Burn Down the Mission

The student riots in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. May, 1970. I remember those few days vividly, wrapping up my freshman year. That year had started innocently enough. Buckling down to the books as I made the transition from the high school educational experience to the newfound freedom of college. Classes every other day, and stretched out over the day, rather than closely sequential. And more intense, or so it seemed at first. High school had always been fun, and comparatively easy for me, and of course I knew everyone, including all the teachers and their reputations. But college brought with it the apprehension of uncertainty, and my response was to focus on the courses and the assignments.

Second semester, I had a better grip on things, and started looking around and noticing the rest of the college experience. New ideas, wider perspectives. I even began to pay close attention to the national political scene. The Vietnam War was raging. and the protests reached a fever pitch that spring, mainly on campuses across the country, although Tuscaloosa had managed to remain largely unaffected.

And then Kent State happened.

Kent State was so horrific, and in some way, so personal, that even the sleepy Capstone was stirred into action. Students gathered in groups, then into crowds, chanting and singing. It was hard to tell how real it all was, but it was really happening.

I remember Jerry Pruett and I going out to protest, with my bed sheet sign hung between us, “Gestapo Go Home” printed in large letters across the linen (we weren’t very creative). We stood on the corner of University Boulevard right at the edge of campus, across the street from The Dickery, holding our sign and waving our fists at the police cruisers that paraded endlessly up and down the road. This was the day after the Tuscaloosa cops had raided the frat houses on University Boulevard, in particular the Deke house. (Those houses are all gone now; the Bryant-Denny stadium expansion razed all of them to the ground). The police stormed into the frat houses, their name tags taped over, billy-clubbing and arresting the frat guys. As a result of this excessive use of force, the governor (or somebody) had called in the (believe it or not) much more responsible and well-trained State Troopers to control the situation.

Jerry and I got thru with our “protesting”, feeling pretty good about our radical selves. We walked back to my house, which was a couple blocks away. As we crossed an empty parking lot, a Jeep holding 4-5 Crimson Tide football players (they looked like linemen), zoomed up, screeched to a halt in front of us, and the jocks jumped out, surrounding us. They took our makeshift sign, unrolled it and started threatening us, yelling “Commie Fascist faggots!”, etc. I tried to calmly explain that you can’t be a Commie and a Fascist at the same time, but, to my utter surprise, this logic failed to impress them. Then I tried the tactic of letting them know that a year ago, I had been a fellow football player myself, in Cullman. This attempt at comradery also had no mollifying effect.

We were pretty sure we were on the verge of having the shit beat out us, when a State Trooper wheeled in beside the Jeep. The officer got out, and the whole thing broke up very quickly. Of course, the jocks were just told to move on, but Jerry and I were more than happy to withdraw from the battlefield, skulls and other body parts intact.

It was a grand moment in my personal history. No, there was no massive change in the overall face of the Capstone. In fact, there were only two concrete results of the “Riots of 1970”: An old abandoned building down near the river was burned down, but no arrests were made, and (suspiciously) that was where construction began on the new Ferguson Center almost immediately. The other thing that happened was the University cancelled all final exams that semester. Yes! I guess we showed the Man!

No, I don’t think any lasting changes occurred in Tuscaloosa. But there has always existed a liberal undercurrent at the University of Alabama, sometimes very well hidden. Nevertheless, it is a strong and persistent force for the same reason that Blue Dots in Red States are strong: we know how isolated we are, and therefore always seek out like-minded spirits.

© 2017 Chuck Puckett