Above: The Union fire, April 20, 1970.
A generation ablaze
Forty years ago today, the Kansas Union burned during one of the most tense periods in Lawrence history — a time that saw protests, fires and bombs.
David Awbrey recalls sitting inside his house on Tennessee Street on a dark Monday night when someone outside yelled that the Kansas Union was on fire. He peered up the steep hill and saw an orange glow — it had to be the Union. He ran up the hill to get closer, and saw a fire of Hollywood proportions — flames were shooting into the sky. It was spectacular, both in size and what it said about the turmoil on the KU campus that April of 1970 — exactly 40 years ago today.
Awbrey had just finished his term as student body president on a campus that had more than 17,000 students. He was one of thousands to watch the Union burn that night, as fire damaged rooms on the fifth and sixth floors and collapsed part of the roof. Awbrey and his classmates had witnessed a semester dominated by anti-Vietnam War protests, bombings, racial confrontations and fires, all while in fear of being called up for the draft.
For some, it was a relatively normal semester: they attended class, studied and graduated. But the activism that exploded on and around campus touched everyone. For more than three weeks that spring, the University and Lawrence saw one of the most chaotic periods in campus and city history.
Spring 1970 had all the ingredients of a political action flick: suspected arson of the KU Union; homemade bombs flung through shop windows and toward campus buildings; deep-seated hatred of the Vietnam War; racial conflicts at Lawrence High School that brought out tear gas and tire irons; a nightly curfew ordered by the governor that landed many in jail; a march by an angry crowd who smashed windows in the ROTC building in retaliation for deaths of Kent State students at the hands of the Ohio National Guard; and, ultimately, a controversial decision by the chancellor to end the school year and cool the conflict.
The Times They are A-Changin'
Lance Hill remembers when young people began questioning the government, racism, sexism and the lifestyles of their parents.
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"It wasn't uncommon for people to change their political viewpoints quickly," said Hill, 19 in April 1970 and today executive director of the Southern Institute at Tulane University. "We had grown up on a set of myths about the country with respect to equality and justice and who we were as a power in the world."
Bill Tuttle, then a young assistant professor of history, said a walk on campus in the '60s was like traveling back another decade. Men sported short haircuts; women wore skirts instead of jeans and obeyed nightly curfews.
"The KU campus seemed to me to be quite like my college campus in 1959," said Tuttle, now professor emeritus of American Studies. "Very quiet, not much political activity, not a lot of long hair."
But by 1970, the campus had changed. Some people stayed the same, such as Jim Barnes, who said he was there just to go to school. Others turned into what Barnes called freaks, people who had long hair and beards, wore sandals and used drugs or had an activist agenda. Women could wear jeans and no longer had curfews. Students started underground newspapers, and used advocacy journalism the way The Kansan and the Lawrence Journal-World didn't.
The Oread neighborhood was a gathering place for students who frequented two bars, the Gaslight Tavern and the Rock Chalk Café, known most recently as the Crossing. Students, dropouts and others formed what Hill called a "street community," which he joined when he dropped out after a semester.
"It was people who were college dropouts, people who had been expelled, people who came to Lawrence to be part of the counterculture and to be engaged in politics," he said. "There were a lot of runaways who found safe haven there. There were a lot of Vietnam veterans."
Roger Martin, who came to Lawrence from Columbia, Mo., was excited to see an underground newspaper, places hip people could hang out and lots of drugs.
"The scene was very vibrant and alive," Martin said. He said there was "a lot of pointlessness to the lifestyle, because people were trying to redefine what it was that they were and who they were and how they lived, and so you'd try things."
The political climate of the country was changing, too. The Vietnam War was escalating, and young Americans were dying by the thousands — more than 16,500 were killed in Vietnam in 1968, a number greater than that year's KU enrollment. Protests at the Democratic National Convention devolved into a riot and a high-profile trial of the Chicago 7, a court case that charged seven protesters for crossing state borders to incite a riot at the 1968 convention.
Events around the world caused students in Lawrence to reconsider their views. Beth Lindquist, who enrolled in 1966, originally lived in GSP Hall and then Kappa Kappa Gamma. She was a student senator and president of her residence hall.
"I did all the kind of traditional middle-class suburban girl things," she recalls.
But after seeing racism in the mostly white Greek recruitment and injustices in Vietnam, Lindquist made a new commitment to protest for change. She wasn't the only one.
