Michigan Activist John Sinclair Dies at 82

The southeast Michigan native was most known for his support of the Civil Rights movement and marijuana legalization.
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John Sinclair smiles as he looks out of his apartment window on Sept. 8, 2022 in Downtown Detroit. // Photograph by Jenifer Veloso.

Iconic Detroit writer and activist John Sinclair died on Tuesday morning at the age of 82 after spending two weeks at DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital for declining health. His cause of death was congestive heart failure, his publicist told the Detroit News.

According to the Detroit Historical Society, Sinclair, who was born in Flint in October of 1941, was a poet, performer, author, and activist during the Psychedelic Era of the ‘60s. He graduated from the University of Michigan – Flint in 1964 and had a stint at Wayne State University before becoming involved with the Detroit underground paper Fifth Estate.

An advocate for his art, Sinclair served as the manager for MC5, a rock band from Lincoln Park, between 1966 and 1969, and was well-known for his support of the Civil Rights movement, having co-founded the anti-racist White Panther Party, which worked alongside the Black Panther Party, as well as his work to legalize marijuana in Michigan.

Sinclair was busted for marijuana three times in three years, according to the Detroit Free Press, and in 1969, was famously sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of two joints. This caused unrest among his supporters and big names in the music industry who headed to Ann Arbor to protest the punishment in December of 1971.

This protest, known as the “Freedom Rally,” took place at Crisler Arena (now Crisler Center) and included performances by John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, and others, along with appearances by Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party; poet and writer Allen Ginsberg; and activist Rennie Davis, all of whom spoke at the rally.

This rally would eventually be used as inspiration for Ann Arbor’s annual Hash Bash, according to the Detroit News.

Shortly after, he was released from prison and continued to appeal his case until March of 1972 when the Supreme Court ruled that the law used to imprison him — a 1952 law classifying marijuana as a narcotic — was unconstitutional and developed a new and less-strict law. His work helped pave the way for the legalization of marijuana in the state, which officially happened in 2018.

“We wanted free, legal backyard marijuana — that was our slogan,” Sinclair told Hour Detroit during an interview in 2022. “It was rough. It started in 1962, and it took us 60 years. It’s been a long time.”

Sinclair is survived by his wife Patricia, whom he married in 1989; his two daughters Celia and Sunny from his marriage with Leni Sinclair, his ex-wife and co-founder of the White Panther Party; and a granddaughter.

To read Hour Detroit’s 2022 interview with John Sinclair, click here, and find even more community news at hourdetroit.com.