There was a homecoming of a different sort at the University of Alabama last week, one that had nothing to do with football. The occasion was the 2015 Rose Gladney Lecture for Justice and Social Change, during which the keynote speaker, Dr. Candace Waid, disclosed “Some Secrets of Tuscaloosa in the Spring of ’70.”
If you have spent any time at the University, then you already know that Tuscaloosa is continually suffused with secrets, wafting about town like fevers in a swamp. 1970 was no unusual year in that regard, except that the FBI took a special interest in some of those secrets.
America was almost five years into its miserable adventure in Vietnam when Candy Waid enrolled at the University, and the same anti-war spirit that had arisen on campuses elsewhere in the country since 1967 was finally making its way to Alabama. Pockets of nonconformity were not unusual there, especially where two or more art students were gathered together, but the fall of 1969 was the first time a significant countercultural presence could be detected on campus. There were frat boys sporting sideburns and sorority girls wearing bellbottoms, but more significantly, dissent was becoming part of the campus discourse.
In ten Hoor Hall last week, one of the secrets Dr. Waid revealed was a subversive Homecoming art project. Living in the women’s honors dorm, Byrd Hall, she and fellow members of what they called the Byrd Hall Liberation Front devised a new slant on the traditional dorm door decoration contest. On the unused third floor, they gave the doors a coffin motif with blood-red paint-spattered tombstones, the dates on which were pertinent to the timeline of the Vietnam War. A large banner proclaimed the theme: “Tell Me Before I Die Who Won the Homecoming Game at ‘Bama.” Far from affronting, the art won the category for Best Door Decoration.
By spring 1970, anger replaced sly nuance. The Nixon Administration had escalated the war into Cambodia and National Guardsmen had killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio. There were demonstrations and counter-demonstrations at the Capstone, but on May 6, the Tuscaloosa Women’s Movement organized a memorial service to attempt to bring people together. That service turned into a demonstration in front of the President’s Mansion and then into a student takeover of the Student Union building.
In the Supe Store that night, protesters helped themselves to ice cream as they debated tactics among themselves. As an elected member of the Student-Faculty Coalition Direction Committee, Waid was in a tight spot. At that time, university rules effectively locked women in their dorms at night, so female students caught participating in this action after hours might have faced school sanctions.
The mood was raucous in the Supe Store, and Waid wound up standing on a table to make herself heard. “I knew that the only successful response in the Southeast had followed students’ refusal to leave a student union. I advised people to stay, but the group was restless and needed to move,” she said. “The men’s voices held sway.”
Left behind, “feeling young and guilty,” Waid decided to remain and clean up the Supe Store, mindful of the mess workers would encounter the next morning. As she toiled into the night, putting away tubs of liberated ice cream, in the early hours of May 7, person or persons unknown set fire to an unused ROTC building called Dressler Hall.
Alone without an alibi, Waid became part of that mystery. She was told by a person with inside knowledge that her name was on a short list as a person who might have burned the building or might know who did. She took refuge in a room belonging to an activist friend in a men’s dorm. Figuring the authorities might come in looking for incriminating evidence, she scoured the room looking for illicit drugs. When the FBI came knocking, she was hiding in the bathroom in a shower stall. She recalled that an agent snatched open the curtain and then just left.
“Not to be prideful, but their search of the room was less detailed than mine,” Waid said. However, radical sensibilities had been awakened. “When the door closed, my life of innocence was over.”
Descended from socialists, Dr. Waid is still involved in political activism. She was instrumental in helping establish the women’s studies program at UAT in the 1970s and as a teacher in subsequent years at Yale, the Sorbonne and the University of California at Santa Barbara, she has lent her energy and her intellectual curiosity to any number of left-of-center causes focusing on social justice. She discerns continuity in her activism: “The people at Zuccotti Park [scene of New York City’s 2011 Occupy protests] look like the people on the border of Arizona, with No More Deaths [a humanitarian immigration initiative]. They look like people in the other vectors of the ongoing civil rights movement. They look like the wider circle of participants in the life-changing spring of 1970.”