"Students were dropping out and living in communes and growing their hair and professing a kind of anti-materialist view of American life," said Lindquist, now a dean of instruction at Metropolitan Community College of Kansas City
Lindquist had been among more than 150 people who disrupted the annual ROTC review in May 1969. To them, the ROTC represented the military establishment and was one step away from Vietnam and the massacre of innocent civilians. Protesters gathered at Memorial Stadium, where the ROTC cadets were set to march, then moved inside and sat down to block the soldiers. They danced, chanted, talked.
Despite the lack of violence, the protesters suffered severe consequences. Some were expelled, thus losing their deferrals and immediately becoming eligible for the draft. Lindquist knew men who picked up and left for Canada to avoid being sent to Vietnam.
"There were others who were suspended who didn't return to the University ever, or any university," she said. "There were some who transferred."
Soon the draft lottery catalyzed one of the most turbulent springs in KU history.
What's Goin' On
A 7-Up bottle filled with gasoline, a rag and a match was all it took to get a story in a newspaper in the spring of 1970. Students were frustrated with the Vietnam War, racism, local politics and the conservative crackdown on the counterculture's free love and cheap drugs. Some marched, some dropped acid and some threw Molotov cocktails at windows of businesses, into the homes of prominent local officials and behind KU buildings.
Randy Gould, 20 that semester, said peaceful protests were less likely after he read about police assaulting members of the activist group Black Panthers and racists abusing blacks.
"I don't think historically we've ever seen real change in this country or anywhere else, for that matter, that wasn't also accompanied by some type of violence," said Gould, a Kansas City resident who now updates a blog called the Oread Daily, the same name as the underground newspaper he started in mid-1970. "I also don't want to glorify the violence aspect of things. There were mistakes made that were too much."
Students and allies in the street community planned a strike for April 8 after the state Board of Regents blocked the promotions of two professors, one who had spoken negatively about the war. In a Kansan article from April 3, 1970, student activist John Naramore was quoted saying students should know about the "Regents' clamp" on the mood of the university, and that students should get "dramatically involved and should support the strike next week."
The strike strategy: Station someone at the doors of all buildings on campus to encourage skipping class for the cause. Listen to a speech by the visiting Abbie Hoffman, one of the Chicago 7. And be wary of violence, a warning disregarded by some. The night before the strike, more bombs and Molotov cocktails exploded. The next day, Hoffman spoke to a packed Allen Fieldhouse, but to a mixed reception. He described the people of Lawrence as unrevolutionary and offended many when he blew his nose into an American flag handkerchief.
As reported in The Kansan, Hoffman said, "People have really got to make up their minds that they are going to destroy the University. If they accept the student's role, they accept the role as a slave. The student is a nigger. Law is not for maintaining justice, it is for maintaining power."
Racial tensions added to the already explosive Lawrence atmosphere. Two days after the strike, John Spearman of the Black Student Union encouraged all black students to arm themselves, saying they weren't safe and were receiving threats on their lives.
Racial conflict sparked at Lawrence High School that spring when its Black Student Union demanded a black homecoming queen and black cheerleaders in addition to the current ones. When the principal didn't meet demands, students locked themselves into the school's main office. Then fighting broke out over the next few days. One day 28 people were injured. Another day police threatened to use tear gas to disperse more than 100 students, some armed with tire irons, trying to enter the school.
As the situation escalated, the students demanded that the school hire black teachers and a black counselor as well as meet their previous demands. Police used tear gas later when black students and residents broke windows at the high school.
Conservatives demanded that police and KU officials respond to protesters with tear gas, arrests and expulsions. Wayne Propst, part of the street community, called some of those conservatives rednecks, and tells of one day when a "redneck" drove next to and began antagonizing George Kimball, who was walking down the street. Kimball, then 26 and later a candidate for Douglas County Sheriff, challenged the man to get out of his truck, and when he started to do just that, Kimball slammed the man's head in the door. The man's friend tried to get out as well, but a friend of Kimball's punched him through the window. Such confrontations weren't unusual.
"There was this fairly well-organized and well-armed right-wing militia, the Minutemen type," Kimball recalled. "They were mostly talk and mostly threats, but these guys had guns and they had a lot of influence."
Activists had to be careful whom they spoke to, said John Naramore, then a 23-year-old activist. Protesters weren't always sincere and some were trying to discredit the activists' goals. Naramore, who later owned a printing business called Kansas Key Press, said people who were violent were often not trustworthy.
"Who is this guy? Where did he come from and why is he always wanting to do acts of violence?" he said. "We have a march down Massachusetts Street and you've got somebody who wants to break windows. We're not attacking the merchants on Mass. What we're trying to do is create awareness or show our dissatisfaction."
