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CARBONDALE – On the evening of May 4, 1970 -- the day four Kent State University students died after members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators -- some 400 students gathered on the campus of Southern Illinois University and voted unanimously to join hundreds of other campuses in a class boycott.

Protests and demonstrations continued to build for three days leading up to one of the most destructive nights in Carbondale’s history. On May 6, students staged protests at Wheeler Hall, the bottom floor of which housed the Air Force ROTC, and Woody Hall, which housed the university’s new Center for Vietnamese Studies and Programs, a university-government partnership that was a lightning rod of controversy during this era.

The next day, classes were officially called off to mourn the loss of students at Kent State.

Confusion, anger and angst were in full force that day, May 7, 1970, when about 1,500 people, with a permit to assemble, gathered near Main Street and Illinois Avenue on The Strip and blocked traffic to protest. 

Police and members of the Illinois National Guard who had been called to campus to attempt to maintain order had agreed to reroute traffic on nearby streets, so long as demonstrators agreed to stay off the Illinois Central railroad tracks.

According to archived reports in The Southern Illinoisan from that day, demonstrators began blocking the tracks, and what began as a peaceful protest quickly turned violent. Law enforcement from the city, university, state and National Guard met and decided to use tear gas to disperse the crowd, hoping to move them south toward campus.

Violence broke out as 40 state police officers pumped tear gas into the crowd. As demonstrators were dispersed, they vandalized businesses, throwing rocks at their windows, and set fire to a vacant building on Mill Street. Then a vibrant commercial district, some 78 businesses were seriously damaged that night and dozens of people were injured, though most injuries were reported as minor. Then-Mayor David Keene responded by implementing a 7:30 p.m. curfew, forbidding gatherings of more than 25 people, and banning alcohol sales, according to newspaper reports.

Returning from the weekend, then-SIU Chancellor Robert MacVicar issued a special bulletin that Monday, which read: “This morning we start the task of reconstruction of a university, and a university community. The tragedy of last week is not merely the injuries suffered by participants and by the officers of law enforcement -- not merely the loss of property on campus in the community. The real tragedy is that a small group has been able to so influence a segment of our students that they provided the screen behind which the acts of violence could be hidden.”

SIU student activism during the Vietnam War

Photos of student activism on the SIU campus during the Vietnam War era, including events that led to the shut down of SIU in May 1970, are reprinted with the permission of former SIU student and administrator Tom Busch, who compiled the collection, and the SIU Special Collections Research Center.

Protest at President Morris's Home

But run-ins between protesters and law enforcement continued. On May 12, 1970, a large crowd of students gathered at Morris Library before many of them began a march through Carbondale, and to the home of SIUC President Delyte D. Morris.

The Daily Egyptian, SIU’s student newspaper, estimated the crowd at Morris’s house at 3,500 students. The newspaper described the demonstration as mostly peaceful, but quoted Morris’s wife as saying students caused three fires in the home, one on a mattress, in the kitchen, and in the living room where a cherry bomb landed. She also reported all the food was taken from the fridge.

After this, Chancellor MacVicar called for the indefinite closure of campus. The next day, Morris spoke to a crowd of about 3,000 to discuss closing of campus, and announced that polling places would be established for students, faculty and staff to vote on whether the university should remain closed, or be reopened. Confusion and chaos reigned, say those who were there.

The following day, May 14, 1970, two students were killed at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, by police officers, and many others injured, further agitating protesters at SIU and nationally. As tensions escalated, the SIU Board of Trustees, in consultation with then-Gov. Richard Ogilvie, voted 4-1 on May 15, 1970, to shut down campus for the spring semester three weeks early, and to issue students pass/fail grades for the semester. As the board deliberated, reports came in that three black SIU students believed to have ties to the Black Panthers were injured, one critically, when an explosive device inside a suitcase detonated inside a home in northeast Carbondale.

Ogilvie is quoted as saying that day, “I do not think we can keep universities open with bayonets.” The decision made SIU the only university in Illinois to close from protests in the 1970s.

SIU student activism during the Vietnam War

Photos of student activism on the SIU campus during the Vietnam War era, including events that led to the shut down of SIU in May 1970, are reprinted with the permission of former SIU student and administrator Tom Busch, who compiled the collection, and the SIU Special Collections Research Center.

Destruction on campus

In May 1968, there was the bombing of the Agriculture Building.

Though the incident remains a cold case, SIU notes on its website the series of demonstrations, marches, and a student strike in the weeks prior, mostly focused on opposition to the war. Those demonstrations included the destruction of an off-campus building by fire, and 49 gas jets in a lab opened wide in what appeared to be an attempt to burn down or blow up the Chemistry Department, and an effort to ignite gas tanks of three university vehicles at the Physical Plant.

The following year, in what also remains an unsolved mystery, huge smoke clouds billowed from Old Main as the historic centerpiece of SIUC’s campus was destroyed by fire believed to be set intentionally.

Tensions were boiling here and elsewhere as young people grew increasingly angry about the war and draft, requiring they serve in an unpopular war even while they were denied the right to vote until age 21.

