores place, oral history, and local history

Story by RCAH student Christina Igl.

This semester in RCAH, students in Dr. John Aerni-Flessner’s proseminar course have been exploring themes such as place, oral history, and local history, focusing specifically on Malcolm X in Greater Lansing. Since August, the class has invited three guest speakers to share their personal and family histories.

Dr. Robert L. Green, former Dean of MSU’s College of Urban Development, spoke about his experiences working on housing integration in East Lansing and working with Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as the Education Director. Deborah Jones, niece of Malcolm X, also came to speak on how Malcolm’s extended family influenced him and how the Little family has continued to fight for justice after his death.

The last speaker of this semester was Bill Castanier, City Pulse author and president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. Castanier graduated from MSU in 1973 and was on campus for many protests, marches, demonstrations, and rallies. He currently researches and records information about MSU during the 60s and 70s, among other topics.

Castanier shared many stories and information with students through his presentation about radicalism on campus. According to Castanier, “Snyder-Phillips was the place where everything started,” because it was the home of the Justin Morrill College, a hotbed of activism on campus. Castanier estimates 8,000 to 10,000 students, or about a quarter of the student body, were involved in the largest of the peace marches in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

While MSU was considered progressive at the time on some fronts such as race and war, they were still traditional in regard to gender and dress. MSU professors took a particularly progressive stance in regard to the draft. Castanier said, “There were a lot of very sympathetic professors who would give you an A just to keep you out of the draft.” Additionally, MSU President John Hannah paid out of pocket for the tuition of Ernest Green, the first African American student to attend MSU.

During the same time, under In loco parentis, students had to follow a strict, formal dress code, they had a curfew of 10 p.m., and MSU was a dry campus, in addition to many other restrictions. MSU took the role of acting as a parent would very seriously. For example, 60 women were confined to their rooms for 12 weeks as punishment for staying out past curfew.

Castanier also reflected on how his peers viewed their activism in retrospect. He said “Whether or not we accomplished anything, we had to believe we did.” Many alumni involved in radicalism on campus chose careers in public service such as education, public policy, public interest law and more.

Dr. Aerni-Flessner values the opportunity for his students to hear these personal histories because it teaches them to listen critically, pulling in previous knowledge from class readings. The family history and first person narrative techniques further vary the styles of communication students get exposed to in the classroom and it “breaks the routine” of the normal class period.

The larger goal of the proseminar is to think about why place matters. Through the guest speakers and rest of the curriculum, students have to respond to the narratives they think they know and evaluate them in conjuncture with these new first-hand accounts of national history and history of the Lansing area.

The class will culminate in a final creative project and paper. Students will be creating a model of a piece of public art, such as a memorial or commemoration, that asks an audience to think critically about the place where historical events took place. Then students will use the skills they learned in class to discuss what their creation means in regard to place, why they created it, how different groups in the community may view it, and how they made the final piece. Through their final projects, students will show how local histories impact both the place, and how the history of that place affects the present time.