'I was on their radar because they needed somebody on their radar'

Brett Bursey recalls his role in UofSC student protest in May 1970

A half century ago, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and seismic shifts in American culture, the campus of the University of South Carolina became a battleground — between students and the administration, between a young generation and the establishment, between radically different worldviews. But the dramatic events of that spring, which came to be known as The Months of May, weren’t strictly destructive. The lessons of that era also changed lives and changed the university itself.

Brett Bursey grew up in a military family but spent much of his high school years in Beaufort, South Carolina, after his father, a military dentist, was transferred to the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot. After witnessing segregation and watching soldiers train for Vietnam, the younger Bursey joined the antiwar movement. He helped orchestrate the May Student Strike and went to prison for vandalizing a draft board office. He has spent the past 50 years advocating for social justice and political reform. He is currently executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network in Columbia.

I got “woke” by getting confused. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world”— Well, how come the black kids can’t go to the movies with me in downtown Beaufort? They had to go up to the balcony. Segregation was really in your face, and that didn’t make sense to me. I had been raised to believe in the benevolence of America and Christianity, but I didn’t see it being practiced. And if you practiced it, I found out, they beat you up and put you in jail.

I was also tremendously conflicted about Vietnam. I graduated high school in 1966, when Vietnam was really coming onto the radar, and at Parris Island, at dawn, I could hear the sound of the recruits chanting “Kill! Kill!” The complement of young men was, I think, about 10- or 11,000 at that point — and many of them were just a year older than I was.

Bursey began college at the University of Georgia and got his first taste of activism protesting the Georgia gubernatorial campaign of Lester Maddox, a segregationist. He also got involved with the Southern Student Organizing Committee, which was devoted to civil rights, workers’ rights and the antiwar movement. After transferring the next year to USC, he joined AWARE, a local organization with similar goals — and similar enemies.

One thing to keep in mind is the tribalism. There was the protest movement and there was law and order. Watts had burned in ’65 [in Los Angeles], and then there were antiwar riots the next few years. It’s like the [Buffalo Springfield] song, “Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware.” We were pretty well crazy, but they were crazier. And dangerous. The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration was established in 1968, and it geared up America’s civilian police forces to be warriors. That’s when this really began. They needed somebody like me to justify their grant proposals. They needed somebody like me to make an example of. And they set me up like a bowling pin.

When I took over AWARE in 1968, I was more aggressive than most people. But the times were more explosive, and there were more and more people concerned about Vietnam. It was just the timing. Everybody was crazy.

A key figure in the antiwar movement at USC and a champion of other New Left causes, Bursey got arrested for protesting President Richard Nixon at the airport and again for burning a Confederate flag on the Horseshoe. By 1970, he was co-chair of AWARE, along with graduate student Jack Weatherford. That March, he, Weatherford and three others vandalized the Richland County Selective Service Office.

When I got busted for vandalizing the draft board, I was handcuffed to Jack Weatherford in a Student Affairs committee meeting in the Russell House. The purpose of the meeting was to determine if AWARE should have its charter yanked for violating school regulations — we had put up signs that weren’t stamped “approved,” moved tables and chairs around — and in the middle of the meeting the door flies open, in comes SLED.

AWARE lost its charter. I was told I could come back on campus only to go to school. I kept coming back for meetings and they expelled me. Then I was served papers banning me from a section of the city bound by Sumter, Pickens, Pendleton and Blossom. I had never heard of that except maybe in the Soviet Union or South Africa.

Bursey was no longer a student but took the lead in organizing the Student Strike. Following the court order, though, he stationed himself on a city street near Longstreet Theatre.

At the beginning, the student government was on board with the strike. It was a legitimate organized protest. The president of the student body was on board. But then here’s all these people in the Russell House, and Pete Strom comes in and says, “Leave or be arrested.” 41 people stayed.

So they bring the highway patrol in. It was one of the scariest things I’d ever seen. At the time, there was a height requirement so these guys were tall. And these are some of the same people that shot people in Orangeburg two years earlier. They lined up from Pickens Street all the way to Assembly. There must have been 80 highway patrol cars, and all along the sidewalk are these highway patrolmen with shotguns.

Then they bring in a big bus to put everybody on, and our people surround the bus. I’m down in front of Longstreet Theatre because I’ve been banned from that section of the city. I did have a walkie-talkie so I could talk to the people in the Russell House, but I’m doing what I was told.

That’s when the National Guard shows up. They finally get everybody out of the Russell House, and SLED kidnaps me on the street. As they’re driving me off, I look out the back window and there’s Vickie Eslinger shouting at Pete Strom. She had come to bring me back to talk to Michael Mungo, who was on the Board of Trustees and wanted to talk to me. But I was already on my way to jail.

Bursey spent the next few days in a cell. And that August, when he stood trial for vandalizing the draft board, he learned that Jack Weatherford, his former AWARE co-chair, was an undercover SLED agent.

It was my idea to go into the draft board. I was the ringleader. But one thing people need to know about is the collaboration of the administration with the police. I guess that was part of their job as state employees, but some of them knew that Weatherford was a cop. And he had been watching everything I did. In court, the first question they asked him after he stated his name was, “Mr. Weatherford, how long have you worked for State Law Enforcement Division?” “About a year and a half.” “What was your job?” “Watch Mr. Bursey.”

When I took over AWARE in 1968, I was more aggressive than most people. But the times were more explosive, and there were more and more people concerned about Vietnam. It was just the timing. Everybody was crazy. I was on their radar because they needed somebody on their radar.

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