A forgotten story of youth in revolt
South Carolina students clashed with the National Guard in 1970. Do you remember?
There was a time when the ruling class could not depend upon the docility of Southern students to maintain the status quo on college campuses. That time may come again.
This week, with dissent regarding executive searches boiling over at the University of Mississippi and the University of South Carolina, I wanted to revisit a lesser-known moment of student activism at UofSC from May 1970, when students marched on campus carrying black crosses and National Guardsmen launched tear gas into the crowds.
The campus unrest at South Carolina’s flagship university is not the best-known or even the most important moment of student activism in the state’s history. That distinction probably goes to the February 1968 protests at the historically black South Carolina State University. Students there spoke out against a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg and clashed with state highway patrolmen, who fired into the crowd and killed three people in what is now known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
The activism at the University of South Carolina was less focused, met less violence, and had less of a lasting impact by comparison, although dozens were arrested. It was also overshadowed by national events of the same month. When it is mentioned at all, UofSC’s protest is often referred to as an aftershock of the Kent State Massacre just days prior.
I recently caught up with Brett Bursey, a key organizer of the student movement at UofSC in the late 1960s. Speaking to me over the phone, he was quick to point out that the protest wasn’t strictly a response to Kent State, and it wasn’t exclusively about the Vietnam War or the bombing of Cambodia.
“I think that we went into our movement, the civil rights movement segueing into the anti-war movement, with a more radical analysis. We looked for the causes … We were very clear and distinct in that we had a class analysis,” Bursey said.
A white graduate of a segregated high school in Beaufort County, Bursey quickly found his way into activist circles when he arrived on campus in 1968 and has been a fixture of radical Left politics in South Carolina ever since. By 1970 he had already been arrested for vandalizing a draft office and for burning a Confederate flag in front of the university president’s house (he still refers to himself as the oldest living Confederate prisoner of war).
By the time the tear gas started flying in May 1970, Bursey had been expelled and banned from the university campus, which sits on a hill at the center of the state capital’s downtown. He says he was standing at the edge of campus with a walkie-talkie as it all went down.
So what was the May 1970 campus clash really about, and what lessons can student activists take away from it today? I am honestly still doing my research on this, hoping to write at greater length on the subject near the 50-year anniversary in May 2020. Here is what I know so far.
One remarkable fact about the University of South Carolina protest was its broad base of support. More than just a small group of radical student activists, the big-tent movement grew to include traditionally conservative or apolitical elements, from student government representatives to party-loving fraternity brothers.
“Carolina was anything but in the forefront of radical political thought in the 1960s,” former student government member Jim Bradford told researcher Andrew Grose in a 2007 case study of the protest for the journal Peace & Change.
Bursey served as co-chair of AWARE, a group he describes as “left-liberal,” which had protested the university’s awarding of an honorary doctorate degree to Gen. William Westmoreland in 1967.
Following the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968, Bursey and other students organized an event to challenge the assumptions of students at their majority-white institution (an institution that, it should be noted, pioneered the use of standardized tests to exclude African-American students after desegregation). They called it White Awareness Week, and they invited speakers to explain the Black Power movement to a majority-white audience.
“It wasn’t a protest,” Bursey said. “It was an analysis.”
One precipitating event for broad-based unrest was a crackdown on an off-campus hangout, the UFO Coffeehouse, that served as a hub for GIs, radical activists, and conscientious objectors in the orbit of nearby Fort Jackson.
The Rolling Stone’s Robert Christgau traveled to the UFO Coffeehouse in 1968 to hear Phil Ochs play some songs there. The same year, a New York Times report noted that the coffeeshop drew an interracial crowd at a time when such crowds were rare in Columbia.
The state legislature’s Committee to Investigate Communist Activities in South Carolina — which, along with the FBI, was keeping tabs on AWARE and the coffeehouse — had this to say about the activism fomenting on and around college campuses in a 1970 report (again, I got this via Grose’s paper):
“a subversive force … [that] represents militant, nihilistic, and anarchistic forces … which threaten the orderly process of education as the forerunner of a more determined effort to destroy our economic, social, and political structures.”
Crackdowns began. In 1969, the university censured AWARE for bringing unapproved speakers onto campus, and by 1970 the group was banned from campus. In April 1970 the state successfully prosecuted the owners of the UFO; while the drug charges didn’t stick, the defendants were found guilty of maintaining a public nuisance and sentenced to six years in prison.
Without a home base, dissidents and students began meeting in the Russell House, the university’s mid-century-modernist student union. They referred to themselves as the “UFO in Exile.”
