The following story is excerpted from a forthcoming history of the student life at the University of Virginia Law School being produced by the Law Library Special Collections and written by Kristin Jensen. The photographs are from a protest on May 6th at the UVa Rotunda. The negatives are housed at Special Collection in the archives of the Virginia Law Weekly.
It was early May in Charlottesville, 1970. It was late on a Friday night—technically, very early on a Saturday morning. The school year was winding down and exams were approaching, but students at the University of Virginia and across the country had much more on their minds.
At the corner of University Avenue and Rugby Road in Charlottesville, a law student sat in the back of a Mayflower moving van, bewildered. He had volunteered to help maintain order at a “honk for peace” rally, and had thought himself at no risk of arrest. Why had police detained him in this makeshift, over-sized paddy wagon? And why was he in the company of a motley crowd of war protesters and uninvolved passers-by? His fellow captives included “a tuxedoed fraternity man who had just dropped off his date and was returning to his house, a be-slippered buildings and grounds man who lives in a cottage behind President Shannon’s house […], numerous fraternity men and Lawn residents who had been pulled from their houses and rooms by police in ‘hot pursuit’ of demonstrators, and even a few of the ralliers themselves”—all swept up together by state police.
“We looked more like a Young Republicans group than a collection of dangerous rioters,” the student would later tell readers of the Virginia Law Weekly under an anonymous byline. The story of how he came to find himself in middle of this absurd scene is intertwined with the history of student activism in the Vietnam War era across the United States; the specific, recent history of student protests at the University of Virginia; and the special role of Law School students as “legal marshals” at those demonstrations.
The “Voyage of the Mayflower” (as it was dubbed by the Virginia Law Weekly) was preceded by years of student activism against the war in Vietnam, but for the Charlottesville arrestees it represented the culmination of a week of acutely intensified protest activities.
Nine days earlier, on April 30, 1970, President Nixon had announced the incursion of American troops into Cambodia, touching off a fresh wave of demonstrations by American college students. The next day, there were reports of vandalism and violent confrontations between masses of students and law enforcement personnel. At the University of Maryland, hundreds of National Guard troops were called in to control a crowd of rock-throwing students; some of the students sacked the ROTC building, burning uniforms and papers. On the same day, ROTC offices were firebombed at Hobart College and Oregon State University. At Kent State University in Ohio, a crowd of approximately 500 students set fires, broke windows, and damaged cars.
On Monday, May 4, Ohio National Guard troops were called in to restore order at Kent State. After pursuing a group of students across the campus, members of the National Guard opened fire on them, killing two of the demonstrators and two uninvolved bystanders. Nine others were non-fatally wounded.
As the news of the deaths at Kent State spread nationwide, reactions of shock and outrage flared immediately, especially among university students. The University of Virginia, like many other campuses, became the site of vociferous rallies and demonstrations to protest both the Cambodian incursion and the actions of the National Guard troops at Kent State. A group of about 1,000 students rallied at the Rotunda that Monday, then marched to University President Edgar F. Shannon’s home at Carr’s Hill, where they demanded the right to protest peacefully and the removal of sidearms from University police. Subsequently, a smaller “splinter group” marched to Maury Hall, a building dedicated to housing the University’s Navy ROTC. While some students negotiated an agreement to stage a nonviolent sit-in, others went around to the rear of the building and broke windows in order to gain entry. Around 5:00 a.m. the next morning, University police read to the students a court injunction against their “unlawful occupation” of Maury Hall, and the crowd was dispersed.
On Wednesday, May 6, two days after the Kent State shootings, the student protest movement gained momentum and camaraderie at the University of Virginia. Boycotts went into effect there as well as at many other American colleges and universities; some schools moved to cancel classes and exams in response. At the University of Virginia, classes continued while a large rally on the Lawn “turned into an outdoor party,” according to a local news report, “complete with rock band, free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and informal soccer and football games.”
