John Sinclair, the Icon and the Man

[1] Ann Arbor resident, Marsha Rabideau, holding the White Panther Party flag at 1520 Hill Street
In 1968, the White Panther Party emerged as a radical group that emphasized counterculture of the period that would eventually raise enough political power to draw the attention of FBI counter-intelligence. Established as the counterpart to Huey Newton and Bobby Seale’s Black Panther party, it was considered a dangerous left-wing activist organization with intent to confront culture and combat it by any means necessary. However, its rise to power would not have been as effective if not for one of the most influential countercultural leaders of the sixties John Sinclair, who is considered a living symbol of revolutionary action.

Early Life

[2] Picture of John Sinclair taken in 1969, a year after starting the White Panther Party as an offshoot of the Black Panther Party
His early life demonstrates an educated background as a member of the class of 1960 at Albion College in Albion, Michigan. After one year, he dropped out and instead attended the currently named University of Michigan-Flint where he graduated from in 1964. Sinclair began his activism as a member of an underground newspaper known as the Fifth Estate known for its politically and socially radical standpoint [5]. It was during this time that Sinclair also developed a taste for free jazz which led to his beliefs in the power of music. As a freedom seeker in 1968, he along with Leni Sinclair and Lawrence “Pun” Plamondon created an anti-racist political group in response to a statement by Black Panther’s Huey Newton about forming their own party that would allow white people to support the Black Panthers. Sinclair’s motivation to bring about cultural revolution gathered the masses making him one of the most influential countercultural leaders in 1968.

Activism in 1968

[3] MC5 poster designed by Gary Grimshaw with the White Panther Party’s symbol in the center
During the turmoil of 1968, Sinclair was a known poet, writer, and political activist that had a passion for music. Inspired by the Black Panther Party’s policies, The White Panther party advocated action against the state with claims such as abolishment of standard currency, true equality with no racial barriers, free sexual behavior and substance use, and many more that would theoretically give power to the common masses [6]. The party’s rising popularity was in part due to a band managed by Sinclair at this time called MC5 that campaigned for the White Panthers. Under his guidance, MC5 embraced Sinclair’s revolutionary politics performing at anti-war rallies such as the anti-Vietnam rally broken up at the 1968 Democratic National Convention [7]. However, some individuals without the same conviction and revolutionary spirit as Sinclair strayed away from the White Panther’s political agenda, including the members of MC5. Sinclair’s actions grew more radical over time, including an attack on the CIA. John Sinclair, while serving his legendary 10 year sentence for possession of marijuana, was charged for a bombing that occurred at the CIA recruitment office located at Ann Arbor [8]. The White Panther Party saw this as the government trying to shut down the party due to the threat of its nature and thus support for John Sinclair rose. These events would lead to Sinclair being remembered as a revolutionary among revolutionaries, rallying the people under a banner defined by its militant actions seeking to overturn a political agenda in the pursuit of Sinclair’s definition of freedom.

Aftermath: Where is Sinclair Today?

[4] Recent image of John Sinclair now remembered as an influential revolutionary and activist of his time

Sinclair continues his practices as a poet and a writer to this day. In his own time he also makes radio shows and broadcasts on a website called Radio Free Amsterdam [9]. A blog interview taken by an anonymous individual sought to hear Sinclair’s claims on freedom as they were in 1968. However, he now claims to have been wrong about a lot in 1968. Sinclair did not regret the things he stood for but rather meant that things have changed and that he would no longer stand by some of the stuff he said, such as how music was a weapon of revolution since now he sees it as a tool of oppression. He even has a statement that if he could go back he would. Another interview with The Guardian revealed Sinclair’s thoughts on his own idea of revolution [10]. The interviewers asked when his revolutionary dream died:

“Early 1975. That’s when the movement folded. President Nixon was removed from office, the Vietnam war ended, and it seemed everybody went back to their day jobs. I didn’t have a day job and I didn’t want one, so I became a poet and a community activist again.”

Sinclair, John

While the article may be four years old, it still demonstrates that over at least 46 years his ideology has changed with age. He rarely thinks of the past because he sees no good in focusing on things that can never change. Nevertheless, he still recognizes revolution as a constant in the nation as there will always be individuals who act only to change society.

Sinclair in Memory

John Sinclair has shown that he remembers his role in 1968 differently from the public. People remember Sinclair the icon, not the man. His memory is captured in his actions that can be traced back to White Panther speeches, rallies, and banners. Sinclair was admired for his actions and courage to defy norms, and therefore he is conveniently remembered as an influential figure in public memory. It is this circulation of recollection among members of a community that believe in the White Panther’s mission that create Sinclair’s falsified image as documented by the John Sinclair Foundation in Amsterdam, Holland. Public memory of John Sinclair shows that people remember his deeds as a revolutionary activist, form ways to record his history from a collective interpretation of the past, but forget him in his late age and his opinions of his place in 1968 in an attempt to preserve his past image as the founder of the White Panther Party.

– Tyler Robertson


Works Cited

[7] Blobaum, Dean. “Chicago ’68.” Chicago ’68: Myths of Chicago ’68, 2010, chicago68.com/c68myths.html

[5] “Fifth Estate Records (1967-2016, Bulk 1982-1999).” M Library Special Collections Research Center Finding Aids, Fifth Estate, quod.lib.umich.edu/s/sclead/umich-scl-fifthestate?view=text

[3] Grimshaw, Gary. “MC5 White Panther Poster.” Lofty. https://www.lofty.com/products/aor-2-227-mc5-white-panther-poster-1-7llzp

[4] Hieber, Glenn. “Modern image of John Sinclair.” The Ann Arbor News, http://www.annarbor.com/news/40-years-of-hash-bash-marijuana-festival-that-started-in-early-1970s-still-going-strong-in-ann-arbor/

[9] “Now, An Intimate Conversation With John Sinclair.” The Bigfoot Diaries, thebigfootdiaries.blogspot.com/2014/09/now-intimate-conversation-with-john.html

[10] O’Hagan, Sean. “John Sinclair: ‘We Wanted to Kick Ass – and Raise Consciousness’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Mar. 2014, www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/mar/03/john-sinclair-rock-revolutionary-mc5-interview

[6] Sinclair, John. “Luminist Archives.” White Panther Party Program, www.luminist.org/archives/wpp.htm

[2] Sinclair, Leni. “John Sinclair, circa 1969,” The Ann Arbor Chronicle, http://annarborchronicle.com/2009/12/27/the-day-a-beatle-came-to-town/

[1] Sinclair, Leni. “Marsha Rabideau at 1520 Hill Street.” Ann Arbor District Library, aadl.org/freeingjohnsinclair/leni_sinclair_0015

[8] Zbrozek, Christopher. “The Bombing of the A2 CIA Office.” The Michigan Daily, 24 Oct. 2016, https://www.michigandaily.com/content/bombing-a2-cia-office