Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

It Even Happened Here: Student Activism at Furman University, 1967-1970

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

It Even Happened Here: Student Activism at Furman University, 1967-1970

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE MOST NOTORIOUS INCIDENTS OF THE MODERN civil rights movement occurred on February 8, 1968, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, when police officers attempting to disperse student protesters at South Carolina State University opened fire, killing three students and wounding thirty others.1 The killings garnered national attention, and civil rights activists around the country mourned the dead students. Among those to express their sympathy were seventeen student activists at Furman University in Greenville. Four days after the shooting, the Furman students held a protest at the Greenville Federal Building to demonstrate their support for the Orangeburg students' cause. The protest was organized by three black Furman students-Joseph Vaughn, June Manning, and Tyrone Bonaparte Haynes-and most of the dozen whites who participated in it were affiliated with the campus chapter of the Southern Student Organizing Committee, a Nashville-based organization of white southern student activists who worked to promote civil rights and other progressive causes on predominantly white campuses across the region. For most of the Furman students, the Greenville protest was their first demonstration, and as Greg Wooten, one of the white protesters, recalled, "We were frightened on several levels-[of] violence, arrests, and what the school would do to us." Carrying signs condemning police brutality and denouncing racism, the students paraded in front of the Federal Building to the astonishment of local whites, some of whom shouted epithets at the demonstrators or honked their horns in derision as they drove by.2

Although the protest was small in size and short in duration, it created a stir among whites, thanks to the media attention it received. News of the demonstration quickly spread beyond Greenville, as John Duggan, one of the white protesters, discovered when several former high-school friends chased him away during a visit to his hometown of Manning shortly afterward. In Greenville, many whites, including alumni, complained that Furman officials should have prohibited the students from participating in the protest. Gordon W. Blackwell, Furman's president, rejected such views and defended the students' right to protest. It is doubtful that a brief demonstration by a handful of students would have generated controversy in metropolises like Atlanta or Nashville, but in the small city of Greenville, an interracial protest by students from the putatively quiet Furman campus was a major event. In the context of the larger southern civil rights movement, the demonstration, in Greg Wooten's words, "was small potatoes, but it was big for us."3

The Furman students' protest would come as a surprise to many historians of the southern movement. Most scholars ignore young southern whites' involvement in the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and university reform movements of the 1960s. Instead, southern students, like those at Furman, typically appear in histories of the era only as opponents of change, individuals so hostile to reform movements and so committed to the "Southern Way of Life" that they were willing to resort to violence to preserve it. From these scholars' perspective, this small Baptist school was an unlikely place for student activism to take root, since it was far from the campus centers of movement activity and nestled deep in a region whose white residents, most historians have assumed, shared a devotion to traditionalism and an antipathy for social change. Furman students, therefore, could be ignored, since to look for activists among them would be an exercise in futility.4

While a few historians have worked to correct this view of southern students in the 1960s, their studies have focused on young whites at the region's major universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.5 But white students at a range of smaller and more provincial institutions, such as Maryville College in Tennessee and Millsaps College in Mississippi, also participated in the social movements of the era. …

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