Fifth circuit solicitor John Foard, who had led the UFO Coffeehouse prosecution, turned his attention to the campus as police began conducting random drug raids using blank warrants known as “John Doe” warrants. University officials began randomly checking student identification cards to weed out “outside agitators.”
This was all happening in April and early May of 1970. By most accounts, the mood was tense.
And then National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds into a crowd of students at Kent State University on May 4. On May 5, a strike committee formed at the University of South Carolina, representing a broad swath of grievances and catalyzed by the violence in Ohio. They called for students to walk out of classes on May 7 and 8.
Grose writes that the Strike Committee included members of the traditionally conservative Student Senate, the Inter-Fraternity Council, a drug advocacy group called FREAK (Freedom to Research Every Aspect of Knowledge), the Association of Afro-American Students, the disbanded AWARE, the Student Mobilization Committee, the American Association of University Professors, and other unaffiliated students. It was a rainbow coalition if there ever was one.
On May 6, Columbia City Council released a statement to local TV stations: “City policemen will not hesitate to use their guns when necessary to put down lawlessness.”
On May 7, an estimated 500 protesters rallied on the Horseshoe with picket signs. Some reports say they carried black crosses bearing the names of Kent State shooting victims. Then they marched to the Russell House and held a sit-in.
When police showed up in riot gear, a swelling crowd of students formed a human chain to block them. The police forced their way through and arrested 41 students who refused to exit the building.
The next day, 1,000 students marched on the Statehouse demanding a pardon for the arrestees. On May 11, hundreds occupied the administration building, and some began vandalizing offices. In archival video footage of the aftermath, you can just make out a slogan scrawled on a white wall: “Up the Revolution! Foard is a Fascist Pig!!”
Night fell in Columbia. A crowd of thousands filled the streets, throwing rocks and bottles and vandalizing cars. Gov. Robert McNair, who had previously blamed the Orangeburg Massacre on Black Power activists, called in the National Guard. Unlike the highway patrolmen at Orangeburg, the guardsmen held their fire and launched tear gas into the crowd at UofSC instead.
“The gas unintentionally infiltrated the ventilation systems of several nearby dormitories, which caused more students to flood the streets … [G]uardsmen and police officers mistakenly clubbed and/or arrested vacating students,” Grose writes.
With the riot quelled, the campus was placed on a 6 p.m. curfew the next day. A student opinion column in the May 13 edition of The Gamecock struck a note of defiance while pushing back against the notion that “outside agitators” set the protests in motion.
“McNair can come and sit on this university, if he wants to … I saw large numbers of natives in the crowd just as angry about the issues as anyone else,” wrote Michael Ball. “Even the moderates did not enjoy being gassed and pushed off a campus reputed to belong to them. No one who thought about it liked being considered a child of the state.”
The chaos that unfolded at the University of South Carolina was not a unique phenomenon. Students revolted on campuses from coast to coast in May of 1970. I bring this particular incident up now because it may carry some historic resonance.
Recently at two public universities in the Deep South, students have spoken out against the appointment of university leaders whom they saw as unqualified or morally compromised.
In April, South Carolina’s Trumpist Gov. Henry McMaster rammed through the appointment of former West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen as president of UofSC. Outraged at the opacity of the selection process, the lack of diversity among the candidates, Caslen’s lack of a doctorate degree, a comment by Caslen regarding alcohol and rape victims, and Caslen’s complicity in the Iraq War, students packed an alumni center and successfully pressured the board of trustees to re-open its president search in April.
McMaster waited until July, when most undergraduate students were off campus, to push Caslen’s appointment through the board again. While the students were outmaneuvered in the short term, the episode revealed an important fact: The governor fears them.
And this week at Ole Miss, students disrupted the announcement of Glenn Boyce, an inexperienced but well-connected Republican, to serve as their next chancellor. The Daily Mississippian, the student newspaper, has been pressuring the university to release Boyce’s resume — which wasn’t available at the time of the announcement, highlighting the farcical nature of the candidate search. The student journalists were able to independently verify that Boyce worked at three private “segregation academies” earlier in his career.
I’ll leave it there for now and come back when I’ve found some more primary sources. I don’t pretend to know whether revolution is in the air. When it does come, it may be instructive to look back at what happened the last time.
Were you on campus at the University of South Carolina in May 1970? If you are interested in talking about your experiences for a future article, drop me a line by replying to this email or via direct message on Twitter.
The images in this issue are screenshots from the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. If you recognize any faces from these videos of the Horseshoe protest or the riot aftermath in the administration building, let me know!
If you are interested in learning more about the Orangeburg Massacre and how one of its survivors fit into the broader civil rights movement, my friend Adam Parker published a book last year called Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.