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.
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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.