In February 1972, US Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the controversial Southern politician who years before had run for the presidency on a platform of racial segregation — a Republican who had defected from the Democratic ranks in 1964 — sent a memo to Attorney General John Mitchell declaring that John Lennon, the former Beatle, posed a serious threat to the re-election of Republican President Richard Nixon. Thurmond’s reasoning was that Lennon, an outspoken critic of both the Nixon Administration and its continuing involvement in Vietnam Nam, was a forceful enough voice among the nation’s young people that he might persuade the majority of America’s youth to vote against Nixon in the upcoming elections. Notably, the United States had just lowered its voting age to 18, opening the way for a new generation of citizens to become actively involved in the political scene.
What apparently set Thurmond off was John Lennon’s appearance at a December 1971 rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in support of John Sinclair – cultural revolutionary, confessed pothead and chairman of the Rainbow People’s Party of Ann Arbor, Michigan – who at that time was confined to the state prison in Jackson, Michigan, serving a ten-year sentence for the possession two joints’ worth of marihuana – a sentence stemming from a trial marked by numerous irregularities.
“The powers-that-be in Michigan had it in for me,” said Sinclair. “They didn’t like what we were doing, establishing an alternative community, defying their authority, smoking grass. They fixed on me because I was the most outspoken, and also because somehow I was successful in bringing young people around to my way of thinking.”
Even those who weren’t quite as certain of Sinclair’s blamelessness agreed that ten years in prison for possession of two joints was an unusually severe sentence — and more than likely politically motivated.
Following the sentencing, a request for an appeal was denied, and in 1969 the 27-year-old activist was transported directly to a maximum-security prison.
In the coming months Sinclair’s wife, Leni, and his brother David worked tirelessly for his release, organizing benefit concerts, demonstrations and rallies. Wherever possible they enlisted the aid of sympathetic movement celebrities – renowned beat poet Allen Ginsberg, actress-turned-activist Jane Fonda, hippie provocateur Abbie Hoffman – who gained international notoriety when he attempted to win support for Sinclair at the massive alternative culture lovefest Woodstock, grabbing the microphone during the set of the seminal rock band The Who, for which he earned him a bump on the head, courtesy of Pete Townshend’s guitar. But after two years of diligent effort, they were no closer to orchestrating Sinclair’s release.
In the summer of 1971, the Sinclairs decided to stage a massive benefit to draw attention to the cause, and with the help of sympathetic student organizations at the University of Michigan were able to secure the use of the school’s recently constructed Crisler Arena for a December 10 rally. Miraculously, Jerry Rubin, the noted American social activist, had convinced John Lennon and Yoko Ono to perform at the benefit. Lennon sign a contract for $500 to appear; he crossed out his name on the bottom line and put in its place, “To be donated to the John Sinclair Freedom Fund.”
Following the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, Lennon had performed in public on only a handful of occasions, so his agreement to appear at the 1971 rally was a major coup. Since his Beatles’ days, Lennon – who had moved with Yoko to New York City in 1971 — had become famously involved in political activism, campaigning against war and injustice by devising peace-themed “happenings” with Yoko – and encouraging his fans to follow suit. At the time of his agreement to perform at the Sinclair rally he was in the midst of planning an “anti-Nixon tour” that would travel across the U.S. during the summer of ’72, winding up at San Diego, California, at the Republican National Convention in August.
The University of Michigan event was massive, with the stadium’s overflowing audience of thousands rallying behind the music of Stevie Wonder, Bob Segar and Phil Ochs, along with speakers ranging from Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale to radical priest Father James Groppi. John and Yoko didn’t take the stage until around three in the morning, more than two hours behind schedule, but the acoustic set was nonetheless mesmerizing. Backed by a minimal band, the couple sang about the Attica uprising, about the conflict in Northern Ireland, about women’s liberation and finally about Sinclair himself in a song specially penned for the event. “It ain’t fair, John Sinclair,” Lennon sang, “In the stir for breathing air/Won’t you care for John Sinclair?/In the stir for breathing air/They gave him ten for two/What else can Judge Colombo do?/Gotta set him free.”
Seventy-two hours after the rally’s beginning, John Sinclair was set free.
The significance of the occurrence did not elude Strom Thurmond, who realized the potential of John Lennon’s voice to change the political landscape of America. Alerted to Lennon’s plans for his anti-Nixon tour – and its possibilities for mobilizing the youth vote against the president’s re-election, not to mention the sizeable amounts of donations that could be raised to disrupt Nixon’s idea of an orderly America – he urged Attorney General Mitchell to take action. He suggested that Lennon’s 1968 conviction of a misdemeanor charge of cannabis possession in London could justify the move, since US immigration law at the time banned the admission of anyone convicted of any drug offense.
The following month the US Immigration and Naturalization Service began a four-year effort to deport Lennon. The move brought nationwide protest. Later that year in 1972, Bob Dylan would write a letter to the INS defending Lennon, declaring:
“John and Yoko add a great voice and drive to the country’s so-called art institution. They inspire and transcend and stimulate and by doing so, only help others to see pure light and in doing that, put an end to this dull taste of petty commercialism which is being passed off as Artist Art by the overpowering mass media. Hurray for John and Yoko. Let them stay and live here and breathe. The country’s got plenty of room and space. Let John and Yoko stay!”
Despite the federal government’s efforts to forcibly remove Lennon from the United States, he continued his campaign of political activism, railing not only against US policies but international affairs, appearing on such mainstream American television programs as The Mike Douglas Show, singing overtly subversive songs as “The Luck of the Irish,” harshly criticizing British rule in Ireland.
Lennon would spend the next three and a half years in and out of deportation hearings until October 8, 1975, when a court barred the deportation attempt, stating “the courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds.”
Lennon’s application to remain a permanent resident of the US was granted in July 1976. Shortly after the court’s decision, Lennon posed in front of the Statue of Liberty for his now famous photograph, flashing the peace sign.
Four years later, on December 8, 1980, Lennon would be shot and killed outside of his New York City apartment.