Dr. Waid remains particularly attentive to women’s issues. During her address, she also told secrets about her crusade for women’s rights and about crimes against women, present and past. She expressed concern about recent allegations of rape on campus, asking students in the audience to contact her personally with information on violence against women. “Write to me about when Xanax has been put in the punch bowl, why people go back to that same fraternity. What kind of world is this?” she asked. “This is not a world of liberation. Make it a world of liberation. Make a stand here. Don’t stand down.”
Is there shelter from the storm of social injustice? Waid was quick to quote her mentors: “Among the things that Rose [Gladney] and [civil rights activist] Lillian Smith have taught me, love is the most dangerous and worthy thing of all.”
At the end of her scheduled speech, the doctor introduced what she called “luminaries of the movement,” a few of her friends from the spring of 1970, to offer their own secrets. Answering an audience question about rioting on campus, Fred Benjamin was quick to assert that the only people rioting were the cops.
Benjamin said he was a frat boy and a good teenaged Republican when he arrived on campus in 1969, “but my views changed fairly quickly once I hit the University, because it opens you up.” He said he was out to pick up his mail at the Union one day in May 1970 when Tuscaloosa police, who supposedly had no jurisdiction on campus, started chasing students.
The sight infuriated him. Benjamin joined in with campus dissidents and was on the Quad two days later when the city cops charged a student demonstration. “They hauled a bunch of us off to jail,” Benjamin said, “which was a great night. We thoroughly enjoyed being in jail. We gave them hell. We raised a ruckus in there.”
Even after antiwar activities ended, Benjamin remained politically active. As a member of the Student Senate in 1972, he worked within the system to improve women’s conditions and to ensure that the African-American Association would receive student funding.
Dr. Billy Field, a professor in the Honors College, talked about his personal research into the Dressler fire, which he said was almost certainly committed by a man named Charlie Grimm, an agent provocateur in league with the FBI. He found it curious that Grimm, an indifferent student, had somehow obtained a scholarship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
After the fire, Field said, Grimm left town, but his forwarding address was Post Office Box 84 in Tuscaloosa. At a court trial somewhat later, activist attorneys Ralph Knowles and Jack Drake had the opportunity to quiz an FBI agent based in Tuscaloosa about his acquaintance with Charlie Grimm. The agent replied that he could not answer that. Then he was asked if he knew what Box 84 was. The agent said it was the mailing address for the Tuscaloosa FBI office.
“You can put two and two together,” Field laughed.
Field also offered his personal perspective on police rioting. He recalled a demonstration after the fire, planned to start where the Strip began on University Boulevard. It was to be led by a law professor named Brown, whom Billy remembered as wearing a red sweater.
“We were going to march peacefully to the President’s Mansion and present our grievances,” he said. “Hundreds of people started walking down the street, peacefully. Then we saw the Tuscaloosa police. There was a Confederate flag on their arms; that was part of their uniform. We saw [the police] marching out from Sorority Row, marching in lockstep—or trying to. They were all different sizes and they were nervous.
“They came out and they blocked University Boulevard. They turned toward us. They had their riot gear on. The law professor stepped forward and said, ‘We are students from the University of Alabama. I teach at the law school. We are marching to the President’s Mansion within our rights in the U.S. Constitution and we’re going to continue this march.’
“The policeman said, ‘Disperse.’
“The professor said, ‘We are going to continue.’
“I was about 20 feet behind when that cop reared back with his billy club and knocked him over the head. Didn’t discuss it at all. The guy crumpled to the ground, and I thought, ‘If he’d do that to him, what’s he gonna do to me?’ And I turned around and the whole crowd was running down the street.”
William Alford brought along a copy of the local underground paper from that year, High Gauge, with which to amaze the attending students. He concurred with Dr. Field’s theories about Charlie Grimm, and cited a PBS documentary that was later produced about the days of rage on campus, in which Grimm had confessed on camera that he was the perpetrator. The scheduled broadcast of the film never took place, said Alford, apparently because of a direct intervention by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to stop the network from airing it.
Activists David Lowe and Michael O’Bannon also got some wise words in, and the last question of the event came from a student inquiring whether Dr. Waid or any of the luminaries would like to go back to the 1960s. The answer was enthusiastically affirmative.
“You were alive back then,” said Fred Benjamin. “It was more than just going to classes, more than getting a regular education. You got educated in other ways.”
“You know what they say,” William Alford concluded. “Never let a university interfere with your education.”