It all seemed surreal to Sandra Alexander, the day when the response to student unrest at North Carolina A&T State University, a public historically black university in Greensboro, North Carolina, boiled over into a government occupation. The tear gas, the bullets, the tanks. It was May 1969, and the university was about to become the site of one of the largest occupations of an American college campus in history.
Alexander, who was one of the students hired as a full-time dormitory director, was on duty the night the commotion began. “The protest started right in front of the dorm I was in charge of, Curtis Hall,” she told me of the tumult over an injustice at a local high school that had leaked back to the campus. Then the Greensboro police arrived to disperse the protesters and unleashed chaos. The police fired tear gas and bullets at the students; Alexander recalled “young men running, trying to avoid being shot,” and “pounding their fists on the doors of the dorm, begging to be let in so that they could escape the gunfire.”
The violence continued through the night; then, by morning, the National Guard began showing up. The governor ordered dorms to be raided in search of guns in students’ rooms. When the occupation was over, one student—Willie Grimes, an 18-year-old freshman—had been killed, and one other student had been shot but survived. The graduation ceremony was postponed, and when it was held two weeks later, it was a shell of what it would have been.
Fifty years later, during commencement at North Carolina A&T earlier this month, members of the graduating class of 1969—more than 100 of them—gathered on the Greensboro campus. Typically, these anniversaries are marked by the seasoned graduates donning golden regalia and marching in the processional with the soon-to-be alumni. But this year there was more to it. “[These graduates] found what should have been a day of celebration a faint shadow of what it could have been,” Harold Martin Sr., the university’s chancellor, told the audience. “We cannot undo the terror of our students, faculty, and staff, and what they felt as armed National Guardsmen swarmed the campus and fired on Scott Hall,” he said. “But what we can do—what it is our honor today—is celebrate the students who persevered through that period of chaos and violence.”
Martin signaled to the audience. “And what we can do is recognize the injustice so many of them suffered in 1969”—the audience began clapping, as the class members rose to their feet, standing and waving—“in not being able to have a proper graduation to celebrate their academic accomplishments.”
The revolution was on in Greensboro in the late 1960s, particularly on the campus of North Carolina A&T. “People like Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez came to campus,” Alexander told me. “They were the first ones to really tell us ‘black is beautiful’—and we believed it.”
It didn’t hurt that the campus is located in what was then one of the centers of black activism. Jelani Favors, the author of Shelter in a Time of Storm, which explores how historically black colleges foster activism and leadership, says that the political fervor of students on campus was really the product of the combination of these two factors—the speakers who had come to campus and the local opportunities to organize in their own area. “In the fall of 1968, there had been an attempt to organize a campus strike on behalf of the cafeteria workers on campus,” he told me. At the beginning of the decade, the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 inspired a wave of sit-ins across the country. “There had been a separate attempt to organize and support the blind workers who worked in Greensboro; and there was a lot of really positive, radical energy surrounding that campus prior to May 1969,” Favors said.
By the tail end of the ’60s, one of the most prominent student-led civil-rights organizations, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was on its last legs. Student leaders at A&T thought to launch their own national organization: the Student Organization for Black Unity. The organization’s first meeting, in the spring of 1969, brought student-activist leaders from across the country to Greensboro. It was a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the Orangeburg massacre, where a South Carolina Highway Patrol officer killed three black men on the campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college three hours from Greensboro. The group railed against systemic discrimination, the remaining vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow, and other injustices that had not been undone by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Across town, on May 2, Claude Barnes, an African American junior at James B. Dudley High School, had won the race for student-body president on roughly 600 write-in ballots. But school administrators declared another student, who received hundreds fewer votes, the winner of the election. Black students at Dudley were furious. The move was politically motivated, they argued, and the school administrators were only denying Barnes the presidency because they argued he was affiliated with youth groups that were too militant. “The fact that one student was denied the opportunity to run for a school office is insignificant per se; it becomes highly significant when seen in the context of the inequities charged against the total system,” a report compiled for the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights in 1970 reads.
