The story of Detroit’s White Panther movement, the MC5, the F.B.I., and how John Lennon helped free leader John Sinclair
By Benjamin Munday
As difficult as it is to believe from walking the mean and mostly deserted streets of Detroit in 2017, the Motor City has an affluent, incendiary, revolutionary and highly influential history in the spread-eagled worlds of politics, business, the underworld, social activism and, of course, music. And it is there, with the wild, and once distantly separated worlds of those last two virtues, activism and music, that we begin our story.
Founded in 1966 by black nationalists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense very quickly sunk its claws into Detroit’s counterculture by gaining the sympathy and loyalty of a vast number of that city’s poor and downtrodden black population. As membership numbers across the U.S.A. rapidly spread, so too did Black Panther notoriety, mantra, and above all else, militance. So much so, that by 1968, leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, George Jackson and Stokely Carmichael, all had heavy-hitting governmental bureaus like J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. on their tales. By 1969, a paranoid, recently sworn in Nixon government had thousands of private homes and establishments wiretapped and under 24-hour surveillance, with the sole intention of bringing down an increasingly effective and socially just Black Panther Party.
Enter one John Sinclair.
After hearing a radio interview with party founder Huey Newton, whose call to action for downtrodden white people to join forces with the Panthers under a separate and independent banner raised the hairs on the necks of thousands of listeners, John Sinclair, a poet, political activist, and charismatic revolutionary from Flint, Michigan, rallied a number of close associates to form what would later be known as the White Panther Party. Among Sinclair’s associates at the time was a rag-tag group of scraggly young musicians from one of the poorest areas of Detroit, who were attempting to use any means possible to escape the slum hell of their existences.
These musicians were Rob Tyner, Fred Smith, Wayne Kramer, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson. They proved to be the perfect blueprint of the very type of downtrodden white folk that the influential Huey Newton had been searching for—unemployed, broke, wasting away on drugs and booze, and most important, young and passionate. It didn’t take much for Sinclair to convince the young men to join him in his assault on the American establishment. And, once they did, for a short period at least, they ruled the Detroit underground. The MC5 (formerly Motor City 5) became their collective name, and little did they know it at the time, they would become one of the most important and crucially influential rock groups ever to be formed.
The White Panther ideology was simple and concise; anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and through socialistic virtues they would “fight for a clean planet and the freedom of political prisoners” such as prominent Black Panther, George Jackson. Throughout its fledgling early days, due to its somewhat double-edged moniker, the party was often mistaken for a white supremacist movement, similar to that of the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Brotherhood. But it wouldn’t take long for the assumers to be put back in their respective places.
John Sinclair, a born leader and naturally charismatic, soon took on the role as MC5’s manager, perceptively seeing the newly formed group as the perfect vessel to spread the word of both the White and Black Panther parties. Front-man Rob Tyner, in particular, with his wild afro and distinct voice, became both the face and mouthpiece of the movement, screaming passionate and preacher-like stage incantations in between lyrically radical and sonically blasted songs.
“The White Panther party is a total assault on culture by any means necessary, including rock ‘n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets. Rob Tyner is the perfect frontman for all three.”
– John Sinclair, 1969
By the time the MC5 was ready to record their first album, themselves, and the White Panthers, had gained such a following not just in Detroit, but all along America’s East Coast and across the Midwest, that it was decided in order to capture the passion, sound and tension of the times, the debut release would be a live one, something that to this day is still relatively unheard of.
Notoriety claimed its fair portion of the group as well, with the F.B.I. launching an investigation into the White Panther’s movements, hinging even the most minor of infractions on hopefully landing John Sinclair, fellow founder Pun Plamondon, or any one of the MC5 members in prison.
Jerry Duprey was a teenager in Detroit in the late 1960s and was a regular attendant at MC5 gigs. He kindly regaled The Low Road with quite the collection of anecdotes of the time: “I remember at one show, I think it was at the Hideout on North & 14, two guys in suits were going around the crowd busting kids for smoking pot and then turning them loose only once they had given information on John Sinclair and his lifestyle. Man, these motherfuckers didn’t even bother going undercover! They wanted Sinclair to know full well that they were coming for him.”
The live recording of the MC5’s debut album, performed at Detroit’s infamous Grande Ballroom, captured the very heart and essence of a much needed and growing radical movement that shook the American establishment to its very core. All of a sudden, the police, and a growing list of corrupt politicians were the ones being watched; as they broke up black communities with unnecessary force and violence, as they planted dope on influential counter-revolutionary leaders who could ruin many a top dog’s career, and as they moved in night after night to close down any rock concert that was deemed to be involved in promoting either the White or Black Panthers. There’s one thing that the police do not like, and that is to be held accountable. The merging of the two anti-racism parties ensured that that was exactly what occurred.
