On this day in 1971: Ann Arbor rally held for ‘political prisoner’ John Sinclair 

By: - December 10, 2021 5:13 am

John Sinclair, January 2019 | Ken Coleman

For John Sinclair, the Dec. 10, 1971, rally to support his release from state prison was a seminal event in his life. 

It was there that an enthusiastic crowd of more than 15,000 packed Crisler Arena on the University of Michigan campus to protest his conviction for marijuana possession.

For months, people had been chanting and writing “Free John Sinclair”  letters to newspapers. 

Not long after the breakup of the Beatles, iconic rock music star John Lennon attended the Ann Arbor rally, performing a song called “It Ain’t Fair, John Sinclair” that included lyrics: 

The John Sinclair Foundation photo

“They gave him 10 for two

And what else can the judges do?

They gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,

Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta set him free.”

IStevie Wonder, Phil Ochs and Bob Seger performed, too. Black Panther Bobby Seale attended, as did poet Allen Ginsberg.

“It felt good. I needed every ounce of that support,” recalled Sinclair, now 80.

As an activist during the 1960s, the University of Michigan-Flint graduate had advocated for marijuana reform and protest to end the Vietnam War. His poetry, music and advocacy made him an enemy of the GOP President Richard Nixon administration. 

He was arrested on Jan. 24, 1967, and later sentenced two years to 9.5 to 10 years in Jackson prison for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. He gave the cigarettes to an undercover Detroit police officer named Jane Mumford Lovelace, according to a Nov. 6, 1971, Detroit Free Press story. 

Some referred to Sinclair as a political prisoner. Sinclair’s legal supporters included Blacks and whites such as Justin Ravitz, a Jewish attorney and future local judge, and a law firm that included Robert Millender, an African American partner.  

Tom Maliszewski had just turned 21 when he attended the concert as a Eastern Michigan University student. The Clinton Township resident took notice of Sinclair because of his affiliation with Rainbow People’s Party, an ultra-liberal organization. 

“It was a political lockup,” Maliszewski, who now leads a Detroit-based general contracting firm, told the Advance on Tuesday. 

Breakthrough legislation leads to freedom  

Sinclair served about 29 months of the sentence when there was a breakthrough. In bipartisan fashion, the Michigan House and Senate completed legislation on Dec. 9, 1971 — the day before the rally — that sharply reduced penalties for marijuana offenses.

Freshman House member and future governor John Engler, then a 23-year-old Republican from Mt. Pleasant, voted for it. So did Jack Faxon, a liberal Democratic state senator from Detroit.

Then-Gov. William Milliken, a moderate Republican, called the legislation “an enlightened approach that will lead to more effective enforcement.” He signed legislation later that month that made “use” of the drug a misdemeanor offense subject to a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $100 fine. It was far more lenient than the existing law, which carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine for first conviction. A second offender could get a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Within days, Sinclair was freed on Dec. 13, 1971, and reunited with his family, which included his wife, Leni, and young daughters, Sunny, 4, and Celia, 2.   

The Michigan Supreme Court denied that the Crisler Arena rally had anything to do with his release.

“It was strictly a matter of the court’s response to the reduced penalty for marijuana recently passed by the state Legislature,” a court spokesman was quoted as saying in a Detroit Free Press report at the time.

The John Sinclair Foundation photo

Fifty years later, Sinclair remains angry about the situation. He said that there are still far too many people who have been convicted, sentenced and jailed for marijuana possession.  

“It was bullshit,” he told the Advance on Monday about his case in the 1960s. “And even now, you have thousands of people in prison right now, even in Michigan.”

In 2008, Michigan voters legalized medical marijuana. A decade later, another ballot measure passed legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use. But activists have continued to press for more reforms.

In 2019, Sinclair and a group of pro-cannabis groups challenged the Michigan Board of Pharmacy and its chair, Nichole Cover, seeking to remove the body’s continued listing of marijuana as a controlled substance under state law. Sinclair has called the listing “extremely erroneous.”

A celebration of the 1971 rally will be held on Friday in Detroit at Ralston Holistic Healing Center and Stonehouse Bar, 19730 Ralston St. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.