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  • “There Can Be No Business as Usual”The University of North Carolina and the Student Strike of May 1970
  • Christopher Broadhurst (bio)

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The 6,000 UNC students who went on strike in May 1970 not only showed the power of their collective voice, but also evidenced that protests on southern campuses could rival the scale and intensity witnessed on any college or university in the nation.

“Anti-War demonstrators on Franklin St,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill collection, Photographic Archives, University of North Carolina Libraries.

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Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, like so many of their counterparts across the nation’s campuses, were caught unprepared for President Richard Nixon’s speech on the evening of April 30, 1970. Nixon, elected in 1968 because of his campaign promises to end the war, announced that evening that U.S. ground troops would invade Cambodia to thwart North Vietnamese supply lines. Not only was Nixon not ending the war, but he was actually expanding the conflict. The anger over this betrayal fueled the escalation of antiwar activism at America’s colleges and universities as appalled students turned indignation into action. On one of these campuses, Kent State University, the student protests became a national tragedy when the Ohio National Guard killed four protesters and wounded nine. The horrific images that flooded the airwaves, including the lifeless bodies of fellow college students, filled demonstrators with a mixture of sadness, fear, and rage. Student demonstrators forced hundreds of colleges to shut down as the May 1970 protests became the largest demonstration in the history of American higher education.

unc students too took part in the May 1970 protests. The unc students, as did students on other campuses, had protested the Vietnam War since its inception, yet the conflict seemed unending. Believing that “such murders make it clear that protest in this society has become a matter of life and death,” student leaders at unc issued a statement that condemned the invasion of Cambodia, denounced the deaths at Kent State, and threatened to strike. For these students, “there could be no business as usual” until the government’s policies changed,1 and so for two weeks, thousands of unc students demonstrated their outrage through marches, rallies, vigils, and sit-ins. During the student strike of May 1970, unc students’ voices were finally heard.

The student protests of May 1970, both nationally and at unc, can be viewed as the culmination of a decade-long rise in campus activism. Beginning on February 1, 1960, when four African American students braved segregation policies and refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter, activism became an increasingly growing part of campus life. As the decade progressed, those pioneering activists of the early 1960s were joined by others on campus as students began to challenge long-held policies, both de jure and de facto, that pervaded American society. Campus-based groups, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (sncc) and the Southern Student Organizing Committee (ssoc), became integral to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, while the Student Peace Union (spu) and the Students for a Democratic Society (sds) assumed leadership roles in the mounting opposition to the Vietnam War. Leaders within these organizations, such as Stokely Carmichael and Tom Hayden, became household names as images of student protests flooded the American media.2

For some time, much of the discussion over the May 1970 student protests devalued [End Page 85] the contributions of southern campuses. The common perception was that the South, with its strong martial heritage, was generally supportive of the Vietnam War. The South is home to more military bases than any other region and witnessed the greatest number of casualties during the Vietnam War. That said, recent studies have begun to show that, while many campuses in the South did lag behind other regions in their level of antiwar protests, southern students were heavily involved in student antiwar activism. In fact, unc could boast levels of antiwar activism that rivaled universities considered the centers of student peace demonstrations: Berkeley, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Columbia.3

As the largest university in...


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