On Friday, May 8, students stage a “honk for peace” rally. The event was later recounted in detail for readers of the Law Weekly by the anonymous law student who had wound up under arrest and detained in the back of the Mayflower moving van, a fate that took him by surprise. Students from the law school mixed with undergraduates at the demonstrations, many of whom volunteered as “marshals.” The marshals’ role in student demonstrations had become well established in recent years: they advised demonstrators on their legal rights and responsibilities and often acted in concert with law enforcement to keep the demonstrations nonviolent. Not all of the marshals were law students, but a later editorial in the Virginia Law Weekly largely credited law students with keeping the peace at various demonstrations.
The marshals’ goal of keeping the crowd nonviolent and their actions within legal bounds would seem to be well in hand at the Friday rally. Even so, when rumors spread through the crowd that state police were approaching “in full battle dress and with dogs,” the marshals “began to exercise a more active role in controlling the crowd and with considerable success urged those ralliers standing on the sidewalk to get on the other side” of the low stone wall separating University grounds from the street.
The rally’s participants believed themselves “safe” from arrest as long as they stayed clear of the public street. Moreover, considering that their behavior was even less rowdy than that of the week’s previous rallies, they had little reason to anticipate that the police were about to perform a mass arrest. “But unknown to the students,” the anonymous marshal explained in hindsight, “the situation was fundamentally different because the University had relinquished its power over the police and had given State Police the power of preserving order on the University grounds.” Indeed, at a press conference the next day, Charlottesville Commonwealth Attorney J. T. Camblos confirmed that “ultimate responsibility for loosing the [police] forces on the Grounds rested with the UVa administration ‘headed by President Edgar F. Shannon whom we recognized as the head.” The law enforcement forces present at the rally and its aftermath included Virginia state troopers, Charlottesville city police, University security officers, and Albemarle County sheriff’s deputies.
Around the same time that the volunteer marshals backed the crowd of students off the sidewalk, University Vice President for Student Affairs D. Alan Williams pulled up in a car and spoke to the protesters through a bullhorn. According to the anonymous marshal from the law school, however, “few if any students heard him. I myself did not. Mr. Williams spoke from nearly half a block away from the crowd and the din at the scene obliterated the transmission of his message.” It was only later that the anonymous marshal learned that Williams had been warning the assembled students that if they did not disperse within three minutes, the 1968 Virginia Riot Control Act—allowing police to arrest persons congregating in a group of more than two—would be enforced on them.
The anonymous student’s account goes on to explain how he found himself making the unexpected transition from peacekeeper to arrestee. “I was not under the impression and I don’t think the crowd was under the impression that the Riot Act was about to be applied,” he reported. “Several participants in the rally kept urging, ‘Stay on the lawn, they can’t get you here.’ […] But we were wrong.”
The anonymous account continues:
We were on the grass, the marshals moving the crowd backwards toward the Rotunda and Lawn, the rear flanks of the ralliers now very spread out and dropping back rapidly. Then the police charged toward the retreating crowd at a full gallop. […]
The first persons to be caught up with were probably the marshals. The marshals had remained on the police side of the crowd, constantly urging the crowd backwards and seeking to avoid any possible kind of confrontation.
As the police charged I fanned east along the rear of the retreating crowd and was not caught up with until I was half way up the Rotunda steps. I was making no desperate attempt to get away, believing first, that the police were only trying to scare people away and second, that even if the police intended to arrest demonstrators, they would never arrest a legal marshal—especially one wearing a legal marshal armband. But I was wrong again. I was grabbed and told, “you’re under arrest.” Another “honk for peace” rally was staged the following night. The event was later recounted in detail for readers of the Law Weekly by the anonymous law student who had wound up under arrest and detained in the back of the Mayflower moving van, a fate that took him by surprise.
After the law student was escorted from the steps of the Rotunda, “disbelieving what had happened,” he was packed into the back of the waiting Mayflower moving van along with dozens of other people. In two trips, the van eventually ferried more than sixty individuals to the Charlottesville police station, where they were led into the juvenile court room for holding.