Episode 50: “A City Within A City” – The Mustache Saga

On this episode of the Antioch Podcast, we will be exploring the rise of black youth protest in Chapter 4 of A City Within A City. For those of you just joining us, we have been looking at the black freedom struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan from the first Great Migration to the present. Grand Rapids is a “second tier city”, a smaller city whose African American population addressed the racism it encountered in way which both mirrored, and diverged from, the broader struggle for civil rights in the United States. The unique signature of racism in this area, and area known for its many churches and Christian institutions, contains theological and church policy threads which which we are illuminating alongside the narrative provided in the historical narrative recorded by Todd E. Robinson in his book.

We pick up the story in the 1960’s outside South High, the formerly “elite” public High School which over time found itself on the edge of the red-lined neighborhoods in which African-Americans were forced to reside. One thing we know is true about racism: racism rarely disappears. Rather than being eradicated through the conviction of conscience and subsequent policy reforms, racism is more likely to re-invent itself to keep up with the times. American history is littered with examples of how racist policy changes in one aspect only: the use of language. Policies with racist effects began changing during this period from policies written in overt and offensive racist language, to more subtle coded language that still had the effect of legalized racial oppression. To the white person mildly aware of racial injustice, the language change may have seemed to be “progressive” or even “kind”, while maintaining the system of racial segregation intact. To African-Americans and other people of color, the change of language did nothing to address the compounded generational inequity created by the generations of racist policies of the broader white society.

In the case of South High, the form that racism took was in a strictly enforced school-wide dress code. At South High, where 30% of the students were African-American, the dress code was more rigidly interpreted, and more zealously enforced, than at any of the other – whiter – public high schools in the district. The school dress code covered skirts, shirts, slacks, socks, shoes and short hair, but did not set standards set for facial hair – short or otherwise. It was this policy that pushed one High School Senior, Cleo Cross, to decide he was not going to be pushed around any more. This incident became known as the “Mustache Saga”. His stand would briefly land him in the national spotlight, with the racism of Grand Rapids in his shadow. It was the first time that the managerial racism endemic to Grand Rapids was ineffective at a grand scale.

We will explore how this story unfolded, as well as explore some of the thinking – especially theological thinking – which may have been present in the white community which would have fed their complicity with racism.