Ishpeming’s Long Hair Controversy

It is spring in the year 1970. US troops have recently invaded Cambodia. Anti-war protests continue to rage across the country as the credibility gap widens. The trial of the Chicago 7 fills the national news….

Meanwhile in Marquette County, controversy rages over the length of a boy’s hair….

It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? But for several weeks in 1970, the Marquette Mining Journal focused upon the haircut of a single individual. It began when Ishpeming High School valedictorian Steven Koenig was barred from commencement exercises due to the length of his hair. Several weeks of vitriol-filled editorials on both sides of the issue followed.

Many of the editorials supporting the school board sound like a parody of the classic curmudgeon-like, pro-Establishment 1960s parent as they extol the school board’s infinite virtues:

“This fine school board is now being taken to court because of a haircut. In their wisdom, this school board made the guidelines for apparel and length of hair…knowing from experience these fads can escalate out of control as in other schools. Most sad is the clergy condoning the action of the inequities of youth. In his defiance of the school board he acted against the teachings of Paul in the Holy Bible when he said you shall obey the authorities. All parents should guide their children in the study of the Gospel so that we might be spared the doubtful benefits of a ‘student demonstration’.”

There were many who seemed convinced that this was the beginning of the end of the decidedly non-counter-cultural UP:

“Maybe now they will realize the movement has hit the UP and will be well aware of what can happen. The first step is ‘Hair’, then to court, then, unless you stick to your convictions, your dress code will be abolished, acid rock concerts will flourish, underground newspapers will be daily news, obscenities the password, students striking in sympathy, senior high ‘bill of rights’, junior high ‘bill of rights’, abolishing discipline policy, etc….Just look at Ann Arbor. It can and will happen only if you allow it.”

Only weeks before the Koenig incident, the Supreme Court had ruled that public schools could not discipline students for hair length. Some Marquette County residents felt that this was due to loose parenting:

“It is a sad commentary on the state of parental authority when the length of a boy’s haircut has to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. One would think that our Supreme Court had more pressing issues to rule on and no doubt would if some parents did not shirk their responsibility of teaching the necessity of authority and law and order.”

Still, there were some who defended the abrogation of Steven’s personal freedom with impassioned speech:

“Under the existing code, my fellow German immigrant Albert Einstein, whose many virtues did not extend to the neatness or tapering of hair, would not have been permitted to attend the commencement program of this school either. Nor would he have wanted to do so.”

“Steven was not a truant…his hair was too long. Steven was not a protester…his hair was too long. Steven was not a failure in class work…his hair was too long. Steven dared to stand up for a principle…but his hair was too long. Steven was not a dope-user…his hair was too long.

“Dear Sir: My congratulations go to the principal and board of education at the Ishpeming high school, who with intelligence and forethought stopped a long-haired student from participating in graduation exercises. By rejecting him you have shown him that he is inferior to his short-haired classmates and totally unfit to live in our great society. Now we can only hope that the President and Congress follow in your steps by exiling all long-haired people: Jesus Christ, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Einstein, just to name a few. After all, isn’t it common knowledge that it’s not what’s inside someone which makes him a man but the length of his hair which makes him what he is.”

Ultimately, the hemming and hawing led to naught–Steven Koenig was still not allowed at his commencement ceremony, and the UP didn’t enter into an immoral, lawless age of abandon because of long-haired hooligans. One wonders what vicious debates now will seem silly to the next generation.

Written by Annika Peterson.

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