A self-guided walk/bike tour of scenes from the last revolution to hit Lexington
By Guy Mendes
In contrast to the Greatest Generation, which saved the world from the Nazis and the Fascists, the crowd of students who hit their college years in the late Sixties was what you might call the Provocative Generation. They prodded and poked and pissed off a lot of people in order to help us understand that war was not the answer. They were part of a nation-wide movement not only because their lives were in the balance, but also because the American Dream had been exposed as a myth that hid the duel-headed beast of racism and militarism. These Provocateurs were in middle school or high school when JFK was assassinated. They were in college when MLK and RFK were gunned down. They were turning 18 when that meant, if you were a male, you could be drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam, where many people on both sides were being killed in a senseless, brutal war. They were just beginning to vote when Washington was burning and race riots consumed Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago. And they were about to graduate from UK when they heard that antiwar protesters had been killed by National Guard troops on the Kent State Campus. Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, four dead in Ohio. It can’t happen here, right?
During the weekend of October 28-30, Lexingtonians are advised to be on the lookout for roving bands of hippie-dippie peaceniks, pinkos, radicals and bleeding heart liberals who have conspired to convene in Lexington during the last weekend of the month. This loose-knit band of sixty-somethings is re-grouping 41 years after some of them put Lexington and the burning UK Air Force ROTC Building in their rear-view mirrors. Others among them have been living here all along, quietly thinking their leftist thoughts, waiting for the next chance to march in the streets.
On Saturday, they’ll gather at the downtown YMCA (239 East High Street) at 10 A.M. for a walking/biking tour of their provocative past. Come join them on their tour, and afterwards head on down to Occupy Lexington to hear some of their stories.
Can’t make it then? No problem. Here is a guided tour of “the most dangerous moment in UK history” (so far). In the meantime, if you encounter someone Questioning Authority, or asking What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?, approach carefully, flash the peace sign and say, Right On!
1. 1. The tour of insurrectionary sites begins at High & Stone. Not only is it a harmonic convergence of street signs and a good description of the Sixties, it’s across from the Downtown Y, where there are five yellow bikes available, thanks to director David Elsen.
2. 2. Go two blocks down High and turn south on Lexington Avenue. The spot where Sue Anne Salmon was arrested for burning down the UK AFROTC building was about halfway between Maxwell and Euclid, not far from the current Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge. Sue Anne was handcuffed on her porch and police confiscated what they said was a Molotov cocktail. One bystander yelled at her, “I saw you do it and I’m going to testify against you.” The next day front page headlines screamed COED ARRESTED FOR ARSON. Two weeks later, after a lab determined the bottle contained ginger ale, a small back page article said, Coed Exonerated. Sue Anne was a staff member of the blue-tail fly, so she later wrote a story about the ordeal.
It was a funny and frightening piece, about a five-foot tall, 100-pound shy person being falsely accused and mistreated by a system that presumed her guilty from the get go. (Copies of the blue-tail fly can be seen online thanks to UK Special Collection—the page pictured here is from issue number nine.) Sue Anne died in January, 2010. Here’s a thoughtful obit that ran in the Herald-Leader: http://www.kentucky.com/2010/01/16/1097860/courageous-advocate-for-earth.html
3. 3. Turn left onto the Avenue of Champions and behold the art deco beauty of the House that Rupp Built—Memorial Coliseum, scene of numerous national championships and a few significant protests. In 1966 it was here that William Turner, a black student from Lynch, in the coalfields of Harlan County, set up a one-man picket line protesting Rupp’s all-white teams. Considering the sacred nature of Kentucky roundball, this was an act of bravery. I’ve always considered Bill and his fellow Black Student Union members Jim Embry, Theodore Berry, Chester and Ann Grundy and P.G. Peeples to be the first real activists on the UK Campus. Four years after Bill’s singular protest UK integrated its basketball team.
