“Don’t Worry, I’ve Got Your Back”

My University of Michigan Professor and Me

By R. L. McNeely, PhD, JD

Little did I know what an important role in my development would be played by that skinny, wiry, black-haired guy with the long Gorgeous George-style locks. It was in 1966 or ‘67, my sophomore year in college, that I encountered him at a demonstration I was participating in over the issue of married women being denied credit cards without their husbands’ consent. That demonstration took place at a mall that was just off U.S. 23 and midway between Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. I was a student at Eastern Michigan and that wiry black-haired guy, who seemed to be leading the demonstration, was John Erlich, a young assistant professor at U of M’s School of Social Work.

Imagine my surprise when, upon entering the School of Social Work, two years later, I was assigned to John as my academic advisor. That year, 1968, was the time of W.I.T.C.H, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, whose members were among the most fervent of the bra burners of the late 60s and early 70s. It was also the time of the White Panthers, who believed in publicly fornicating on the double yellow lines in the middle of major streets as a political act. And it was the time when some rock bands performed nude in city parks to throngs of university students and locals. One such park, where I witnessed a number of such performances, was right down the street from my flat on W. Huron St. Where did such activities take place? Why of course, it was none other than Ann Arbor of that era!

Ann Arbor was also the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society, although their mission, as endorsed and iterated in the “Port Huron Statement,” was actually ratified in Port Huron, Michigan. Ann Arbor, too, was the birthplace of BAM, the Black Action Movement, which sought to put more black faces on the campus of the University of Michigan.

Ah, distinctly, I remember it was a cold and brisk March during which we “feet on the ground” activists demonstrated each morning starting at 5 a.m. We were there early to ensure that the University stayed closed during our boycott. BAM’s demand was that U of M proceed expeditiously toward the goals of having ten percent African American enrollment, ten percent African American faculty and administrators, a Black Studies program, and a recruiter for Chicano students. The movement was given great strength when ASFCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), the union whose members staffed the student dining halls, stoked the university’s boilers, operated some of the university’s transit services, etc., voted to support the Strike. But I, personally, was given great support when one day, standing in the early-morning cold, someone walked up and stood back-to-back with me. Who was it? It was none other than John Erlich saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back!”

And indeed he did have my back on a number of occasions, not the least of which was the time I was confronted with a bigoted social work professor who was intent on giving me a lesser grade than I deserved. Accompanied by my advisor, John, I remember telling that professor that I would come back to testify against him from wherever I might be if I ever heard of him victimizing a black student again. I felt very strong there with the support of my advisor, never realizing that my advisor was an untenured assistant professor and the bigot was a tenured full professor. Yikes! But, just as had been the case with BAM, where we students could claim victory, I was able to claim victory when the bigot agreed to give me the grade I deserved.

Tony Suh

But, the relationship with my professor didn’t end there. Along with experienced co-organizer and mentor Tony Suh, another University of Michigan community organization student (who locked the doors of some campus buildings with an allen wrench during the strike), we were able to shut down a Flint, Michigan high school that was notorious for its treatment of black students. Can you imagine that the school even authorized a youth group of the Ku Klux Klan as a legitimate student organization! This and many other racist practices were fully documented in 1971 by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission following our boycott and subsequent protests that lasted several months. This, too, was a victory, with an agreement being reached whereby a parent-student-teacher panel, not the school’s administrators, would be empowered to decide all matters of human relations within the school. In addition, the school’s administrators were demoted and transferred to other schools, the Flint Public Schools superintendent was forced to resign, and both black and Latino candidates were elected to the school board.

Prior to this successful effort, many of the school’s black students had been failing their general courses of study. One of our demands was that any student wishing to switch to college prep curricula would be so allowed. Remarkably, every single black student who moved to a college prep curriculum who previously had been failing on a general course ended up with no less than a 3.0 (“B” average) despite previous failures and having switched their courses of study in the middle of the semester. One powerful reason these students did so well was because when the boycott was going on they were participating in teach-ins proctored by University of Michigan faculty. In other words, they were learning that they could actually succeed when taught by college professors. And who do you suppose organized and coordinated the faculty who taught the teach-ins? Why of course, it was John Erlich.

One day, as I was contemplating a move to Seattle to become the Seattle Urban League’s (SUL) director of community organization, my phone rang. It was John. His message was terse and succinct. He said: “I’ve got some applications to Brandeis’s doctoral program here in my office and I want you to come down (to Ann Arbor), fill one out and send it in!” The statement was clearly in the imperative tense. Even though I could not imagine a nexus between myself and a doctoral program, I did what he said, but it was too late to apply for that year. So, a year after serving as the SUL’s director of community organization, where an agreement was secured from Seattle’s electric utility to hire minority group members and women in roles ranging from line workers to administrators, I ended up going to and graduating from Brandeis’s Heller School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare. Yes indeed, my professor certainly did have my back!

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R.L. McNeely is professor emeritus of social welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a practicing attorney. He has published books as well as numerous articles appearing in professional academic journals. He is a Research Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America and a former American Council on Education Fellow, he has testified before Congress, and he has served as a consultant for the U.S. Army. His work in the field of domestic violence inspired the NBC documentary, Of Macho and Men. He now serves as chair of the Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a board focused on the successful re-integration into society of formerly incarcerated individuals. He is listed in Who’s Who in Social Sciences Higher Education, Who’s Who in the Human Services, and Who’s Who in Aging.

John Erlich

John L. Erlich is professor emeritus of social work at California State University, Sacramento, as well as adjunct professor at Smith College School for Social Work. He has authored or co-authored eighteen books focusing on community work, diversity and social change. Formerly, he was community organizer, assistant director, and executive director of urban renewal projects in New York City from 1961–1965. While in New York, he integrated Harlem’s P.S. 175 with his two small daughters. He also played basketball for Columbia University from 1955–1959 and now occasionally coaches basketball at a settlement house and children’s institution.

Tony Suh is retired, having served both as the budget director for the City of Richmond, California, and for the Oakland (CA) Public Schools. During his early years, he worked organizing welfare recipients under the banner of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), and did anti-poverty work with the Genesee County, Michigan, Community Action Agency, and with the Urban League of Flint. At the University of Michigan, he received his M.S.W. degree in community organization and administration while serving as a teaching assistant and he participated in the BAM Strike by occupying university buildings as a form of protest. He now works as a volunteer serving as the treasurer of the Lamorinda (CA) Democratic Club.



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