Rich Clarkson, then photo director at the Topeka Capital-Journal, remembers how the journalism school's photo instructor Bill Seymour took pictures of student protesters.
"He was meeting agents at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to give them pictures to identify students," Clarkson said. "He was actually working with the police."
Lawrence was burning, figuratively and literally. Fires were discovered almost every night. The Kappa Sigma house caught fire, the cause never determined. A rooming house on Indiana Street went up in flames. Gambles, a furniture store downtown, caught fire and flames burned 50 feet high, causing $200,000 in damage. Less than a week later, a bigger fire would shock the community and make all the others seem insignificant.
Fire and Rain
It was 10:30 on the night of April 20. Jim Barnes, 21, and friends were grabbing a beer at the Bierstube, now the Bull, on Tennessee Street. They had just finished orchestra practice when a man walked into the bar and said the Kansas Union was on fire. Barnes didn't believe him, but when he peered through a window so dirty it looked like frosted glass, he could see flames flickering outside. They ran up the hill, and sure enough, flames were already bursting through the roof of the Union.
"It was the most beautiful fire you ever saw," Barnes said.
Stan Spring recalls watching from the safety of Potter Lake as the fire burnt the fifth and sixth floors and the roof of the Union. Fire trucks arrived 15 minutes after the fire started, the flames already 30 feet high. Spring saw the firefighters unwind their hoses, but they weren't long enough to reach the top floors and lacked adequate water pressure. So the firefighters fed all the hoses up the inside staircases of the Union.
Spring and Barnes were among 2,000 students who saw the Union burn that night. Inside, valuable art was in danger, and students jumped in to help save it, including Jim Stratford, 22 at the time and now vice president of instruction at Pratt Community College.
"I remember going to it like hundreds of other students did, getting there pretty early on, evidently, and there were no barriers or anything, and going inside and seeing that the firemen were trying to drag hoses full of water," he recalled. "They were spraying water, but they were trying to drag hoses up the stairs, and I just pitched in to help them along with a lot of other people. I remember helping hand pictures down trying to get them out of the building."
Wayne Propst lived just down the street from the Union and watched it burn from his balcony.
"You couldn't help but see it. It lit up the whole street," said Propst, now a local artist.
By 2 a.m., the fire was finally under control, but not before it did an estimated $2 million in damage to a building many viewed as the social and political center of the campus. Police suspected arson. No one was ever caught, but theories still abound.
"Any time there's uncertainty, people's conspiracy theories crop up," said Monroe Dodd, then a Kansan staff member who would later become managing editor at The Kansas City Star. "And you don't have to be conspiracy crazy to think, 'Well, since we don't know, I wonder if it was the KU authorities who set the fire to make the freaks look bad? Or was it the freaks who set the fire? Or was it the Black Student Union? Or is it just some working-class guy in Lawrence who wanted to make the freaks look bad?' You can concoct all kinds of theory about it because there's no final committer of the act."
George Kimball, who was active in the street community, hung out at the Union and said he never understood why anyone would have set it on fire.
"There's no particular political motive to be achieved by this thing," said Kimball, now a prominent boxing writer who moderated a program this semester featuring boxer George Foreman in the same Kansas Union ballroom gutted by the fire. "It wasn't anything that was going to get you applauded. You weren't going to win any points with anybody for doing it. It was probably someone who was stoned or drunk or screwed up."
Beth Lindquist said the Union had been a place where activists could meet for free and that she was shocked to see the fire after running up from her house on Tennessee Street.
"I didn't know people who thought it was a good idea," she said. "Most people who were anti-war and civil rights activists thought it was a bad idea because it put a question mark on the values and the moral choices of the anti-war civil rights movements. The inference that student activists had something to do with that was very negative for us."
The fire wasn't the end of trouble in Lawrence. Ahead was a nightly citywide curfew, major protests and a decision whether to keep school open in the face of possible violence.
Run Through the Jungle
The day after the fire, Kansas Gov. Robert Docking ordered a 7 p.m. curfew on the city of Lawrence to quell the violence. Townspeople were supposed to stay off the streets and inside residences; police arrested 45 people, most for curfew violations, on the first night. Snipers shot at businesses downtown, small fires were reported all over town, and people threw trash and broken glass into the streets to slow down police cars chasing curfew violators. Activists strung wire in the Oread neighborhood alleys to slow police walking through on foot, but Lance Hill said the tactic backfired.
David Ambler was in the administration building on the Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970. Ambler, who later became KU vice chancellor for student affairs, was a Kent State administrator when the Ohio National Guard moved in to suppress student protests. That morning Kent State leadership had left campus to discuss how to make the armed Guardsmen leave. When Ambler saw a crowd of several thousand gathering to protest behind the building, he quickly phoned administrators to return.