Memorial Coliseum was also the scene of an unusual, mind-messing protest against racist Alabama governor George Wallace, who came to speak as a presidential contender in 1968. While protesters dressed in coats and ties and nice dresses demonstrated against Wallace, a large group of bell-bottomed, tie-dyed crazies called Hippies for Wallace picketed with signs saying things like “Turn On With George.” During his talk the hippies sat high in the rafters and cheered everything he said, such as how he’d run over draft-card burning protesters if he had the chance to. As the hippies’ cheers grew louder, Wallace finally looked up at them and said, “I guess they’re for us up there!” Nothing like a little political theater to stir up some national attention. Who knows, maybe it even cost him a few votes among diehard bigots.
It was somewhere in the vicinity of Memorial Coliseum December of ’69 that Don Pratt was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor by having kids sell copies of the blue-tail fly, in which there was a photograph of a nude. Don was the circulation manager of the fly; he worked with Sue Anne Salmon, who wrote for the fly.
4.4 Ride to the end of the block in front of the Coliseum, cross Rose and look back toward the shopping center on the corner. That’s where The Paddock was.
It was THE campus bar back then. It was a place where who knows how many schemes were hatched, and then forgotten the next morning. If you look up and over the little strip mall, you’ll see a still-under-construction, three-story building looming on the horizon. This is the Wildcat Coal Lodge—$7 million worth of proof that the University has sold it soul to the coal barons, and sold out the people of eastern Kentucky who have to live with the devastation of mountaintop removal.
5. 5.Head back across the Avenue of Champions to the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. and there, where a new dorm complex sits, is where the AFROTC Building burned on May 5th, 1970. Historian Carl Cone wrote in his book about UK that this was the most dangerous moment in the university’s history.
I disagree; I think it was a bit later that night, but more on that later. Meanwhile, I have to say that I did not burn the building. Nobody I know has ever told me they did it. I hear some people have bragged about doing it, but then disappeared from sight shortly after making their boasts. Forty-one years later it remains an unsolved crime, a real Lexington mystery. I think 98 percent of the people protesting that day were seeking peace, not chaos and destruction. I know for a fact that there was at least one undercover cop trying to get people to throw rocks through the windows of Beull Armory. And, obviously, someone did put the torch to the place.
Gov. Louie Nunn, sitting in a darkened car, is said to have watched the building burn and worried about the coeds in their pajamas who had to flee the adjacent Blazer Hall. He sent in the National Guard, equipped with live ammunition, to remove the protesters and cordon off the campus.
6. 6. Park your bike and go between the new Student Center and the old one, and you’ll see the grassy knoll where tear gas billowed, though billowed is not the right word, since Guardsmen were sticking the nozzles right in peoples’ faces, people like student government president Steve Bright, who along with many others, was forced to flee.
While you are nearby, go to the top floor of the Patterson Office Tower and see where protesters were denied entrance to the Board of Trustees meeting, which was followed by a crush of people in the hallway and punctuated by former governor Happy Chandler punching a hippie, a grad student named Mark Greenwell.
Happy was roundly praised across the commonwealth, and the UK conflict intensified. Before you leave the P.O.T. top floor, check out the great view of Lexington.
7. 7. Get back on the bike and pedal over to S. Limestone and the Lexington Theological Seminary lawn. On your way you’ll pass the old Alfalfa’s, which is now a hookah bar (you can’t make this stuff up). On the seminary lawn you get a good look across the street at Memorial Hall, which played a prominent role in both of the uprisings of ’69 and ’70.
The first Student Spring was a protest over student rights. At the time the concept of in loco parentis ruled. Students—who were over 18 and could vote and be conscripted into the military—were not considered to be adults with the due process of the legal system accorded to them. So when four students were busted for having pot in their lockers and summarily kicked out of school one week before final exams, the campus erupted. The four students were never given a trial. They were deemed to be “clear and present dangers” and banished. Thousands of students protested.
