Renowned Michigan activist, poet John Sinclair dies at 82

The Flint native was the founder of the Detroit Artists Workshop and the White Panther Party, among many other cultural and political projects.

John Sinclair, a central figure in Detroit’s 1960s and ’70s counterculture and political activism movements, died Tuesday morning at the age of 82.

His publicist, Matt Lee, confirmed with WDET on Tuesday that Sinclair died from congestive heart failure around 8 a.m. after an extended period of hospitalization at DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital.

The Flint native moved to Detroit in the early 1960s, establishing himself as a significant presence within alternative cultural circles. He was a founder of the Detroit Artists Workshop and the White Panther Party — created in solidarity with the Black Panthers to advocate for racial equality and social justice — among many other cultural and political projects.

Sinclair managed the influential Detroit rock band MC5, who became known for their politically charged performances, and himself released more than 25 records of his poetry, including several backed by his band of Blues Scholars.

He also was the host and producer of the WDET music show Blue Sensations from 1988-1991, and worked at Wayne State University as an adjunct professor of music history in the ’80s and ’90s.

Lee says Sinclair also became known for championing social causes like cannabis legalization, decades before it became law.

“So many of the causes that he championed years ago are so mainstream now and seem almost run-of-the-mill pedestrian, but he was definitely an old school beatnik where he became a cultural touchstone,” he said.


Listen: Ann Delisi spoke with John Sinclair in 2020 about the music and activism that define his revolutionary life and career.


In 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison after offering two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover police officer. In his appeals, which went all the way to the state Supreme Court, Sinclair argued that evidence against him was obtained through illegal entrapment and wiretapping.

In the landmark 1972 case — which garnered the support of John Lennon, among others — the court unanimously ruled in Sinclair’s favor, declaring that warrantless wiretapping is illegal. After serving two and a half years in prison, Sinclair was released — just a few days after Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and others performed at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, held at the University of Michigan’s Crisler Arena in protest of his imprisonment.

“They gave him 10 for two/What else can Judge Colombo do/We gotta set him free,” Lennon sang in “John Sinclair,” a song the ex-Beatle wrote that immortalized its subject.

Earlier in the night, Sinclair’s wife, Leni, had called her imprisoned husband, and the conversation between the couple and their 4-year-old daughter, Sunny, was amplified for the crowd, who chanted “Free John!”

“I’m trying to get home. I want to be with you,” a sobbing Sinclair told the crowd that night.

The day before the concert, the Michigan Legislature voted to reduce to a misdemeanor the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana, punishable by up to a year in prison. Because he already had served 2 1/2 years, Sinclair was released from prison three days after the concert.

After he was released, Sinclair continued his cannabis activism, going on to help decriminalize marijuana in Ann Arbor and launch the city’s annual Hash Bash celebration.

Lee says funeral arrangements are pending.

WDET’s Jenny Sherman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Amanda LeClaire
    Amanda LeClaire is an award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. She’s a founding producer of WDET’s flagship news talk show Detroit Today, and a former host/reporter for Arizona Public Media. Amanda is also an artist, certified intuitive and energy healer, and professional tarot reader.