"I had no sooner made that phone call when we had a report on the walkie-talkies that there had been shots fired," he said.
Four students were killed when the National Guard opened fire on a peaceful crowd of students protesting Vietnam and the invasion of Cambodia. The deaths ignited protests around the country, including at Kansas. Chancellor Larry Chalmers canceled the annual ROTC ceremony, which the year before had been disrupted by protests. He immediately received critical letters, one telling him his "craven display of cowardice in canceling the annual ROTC review on May 5th, was a disgrace" and another demanding "Unless you expel all the students who are rioting, shooting, destroying property and resorting to violence, you should resign as chancellor of the University of Kansas immediately."
Students and the street community reacted to the deaths by marching to the ROTC building and throwing rocks through windows. Protesters later rallied in front of Allen Fieldhouse where students demanded a strike and a decision about closing the school. Half the group went up the hill to Strong Hall and camped in front of the chancellor's office. When his locked door didn't open, they sat on the stairs of Strong.
Chancellor Chalmers had to find a way to defuse the tense situation. In a May 8 speech given to most of the University inside Memorial Stadium, he announced what he called a Day of Alternatives. It gave students options. Those who wanted to leave the campus could, either by skipping finals and earning the grade they had up to that date or by taking an incomplete. Or students could stay and take their finals.
This decision was unpopular with many parents and alumni, many of whom called for Chalmers' resignation and wished that Clarke Wescoe, the previous and more conservative chancellor, were still in charge.
Ambler disagreed with the criticisms, praising Chalmers for preventing further violence. "Anyone else and this place would have blown apart a lot earlier than it did."
A Kansan article estimated that more than 83 percent of students chose not to finish classes, leaving fewer than 3,000 students on campus. Monroe Dodd opted to skip his finals.
"I chose the alternative, which was to take pass-fails," Dodd said. "It really did wonders for my GPA."
And just like that, the tumultuous spring semester of 1970 ended abruptly. Many students departed and what can be described only as a school-wide uprising ended.
"Larry Chalmers really saved the University that day," David Awbrey said. "It would have been pretty bad. There would have been another Kent State."
Edited by Liz Schubauer and Tara Smith
Students left that summer, but activists and tension remained. Lawrence streets often held the sting of tear gas in the morning and the sound of gunshot at night. Activists were still unhappy with the status quo and were determined to make it known. Police and activists clashed in July when the tension snapped and police shot and killed two young people.
Black activists gathered at the Afro House, a place they could feel welcome and escape racism they found in Lawrence and in the police. On the night of July 16, police were called to the house after someone heard gunshots. A car left the house; one of the passengers was Rick "Tiger" Dowdell. Police thought the car looked suspicious, so they chased it until it drove onto a curb. Dowdell got out and ran down an alley. Police Officer William Garrett followed and the two exchanged gunfire. When Dowdell turned to run away, the officer shot him in the back of the head and killed him.
Both the black community and the street community went into an uproar, and the front page of the next Vortex, an underground newspaper, proclaimed Garrett wanted for murder. The rest of the city reacted and men started circling downtown in their trucks, said Beth Schultz, who had just joined the KU English Department.
"I had never seen, in the United States, the open display of firearms," she recalls. "I saw trucks down on Massachusetts street with three rifles lined up in the back…. It created an atmosphere of high anxiety, of high-pitched fear, because these are white vigilantes and it was because of the reaction of a group of African Americans to Rick Dowdell's death."
Only a few days later, police killed another activist. Police responded to calls of small fires and an open fire hydrant near the Rock Chalk Café on Oread Boulevard on July 20 and were pelted with rocks, bricks and tomatoes. Later a crowd gathered and overturned a Volkswagen Bug at the owner's approval. Police reacted by releasing tear gas and shooting into the mob. When the crowd split, 18-year-old white activist and student Nick Rice was shot in the back of the head and dying.
Reports vary on what happened that night. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation's report claimed it couldn't determine if police shot Rice, so no officers were ever punished. Activists remembered that night otherwise, some saying they heard police say "Shoot 'em," and then saw them throw tear gas to prevent Rice from getting medical attention. They were outraged by what they felt was a police cover-up. Those few days left Lawrence in a haze.
"It just seemed like there was this wave of campus killings, and in every case it was the authorities doing the shooting, killing students," said Tim Miller, then a graduate student and now KU professor of religious studies. "I don't know if everyone has ever really figured that out, why did they have to."