'My goal was to make USC a better place for African American students who followed me'
Luther Battiste 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.
Luther Battiste helped found the first African American fraternity on campus and ran Harry Walker’s campaign to become the university’s first African American student body president. He witnessed the riots, but his mind at the time was on getting into law school and improving USC for African American students. Battiste is now a partner in the Johnson, Toal & Battiste law firm in Columbia. In January, he became the first African American president of the American Board of Trial Advocates.
I remember the demonstrations when Nixon invaded Cambodia and students were killed at Kent State. And I remember when the students went into the Administration Building and started dumping records out the windows. The trustees were meeting inside; outside, students were on the tops of the cars in the parking lot and they stomped those cars flat. I wasn’t participating. I was a voyeur. Most of the African American students were not actively involved in the antiwar movement. That was more of a “white thing.”
I came to USC from Orangeburg in ’67-’68. And in 1968 the Orangeburg Massacre occurred: three students killed [by the South Carolina Highway Patrol] at South Carolina State. One of those students, Delano Middleton, went to high school with me. We played basketball together on the junior varsity team. Then, one-half of the field house at USC was burned down. In April, Martin Luther King got killed and the other half of the field house burned down. In June, when I was in summer school, Robert Kennedy got killed. And here I am, an African American student who had gone to segregated schools my entire life trying to adjust to a university that really didn’t make any plans for us or try to make us feel comfortable on campus.
To use a present term, I was already “woke” when I came to USC; I just changed my activism.
But then Battiste's roommate, Harry Wright, got him involved in student government, initially through the University Union Lecturers Committee.
We brought Muhammad Ali, Dick Gregory and Julian Bond to speak. I got to have lunch with Muhammad Ali, who to my surprise was one of the quietest, kindest men I had ever met. The exact opposite of his persona. It made a big impression. That was my sophomore year.
Junior year, Battiste got on the Curriculum Revision Committee for the College of Arts and Sciences and began talking to Wright and international studies professor Bruce Marshallabout launching an African American studies program. The three visited Yale, Marshall’s alma mater, which had one of the first such programs in the country, then reviewed Duke’s. Later, Battiste and Wright drafted the proposal that led to the establishment of a program at USC. The two were also involved in interviewing Willie Harriford, who became the program’s first director.
My goal was to make USC a better place for African American students who followed me, and to do that every way I could — by getting involved in student activities, getting involved in student politics, trying to create a social culture that made us feel comfortable but to do so by working within the system. So, when the riots happened I didn’t see it as my battle. If anything, I was upset with the disparity in the outrage over Kent State versus the outrage, or the lack of outrage, over Orangeburg. I was very upset about that. That always bothered me.
You have to understand: Orangeburg was the epicenter of the civil rights movement in South Carolina. Before I came to USC, I had been on marches, I had picketed, I had been to mass meetings. I never got arrested like some of my friends, which disappointed me at the time, but to use a present term, I was already “woke” when I came to USC; I just changed my activism.
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