Barnes, it turned out, had a connection to students in the Black Power movement at A&T, and by May 9, as students at Dudley protested the decision, A&T students joined them. It made sense for them to, Favors told me, as they thought, “This is what we have this new organization for—let’s stop talking about it, and let’s go and see what we can do on behalf of these students.”
The protests continued for the next several days, and by Wednesday, May 21, the local authorities and administrators at Dudley viewed the A&T students as agitators, Favors said; and the protest spilled over back onto A&T’s campus. Students threw rocks at cars passing by. The A&T administration tried to get all A&T students to leave campus before the semester had ended, telling them they had until Friday, May 23, to collect their things. By the time the local police arrived at A&T to squelch the protest that day, “they saw the students as the enemy,” Alexander said. “They were no longer students; they were targets.”
First the police fired tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd, and eventually, after reports of sniper fire, they started shooting bullets at the students. “It was dark when it started,” Alexander told me, and it continued through the night. The National Guard was alerted at 10:35 that evening, and administrators called Alexander to tell her to put her building on lockdown—no one out, no one in—as young men beat on the doors to escape the gunfire. Roughly 150 National Guard troops arrived on campus. An hour and a half past midnight, Willie Grimes, who was returning from a fast-food restaurant, was shot in the back of the head. The police said neither they nor the National Guard used bullets small enough to match the one that killed Grimes. No one was ever tried in his murder.
The next morning, at a 10 a.m. news conference, the Greensboro mayor, Jack Elam, declared a state of emergency, and an additional 500 guardsmen were called in. All told, 650 members of the National Guard were ordered to be on campus, with tanks, a helicopter, and guns. The university’s president, Lewis Dowdy, dismissed classes. An angry mob pulled a white driver—a civilian—from his truck and flipped it on its side. As the day wore on into night, sniper fire continued, and authorities said there were large stockpiles of guns in the dorms. Overnight, Governor Bob Scott made the call: The National Guard was to sweep two dormitories on campus. “Guardsmen charged through the halls kicking down doors and shooting off locks,” a local news report a decade later recapped. “In some cases students were sleeping or packing, under the impression they had until 6 p.m., May 23, to get out.” The sweep resulted in the confiscation of three working firearms. The information authorities had about a stockpile was erroneous.
On May 23, students left campus unsure of when they would be able to come back; some were unsure whether they wanted to come back at all. Seniors were left wondering whether they would have a graduation. Sandra Alexander returned home to Warsaw, a sleepy farm town in southeastern North Carolina. But she returned a little over a week later, on June 1, when the university alerted the seniors that they would be able to have commencement exercises. The communication between the university and the students was fractured as the institution tried to put itself back together. She was greeted by a classmate with congratulations, unsure why. “You’re the valedictorian,” she remembers the classmate telling her. “Would have been nice to know that,” she says now.
The bullet-stained wall of Scott Hall is still on campus at North Carolina A&T, a reminder of the occupation that foreshadowed the violence at Jackson State and Kent State the following year. The report submitted to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights suggested that blame for the events at A&T was to be placed on everyone in the community, but particularly on the National Guard and police for excessive force.
“This really kind of exemplifies the overaggressive force that National Guardsmen, state militia, and local police were willing to use to shut down the protest energies that were very much circulating through these campuses,” Favors told me—and this kind of strong antagonism seemed to happen on HBCU campuses in particular.
During commencement this year, as Chancellor Martin stood at the lectern following a video tribute to the class of 1969, he implored the audience to honor the class. “What we can do is recognize the productive, successful lives that so many went on to live,” he said. “Carrying out exceptional careers and serving as phenomenal community leaders.”
Alexander went to graduate school at Harvard, then finished her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh. She returned to North Carolina A&T, where she was a professor for three decades. She taught African American literature and mentored students. When she looks back at 1969, she doesn’t limit it to the violence of those three days in May; she also thinks about the energy that coursed through campus—the desire among the student body to effect change, and the effort to suppress it.