It came to be known as May Days, Spring 1970, a Monday through Sunday of protest, pot and exams’ indefinite postponement.
Those seven days mark a cultural turning point years in the making, the culmination of a University undergoing a profound transformation in the charged atmosphere of civil rights, Vietnam, generational divide, and Nixon.
Into that combustible mix flew the spark of Kent State, Monday, May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed student antiwar protesters, killing four. First came a rally in front of the Rotunda, then the first of three marches in three days to confront Edgar Shannon at the president’s house on Carr’s Hill.
Twice students would take over Maury Hall, site of the U.S. Navy ROTC program. When protests later in the week stopped traffic on University Avenue, police did a sweep that included the Lawn, collaring 68 students and tossing them into an awaiting Mayflower moving van. Suddenly a half-supported boycott of classes gained converts and new life. It extended for the rest of the semester, effectively canceling exams.
May Days ended Sunday, May 10, with Shannon’s making a dramatic antiwar speech at a mass rally. It would define his 15-year presidency and complicate its remaining four years.
Suffice it to say, we’ve had the subject on our story list for a while. Then Joel Gardner (Col ’70, Law ’74) walked into Alumni Hall, joined us in the overstuffed leather chairs in the Virginia Room, and presented us with an irresistible opportunity—page proofs of his new memoir.
From Rebel Yell to Revolution unfolds in four acts, one for each of Gardner’s undergraduate academic years, starting in the fall of 1967 and building to the climax of Spring 1970. It’s the inspiration, and the jumping off point, for our May Days story.
Much research went into Gardner’s work, but he offers it as a personal story, by no means a dispassionate account. The tension between objective truth and the subjective is more of an issue with our story on the Lawn colonnade. UVA historian Gary Gallagher famously instructs, don’t mistake memory for history. It’s how Gallagher challenges self-justifying Civil War narratives, that the North fought to end slavery, for example, or the South for reasons nobler than perpetuating it.
For the colonnade, the issue is shades of truth. We all take as an article of UVA faith that the columns on the Lawn were, are, and ever will be a gleaming bright white. Recent analysis, however, suggests sandy tan as the more authentic hue. Which raises the question, if you’re restoring the colonnade, which shade should prevail, the Crest Whitestrips white of our own time or the tawny reality of Jefferson’s? We’re not trying to stir up anything, but we don’t want to whitewash things either.
S. Richard Gard Jr.