They marched through the Administration Building, and then occupied Memorial Hall. It was called the Mother-May-I-Revolution because it was all very polite. The university allowed the protesters to march here and sleep there, knowing full well that they’d all be gone after finals. Fortunately for the students, the protests went on long enough to force the cancellation of finals. And sure enough, most of the protesters headed home. But at least they had put the university on notice. Authority was being questioned.
In the same spot on the night of May 5, 1970, one day after the Kent State killings, it could have happened here. Protesters were encamped for the night on the seminary lawn. The campus was off-limits, though no Guardsmen were in evidence. One foolish dude decided to test the curfew and ventured across the street onto the Law School lawn. Suddenly, Guardsmen came running out of the shadows, lots of them, toting their weapons, running toward the protesters. One Guardsman tripped on a landscaping guy-wire and he fell forward, his gun pointing toward the crowd. He landed on his stomach with his gun stretched out in front of him. He did not fire, but it was clear to those who saw it that someone could have died if that Guardsman had pulled the trigger.
I vote for this as UK’s most dangerous moment. What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How could you run when you know?
8. 8. Now head across Limestone to the big curved driveway leading to the Administration Building. When students converged here in ’69, they were angry about being ignored by UK officials, who were justifiably leery of addressing a revolutionary throng. For some of the demonstrators, marching through the building in orderly fashion was not their cup of tea, so they resorted to symbolic action, rocking the cannon out front loose from its pedestal and turning it to face the Administrators. When the Dean of Students did venture out he turned ashen and sweat popped off of his bald head. He muttered something about how it looked like the storming of the Bastille during the French revolution and he quickly retreated. This Question Authority thing was getting out of hand.
I suspect that not long after that incident the university had the cannon cemented back in its original position.
Wouldn’t it be great if it were still moveable? How many re-enactors would it take to turn it now? Where would we point it—toward the Wildcat Coal Lodge, perhaps?
9. 9. You’re in the home stretch of the tour—ride back to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, formerly known as Harrison Avenue. Head downtown and you’ll be following the path that the major anti-war demonstrations followed to get to Main Street.
The crowd was usually led by a former Marine who had fought in Vietnam and had witnessed things that tormented him. His name was Michael Lane. He was an art student who made silk-screened prints of a bleeding American flag. He also built a beautifully crafted wooden sign, a kind of totem really, that he carried in every march. It said,
he killed for peace
that never came.”
No word on Michael Lane’s current whereabouts. Michael, call home!
10. Cross the viaduct, check your brakes as you coast down to Main Street and hang a Ralph to visit with the Occupy Lexington protesters on the corner of Esplanade, outside the J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, which was one of the bad actors in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. (They recently paid a $153.6 million dollar fine to settle a federal suit that alleged that JPM Chase stacked the deck so that they profited even when their investors lost money.} The current crop of protesters, who’ll be 40 days into their occupation by then, will be glad to see you. Grab a sign and make some cars honk their support.
For the last leg of the tour, ride down Main toward the old courthouse, the one where Clean Gene McCarthy, the peace candidate for president, addressed a big crowd of supporters in 1968.
Remember how back in 1970 you marched down Main Street with hundreds of others, letting your freak flag fly, chanting One Two Three Four We Don’t Want Your Fucking War.
Remember how that war seemed to drag on and on, but it did eventually come to an end five years later, in large part because of a change in public opinion. While several national demonstrations called “moratoriums” helped to turn the tide, it was the countless local protest marches—boots on the ground in places like Lexington—that helped bring the troops home from Vietnam. You can be proud of that, while at the same time recognizing that the peace movement still has plenty of work to do in the here-and-now.
Full disclosure: Guy Mendes was one of the founding staff members the blue-tail fly, which published 11 issues between 1969 and ’70. Drop on by UK’s Special Collections Library and learn some of the region’s radical history. A full gallery of Mendes and archival photos accompany the online version of this article, found at noclexington.com.