Civil rights leader returns to CMU

Dr. Gene Ragland investigated housing discrimination in the 1960s

| Author: Jeff Johnston

A figure from Central Michigan University history, alum Dr. Gene Ragland, returned to campus Oct. 24 for a guest lecture.

In 1965, the editor of Central Michigan Life enlisted Ragland, the white Student Body vice president and president of the Student Senate, and Cecil Rice, a black student-athlete, to apply for housing from CMU’s list of approved off-campus housing.

Rice visited potential landlords on the list, followed later in the day by Ragland. Ten of 15 landlords denied Rice housing, while all approved Ragland as a renter. The resulting front-page story led the Board of Trustees to add to university policy a nondiscrimination clause for off-campus housing.

The story launched during a period of civil rights activity both in town and on campus.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in housing, employment and education among other provisions. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was still being drafted and fought for in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voter registration drives — efforts that led to marches, confrontations, and too often violent and deadly use of force against peacefully assembled people.

Selma, Alabama, is almost 1,000 miles from Mount Pleasant, but “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, coincided with Mount Pleasant’s first civil rights march, organized by clergy who called it “Penitence and Witness.” About 350 clergy, students, faculty and residents attended. Thirty black students held their own silent protest march through every building and dorm on campus the same day.

Student Body President Joe Sweeney said at the clergy march, “We need not go to Selma. We need not even go to Detroit to find out why we are here. Mount Pleasant is the issue, Selma merely the occasion.”

Ragland continued to advocate for equity and recently was awarded the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award. His career as an emergency medical specialist contributed to its recognition as a specialty. He also served as a clinical instructor at the University of Michigan and was founder and chair of the College of Health Professions Advisory Board at CMU. Dr. Ragland founded the first in-state program for physicians’ health called the Physicians Wellness Committee.

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