Month of May, 1970

Remembering The Days Podcast – Episode 8

In May 1970 America was turned upside down amid anti-Vietnam War protests, including a deadly confrontation between National Guardsmen and students at Kent State University. The University of South Carolina wasn't immune to the societal unrest, and things turned ugly on campus in several incidents 50 years ago this month.   



Months of May 1970

[Riotous crowd shouting and raucous noise]

Fifty years ago — May 1970 — America seemed to be turning upside down.

The country was entangled in an unpopular war in Vietnam and anti-war protests were rampant. A demonstration on May 4 at Kent State University turned deadly when four unarmed students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen.

Student protests, sit-ins and demonstrations had been sprouting at Ivy League and West Coast colleges during much of the 1960s. The University of South Carolina and most other southern universities had stayed quiet. But a sense of unrest on the South Carolina campus was brewing early on in 1970. And it all boiled over in the month of May.  

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at a tumultuous time at South Carolina when, 50 years ago, university students clashed with police and National Guardsmen, and the blinding sting of tear gas drifted into nearly every corner of the Columbia campus.

It wasn’t just sentiment against the Vietnam War or the Kent State shootings that triggered those weeks of unrest. Students were also upset about undercover police tactics on campus as well as the forced closing of the UFO coffeehouse, a popular hangout in downtown Columbia frequented by anti-war activists and, interestingly enough, soldiers from Fort Jackson. Here’s University of South Carolina archivist Elizabeth West. 

West: The students were very concerned about how the university administration and local officials were responding to freedom of speech, faculty were also concerned about protecting freedom of speech, as well. The students felt that the police were being heavy handed in the way they arrested students. Plain clothes police had been placed in the Russell House to try to keep certain anti-establishment activists out of there and they were checking student IDs and there were a lot of clashes and harassment. So just a lot of tension, a lot of turmoil, a lot of unhappiness with the general state of things.

Jim Stewart is a retired Air Force veteran now; he was a freshman accounting major at the university in spring 1970. He was also an Air Force ROTC cadet and holding down a job at the information desk in the Russell House. He had gotten wind of a sit-in that was going to take place there on May 7.

Stewart: Well, I knew there was going to be a peaceful, quote unqoute, sit in. There were some students who said, we’re going to come in here and we’re going to sit on the floor and we’re not moving for anybody. And I was working behind the information desk at the time, and I heard the conversations right in front of me and knew something was going to happen. And I was in my ROTC uniform, so I ran down the hill to the fraternity house which was not that far away at the time, changed out of my uniform, put on normal civilian clothes, and got back to the information desk doing my job. And it was a little scary. I’d never been around that type of activity before. From the sit in to the law enforcement guys taking people out. I remember thinking, boy, I hope they don’t get me cause I’m just back here doing my job. (laughs).

Pete Strom, who headed the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, used a bullhorn to order student demonstrators to leave the Russell House or face arrest. They refused to leave, so they were arrested, escorted outside in handcuffs and placed on buses bound for the city jail. All of this happened rather peacefully, Stewart recalls, but the overall mood on campus was starting to sour. And on Monday, May 11, the situation turned ugly.

Stewart: As I was standing out here in the parking lot talking to a couple of the guardsmen, who were probably not much older than me, all of a sudden bricks started flying. I couldn’t tell exactly where they were coming from and who they were headed towards cuz the Guard was all lined up in their neat little rows and there were a whole bunch of students around gawking, saying what the heck’s going on here? But the bricks started flying and when they did that, I figured it was time for me to be not where I was.

Stewart made the right decision to get out of there. An angry crowd of demonstrators marched to the administration building, and while the university president and trustees huddled upstairs in a meeting, the riotous crowd began trashing administrative offices on the floor. A small contingent of law enforcement officers kept the raucous demonstrators from charging up the stairs to the second floor where the university officials were meeting.

National Guard troops were immediately called in, and they started clearing the Horseshoe area of students with tear gas cannisters that sent students running in every direction. More tear gas confrontations followed in the days ahead, including at Bates residence hall and at the Honeycombs — which you might also remember as the Towers or the Veilblocks.

A lot of students were getting arrested across campus, sometimes for violating curfews that had been imposed during the rioting, sometimes just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The vast majority of students managed to steer clear of trouble but they would still get an eye-watering whiff of the tear gas that seemed to float into every corner of campus. 

Things calmed slightly two days after the administration building riot when Jane Fonda, then a young actress and activist, spoke at a student rally attended by 4,000 in Maxcy Gregg Park near campus. Here’s Elizabeth West.

West: But after the second incident with the tear gas, outside the Honeycombs, that died down a bit. Jane Fonda appeared at Maxcy Gregg Park a few days later and there was a lot of concern about that but she actually called for peaceful action, and President Jones ended up praising her for that because it helped defuse some of the situation there.

That’s a summary of those long days and nights in May 1970 when student frustrations boiled over and protests kept erupting across the nation — and the war in Vietnam … kept on churning. It’s difficult to truly capture the angst of that time — the concern that parents of Carolina students must have felt for their sons and daughters, so soon after the Kent State shootings; the anger and confusion of students caught up in a world that seemed to be shifting beneath their feet; and — to be fair — the dilemma of National Guardsmen and law enforcement officers trying to maintain peace in the midst of a college campus riot without risking a repeat of the tragedy that had just happened at Kent State.

Well, that time of unrest eventually came to an end. But the story doesn’t end there. There is a tale, perhaps apocryphal, that university President Tom Jones had a moment of epiphany while the administration building was under siege. It’s said that Jones realized in that moment, when the very fabric of campus life was tearing apart, that the University of South Carolina needed to become more responsive to its students, to make itself more relevant in a world that was rapidly changing. 

So Jones convened a task force to come up with new academic programs that would appeal to the restless student body. The university already had launched something called Contemporary University, and after the riots another program called University Without Walls began.

West: Although those did not last, the third one that they came up with is still with us today and that is University 101. So that was set up as a way to help students adjust to university life, to make those connections and to really try to ease those pressures through that program, and it’s been a very successful program. 

In fact, South Carolina’s University 101 program is the nation’s No. 1-ranked first-year orientation program among public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. U101, as it’s known, has been imitated by colleges and universities across the country, and at South Carolina, thousands of first-year students take the course every year. The data proves those students are more likely to finish college and graduate with higher GPAs. I think it’s fair to say that University 101 became the silver lining that emerged from those dark clouds of May 1970.  And fifty years later, it’s still paying dividends.

Well, this is our last scheduled episode of Remembering the Days for the spring 2020 season. I hoped you’ve enjoyed the stories we’ve brought you so far, and, if so, you can look forward to a new selection of tales from the university’s past this coming fall.

We’re planning a time traveling adventure where we’ll encounter the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the college campus in 1840. We’ll also take an historical tour of trees on the Horseshoe and we’ll examine the double standard of student dress codes in the 1960s. All those and more stories are coming your way this fall on Remembering the Days, a production of the University of South Carolina.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay well and I’ll look forward to catching up with you in just a few months. So long for now. 

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