College as parent

This time period was the last of the “in loco parentis” doctrine on university campuses. A Latin term that means “in place of parent,” universities had wide latitude to institute strict rules. In Carbondale, that included such regulations that no one under 25 could drive a car, and a curfew for all female students of 10 p.m. Students began to rally against the environment as overly restrictive. 

SIU student activism during the Vietnam War

Photos of student activism on the SIU campus during the Vietnam War era, including events that led to the shut down of SIU in May 1970, are reprinted with the permission of former SIU student and administrator Tom Busch, who compiled the collection, and the SIU Special Collections Research Center.

'Very explosive time'

In closing the school, facing years of campus strife that cumulated in May 1970, the board’s resolution stated it was “seriously concerned with the imminent danger to the life and property at that location.” It continued that the board “deplores violence, wars and racism not only on our campus, but across the nation and world. It is concerned with doing all it can to restore an atmosphere of peace in the university and nation.”

SIU graduate and former employee Tom Busch, now of Maryland, recalls being a student on campus during this era. Of Champaign, Illinois, Busch started as a freshman in 1963, but he joined the Navy reserves in high school and was called into activity duty a few years later before finishing his schooling. Busch said, after he was discharged due to injury, he returned in 1968. Busch recalled that as a Vietnam-era veteran, he was treated most harshly in town by other veterans of other wars, and said he was once kicked out of a VFW.

But on campus, Busch said he didn’t advertise his military service, and joined the majority of students in opposing the war. He described that era as a “very, very explosive time."

“It wasn’t just unique to SIU," he said. "The whole bloody nation was really struggling with things that were happening.”

Preserving history

As a senior, Busch said then-Lt. Gov. Paul Simon appointed him to a commission to study issues surrounding the campus closure, and ways to heal university-city relations. It was in that role that Busch collected photographs, mostly from the Daily Egyptian, as well as newspaper articles, leaflets, letters and other information, as part of fact-finding mission. Upon graduation, Busch accepted an administrative job at SIU, where he remained until he left for the University of Maryland in 1988.

SIU student activism during the Vietnam War

Photos of student activism on the SIU campus during the Vietnam War era, including events that led to the shut down of SIU in May 1970, are reprinted with the permission of former SIU student and administrator Tom Busch, who compiled the collection, and the SIU Special Collections Research Center.

As he was packing, he realized he had all of these files on student activism during the war, and didn’t want to haul them out east, but also thought they shouldn’t be discarded. That’s how the Thomas C. Busch files (from which most of this report) ended up in special collections at Morris Library. Busch donated the collection with a requirement that it be kept sealed for 20 years. They were opened up for public viewing in 1999.

“It was a tough time and I was afraid that would be lost, because it’s truly a part of the institution,” Busch said, adding he’s extremely pleased by the extensiveness of the collection and how it has been cared for. “If you don’t know where you came from you’re condemned to keep committing it.”

Preserving order

John Jackson, a visiting professor at the SIU Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and a former chancellor, had just accepted his first teaching job in 1969 after earning a doctoral degree in political science from Vanderbilt University.

A former Army intelligence officer, Jackson said he had already seen a lot of things in his young life by that time, but seeing the mayhem on campus when he arrived was “surreal.” Old Main burned between the time he interviewed for the job and he moved to Carbondale to start.

Jackson said his opposition to the war was growing by that point, but his focus was on protecting order on campus. During the run-up to the campus shutting down, Jackson said he was one of several faculty members charged with protecting buildings from destruction.

“Here I am, this brand new professor, walking guard duty at the Business School building and my job was to keep students from burning the building down at night, literally,” Jackson recalled.

SIU student activism during the Vietnam War

Photos of student activism on the SIU campus during the Vietnam War era, including events that led to the shut down of SIU in May 1970, are reprinted with the permission of former SIU student and administrator Tom Busch, who compiled the collection, and the SIU Special Collections Research Center.

Hard to look back

Jackson, who taught political science, recalls having Busch as a student, as well as Tom Britton, who attended as an undergraduate from 1966 to 1970. Britton said he, as with many students, became more and more cynical about the war during that time. Though his brother at the time was an Air Force pilot, Britton said the two always understood that they were doing what they felt was necessary at the time, and never exchanged harsh words.

Britton recalled it being a difficult time for the nation, and for young people particularly. He served his senior year in the spring of 1970 as a resident fellow, and said that year he learned something he never expected to as part of his pursuit of higher learning: how to use a cheese cloth and water to get tear gas out of people’s eyes.

Walking around campus, Britton, who today works for the SIU Foundation as director of development for the SIU School of Law, leading fundraising activities for the school from which he graduated in the inaugural class, said he still sometimes thinks back to those tumultuous years.

“It was just an extraordinary time, and to try to make sense of it today is very difficult because you look back and it was the product of deep and strongly held feelings and beliefs on the side of students, who were being drafted and sent to an unpopular war, and people who wanted to maintain order,” Britton said. “Conflict was bound to happen, and I think we learned some lessons from it.”

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Molly.Parker@TheSouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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