Kick Out the Jams became the voice of those tense and politically upheaving times, and right from track one, the positively satirical “Ramblin’ Rose,” the listener can hear the Grande Ballroom dripping with sweat, dope smoke, anger, frustration and social revolution. Rob Tyner, as directed by the puppeteering John Sinclair, played his role to the letter; part charismatic rock singer, part preacher to the wretched and downtrodden. At the introduction of a new song, Tyner wouldn’t simply utter a few cliched words. Instead, he would rally his troops with raw-edged and powerful manifestos that fired up a weary crowd as much as it angered the police and security stalking the venue at the time. This is how he introduced the song “Motor City is Burning”: “Brothers and sisters, I wanna tell you somethin’! I hear a lot of talk, by a lot of honkies, sittin’ on a lot of money, tellin’ me they’re high society! But I want you to know somethin’, if you ask me, this is the high society! This is the high society!”
However though, like with so many countercultural revolutionaries of the day, the F.B.I. were forced to fabricate a set of trumped up charges in order to wipe Sinclair from the streets and break the backbone of the White Panthers. In the end, with John Sinclair being a vocal and proud marijuana advocate, his captors simply added a list of far-fetched charges to go with his drug misdemeanours. It was enough to send Sinclair to prison for a very long time. Eventually, he was sentenced to ten years after giving two joints to an undercover police officer; an offense that only yielded a twelve month sentence in Detroit at that time. Ten years for two became a popular war chant in the angering streets.
Now, with prominent Black Panthers Huey Newton, George Jackson, Bobby Hutton and John Huggins either dead or incarcerated, and with civil rights pioneers Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X recently assassinated, the White Panther party, with their own leader now imprisoned, quickly became a rudderless ship and began to lose all control. Just as the party itself, along with the MC5, were on the cusp of something huge, something that may have changed America, or at least the state of Michigan for the better, they broke down and tore apart. Without their influential, poetic, and charismatic leader running the show and restricted to the solitary world of prison isolation for the next decade, the White Panthers had no structure, little swagger, and a raspy voice. Being from the mean streets of an impoverished Detroit, the MC5 boys were clueless as to how to manage their own affairs, and with the influx of other up and coming rock groups like Iggy & the Stooges and Alice Cooper, they were simply swallowed whole and eventually could not obtain a venue booking.
The band did go on to release two more albums; 1970’s Back in the U.S.A. and the following year’s High Time, but neither were a match for the incendiary nature of that famous debut release. By 1972, the five original members went their separate ways as the excesses and decadence of the early 70s glam rock movement took over. The group’s split served as yet another savage blow for the White Panther movement who had simply failed to regain traction after the arrest of their leader.
Meanwhile, the arrest and sentence of John Sinclair was proving to become a major distraction for those in the party left to run the operation. Immediately after his imprisonment, a series of violent protests broke out in the streets of Detroit and other major cities, demanding the immediate release of the political prisoner. These protests gathered major news headlines and prompted many celebrities to lead the cause for his release. All efforts failed dismally. That is until a rock ‘n roll megastar became involved.
Sitting in his New York apartment, an angered John Lennon had had enough. Throughout his time in America, he and partner Yoko Ono had seen and heard of terrible injustices and brutal beatings and murders of innocent civilians at the hands of an over-zealous government. Upon hearing of the ongoing and unjust plight of White Panther leader John Sinclair, John and Yoko decided to make a beeline to the heat of the battle, Motor City Detroit.
In December 1971, after an increase in violent protests, the John Sinclair Freedom Rally was held in nearby Ann Arbor with Lennon as the main drawcard and protagonist. Several other top line musicians, writers and artists gathered and spoke and performed on behalf of Sinclair, including Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, Bob Seger, Allen Ginsberg and the Fugs’ Ed Sanders. Of the keynote countercultural speakers, one was Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.
But it was John Lennon spoke that the people who mattered decided to finally listen. Three days later, as Sinclair and his lawyer Leonard Weinglass were appealing the harsh 10-year sentence in front of the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court, John Sinclair was suddenly released from prison and all charges were eventually dropped. He had served two years, a good portion of that time in solitary confinement. The landmark Supreme Court decision to free John Sinclair is now a famous footnote in legal study theses and is known as United States vs U.S. District Court.
But it was the powerful word and heavy influence of perhaps the greatest rock ‘n’ roll musician to have ever lived that had the final say, and convinced the relevant authorities enough into thinking that an even bigger revolution would eventuate if Sinclair were to be kept locked up. In a nutshell, the establishment panicked, and Sinclair and dozens of other political prisoners involved with the White and Black Panthers were released.
By then, for the White Panthers at least, it was far too late. Too much water had flowed under the bridge. By the mid-1970s, the White Panthers had fizzled into irrelevancy. In the early 1980s, the party disbanded altogether.
But the template had been set. Through the symbiotic fusing of John Sinclair’s activist philosophies and the MC5’s rock ‘n’ roll ethic, the platform was laid for many similar marriages to come. By the late 1970s, punk had worked its way into human consciousness, and with the music came a serious political edge that harked back to Detroit in the late 1960s. From there, outspoken acts such as the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Crass and MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) ensured that the status quo would remain from now until the end; activism and social ideals fighting for what’s fair and righteous will forever hold a place in the heart of the most effective voice that could ever be gifted to any uprising generation—rock ‘n’ roll.
“If he’d been a soldier man
Shooting gooks in Vietnam
If he was the C.I.A.
Selling dope and making hay
He’d be free, they’d let him be
Like you and me”
– John Lennon (From the song John Sinclair)
This piece was adapted from a longer post by Benjamin Munday on his blog The Low Road