'The draft was a personal issue for all of us that year'

Carl Stepp recalls 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.

Carl Stepp is a retired journalist and professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland for 35 years. The spring of 1970 was his last semester at The Gamecock.

I spent three and a half years as a reporter and editor at The Gamecock, and in all of that time I did not engage in any activism at all. I thought that was unprofessional, and I was trying to do the right thing as a journalist. The last semester, that spring, I was an opinion writer. I had a column called “Stepp Back,” which was a little different. And there were one or two occasions where I engaged in some activism but never on campus. For all the events on campus, I was there as a journalist.

Stepp chronicled many of the events that spring for The Gamecock but can’t pinpoint a specific turning point.

My memory is that there wasn’t one day where you could say, “Aha, we’ve turned a corner.” But if you’re going to point to one thing to explain the events of that spring, it would be Vietnam. The authorities didn’t like the UFO Coffee House because they were trying to influence young draftees at Fort Jackson. Drug use was an issue in and of itself, but cracking down on it was sort of a way in, to get to some of the people who were maybe involved in protests over Vietnam. The draft and the war. The draft was a personal issue for all of us that year, and the war was a big issue for everyone.

And what Stepp witnessed on the Horseshoe affected him in a profound, if unexpected, way.

One of my biggest memories was seeing the professors trying to be peacemakers. That’s an odd memory to have, but it was a huge influence on me. It had something to do with me becoming a professor — seeing that concern that so many faculty members had, not only for matters of principle but also for the welfare of the students.

Orangeburg and Kent State were in everybody’s heads. This was not a game. And these professors were putting it all on the line to try to keep things under control — without stifling anyone. They didn’t mind that students were protesting. They just wanted it to be peaceful.

Stepp was also at the Russell House, chronicling events for The Gamecock.

I did a “tick-tock” piece on what happened. The Gamecock offices were inside, but I was mostly outside. I remember talking to some of the students who had been put on the buses. But it wasn’t like what happened later at the Administration Building. This may be nostalgic, but I remember a couple of instances where the police and the students were joking with each other. Both sides wanted to make their positions clear, but it felt like both sides wanted everything to be OK. There were some things thrown, but my sense is that nobody wanted to hurt anybody.

One of my biggest memories was seeing the professors trying to be peacemakers. That’s an odd memory to have, but it was a huge influence on me. It had something to do with me becoming a professor.

The events at the Administration Building were different, he says.

I remember the arrival of the state troopers, and that was scary. I remember their footsteps. They wore boots. You could hear them coming. And it’s the first time I ever felt tear gas. I didn’t get a huge dose, but I was close enough to get a whiff.

But there was also a sense that a line had been crossed. At The Gamecock, we were on the progressive end, but we tried never to be on the violent end. We had the feeling, I think, that it was unnecessary to go into the building and start messing with people’s things. A lot of the more moderate liberal students felt there just wasn’t much point to it. I don’t mean to make light of what happened. It was scary because it felt like a more provocative act. And it drew a sterner response.

The Gamecock was more liberal than the campus at large in our editorial policies, and I personally wrote some pretty provocative things because I felt strongly about them. And we were kids. But we tried hard to cover events professionally, to not go overboard in any direction. I don’t know if we succeeded, but we were really trying to give people the story, and to give the sense that it mattered.

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