It was Tuesday, May 16, 1989. More than 100 students were sprawled out on the floor. They had been protesting for eight days and most hadn’t left the building during that time. These students were determined to have the school meet their demands.
Days earlier, on May 9, black student leaders and racial ethnic student aids from the Office of Black Affairs walked into the first floor of the Administration Building to protest the university’s passive treatment of blacks and minorities on campus. They remained there in a protest that many now call the ’89 Black Student Study-in.
The protest started after months of tension between MSU administration and racial ethnic minorities on campus. The protestors wanted more support from the university. Their demands included more students of color on Residence Life staff, hiring of more racial ethnic minorities to MSU’s faculty and expansion of racial ethnic programs including ethnic studies programs.
[black9] “Back then, there were certain offices for black students but there was a lack of voice,” Maggie Chen Hernandez said. “Some issues weren’t addressed.” Hernandez is the acting director of the Office of Racial Ethnic Student Affairs at MSU and had recently started working for the university when the ’89 study-in began. Some minority students found it difficult to live in the residence halls and felt no one at MSU was listening to their concerns, Hernandez said.
Sixteen years later, that protest will be commemorated in an event hosted by MSU’s Black Student Alliance. BSA will host “Reawakening a Black Activist Tradition: A Retrospect of the ’89 Study-in” on Sunday, Feb. 20 and Monday, Feb. 21 in the MSU Union gold rooms. The BSA worked with alumni to plan the commemoration, Tammy Coles, coordinator of African-American student affairs at MSU, said.
There will be a leadership conference and dinner at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, and Monday’s event will be a panel discussion about the protest at 7 p.m., Geneva Thomas, BSA president, said. About four people who participated in the study-in will be there to “talk about their motivation and tactics.” A documentary of the protest will also be shown.
“We will also discuss what we can do today for better treatment for black students,” Thomas said.
Thomas anticipates student involvement at the event, but also expects many other members of the MSU community to attend. “This should be a university and community-wide event,” Thomas said. “[The protest] affected the students, faculty and staff at MSU. Several faculty and staff were hired because of it.”
Hernandez said the original study-in was a “really heated and tense time.” Some students were unprepared for the protest to last as long as it did. “Their intention wasn’t to camp out. The intention was to make a statement,” Hernandez said.
During the study-in, friends of the demonstrators brought them homework and staff members of the Office of Black Affairs and other faculty brought meals, Hernandez said. But other than the coming and going of people familiar to the demonstrators, the first floor of the administration building was pretty much shut down, she said. “There were about 80 to 100 or more students in there at one point,” Hernandez said.
After eight days of protest and deliberation, MSU’s president at the time, John DiBiaggio, and administration agreed to 36 specific demands put forth by the demonstrators. Demands incorporated in the agreement included: more scholarships for black students, the appointment of a minority advisor to the provost, improvements to the Office of Minority Affairs and university-wide observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.
The impact the study-in had on the MSU community is one reason to commemorate it, Hernandez said. She added that many black students and other students of color don’t know it happened, but they benefit from the outcome now.
“It was so exiting because students were empowered,” Hernandez said. “It was a wonderful example of courageous activism at its best.”
Attending Black History Month events, such as the ’89 study-in retrospective on Feb. 20 and 21, is an important way to remember our progress with racism on campus and aim our sights on one day eliminating it. Take some time to commemorate yesterday’s activists by getting active today.

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