After putting on a long Pink Floyd track to cover our absence from behind the consoles, we hurried outside. From our vantage point on 15th Street, we could see an orange glow flickering against the sky to the northwest. We were pretty certain this was no ordinary two-alarmer, but we couldn’t have guessed what the true story behind this conflagration would turn out to be. All we knew for sure was that this was a good time to put “For What It’s Worth” on the turntable.
Political consciousness at the University of Alabama had for years been connected with standing in a schoolhouse door, but in the spring of 1970, the Capstone seemed finally synched up with most of the institutions of higher learning in America. A youth counterculture triggered by the accession of Kennedys and Beatles in the early Sixties had elevated adolescent rebellion to a lifestyle, manifested in Tuscaloosa by head shops and groovy clothing boutiques, not to mention a decided increase in the number of marijuana possession arrests.
Drugs provided common reference for the traditionally antipathetic Greeks and independents; leftist politics less so. A small but vocal segment of the student population had begun to protest America’s continuing involvement in a never-ending Asian war that, in the era of universal draft, was likely to suck those without deferments into its vortex. Though the UA SDS chapter numbered 36 in 1968, hundreds more were enrolled in Army and Air Force ROTC. When the nationwide Moratorium antiwar protests were mounted in October, 1969, the Phi Ep house on campus actually hoisted a banner asking “What If They Gave A War And Nobody Came?”, though the signage was torn down by vandals in short order.
In March, 1970, a national spotlight was turned on Tuscaloosa when a student committee booked the Chicago 7’s Abbie Hoffman to speak during the Emphasis lecture series, only to have the president of the university, David Mathews, ban his appearance on the grounds that the activist would present a “clear and present danger” of campus unrest. 600 students marched on the president’s mansion in a fruitless attempt to change his mind.
April came and went, with Apollo 13 and the first Earth Day, but the mood at the Capstone continued to be volatile, driven by mixed signals from the Nixon White House, one day ballyhooing troop withdrawals and the next announcing the end of occupational and most paternity draft deferments.
On April 30, U.S and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia, setting off a new round of antiwar demonstrations all over the country. The next day, the President dismissed college protestors as “bums blowing up campuses.” Rhetoric on both sides of the issue escalated rapidly, reaching a tragic climax May 4, when National Guardsmen brought in to quell unrest at Kent State University opened fire, killing four students and injuring nine.
As at over 400 colleges and universities nationwide, students in Tuscaloosa took to the streets to demonstrate against the Ohio bloodshed, culminating May 6 in what the school newspaper, the Crimson-White , reported as “the largest protest gathering in the University’s 139-year history.” More than a thousand people jammed the steps of the Union Building to hear speakers like Iredell Jenkins, Philosophy Department chairman, counsel a nonviolent reaction to government-sanctioned murder.
Mathews met with advisers to assess his conceivable responses, which included shutting down classes for the rest of the semester. He decided to keep the campus open, urging that dialogue on the turbulent national situation be undertaken in the context of the classroom, and he acceded to student requests that the American flag at the Union Building be lowered to half-staff in remembrance of the dead.
That’s where real trouble began. Probably as a protest against the protests, after a Thursday midday rally on the Union steps, two students commandeered the flagpole to raise the banner to full staff. When antiwar advocates tried to lower the flag again, university cops stopped them. A sit-in ensued, and when the Post Office, actual owners of the flag in question, refused to consent to a re-lowering, the restive crowd moved down the street and across the Quadrangle to the Gorgas Library, where they lowered a flag there to half-staff. A memorial service, organized by the Tuscaloosa Women’s Movement, was announced for 7:30 that evening at Denny Chimes.
The Quad flickered with candlelight as night fell and an estimated 1,200 students gathered to listen to poetry and sing movement songs. At the end of the service, the assemblage moved to the Army ROTC building to place their candles on its steps, where a small group of dissidents greeted them with a chorus of “Happy Birthday”.
Instead of dispersing after the service, perhaps half of the gathering dashed across University Boulevard to the president’s mansion, hoping to draw Mathews out for a confrontation. Thwarted by campus security and Mathews’s absence at the house, some initiated a sit-in in the street to stop traffic. Police broke that up as well, whereupon an ad-hoc action meeting was called for the Supe Store and a crowd marched off down the middle of the street.
The cafeteria located downstairs in the Union Building was getting ready to close as hundreds of students poured in. Workers cleared out, leaving the crowd to forage for themselves, which they did with gusto. According to the Crimson-White, students took over the Union Building around 10:30 PM. A lengthy rap session ensued, as the group compiled a list of demands to present to Mathews, ranging from no more speaker bans to no more mandatory food contracts.
The meeting was interrupted around 2 AM, when the group learned that a fire had broken out at Dressler Hall, at 3rd Street and 8th Avenue across campus. While most ran off to view the spectacle, many remained behind to clean up the well-trashed Supe Store.
At least five fire units attempted to extinguish flames in the old frame structure as some 2,000 students watched. Meanwhile, wherever David Mathews was instead of at his mansion, he put in a call to Floyd Mann’s office at the Department of Public Safety in Montgomery, requesting state troopers to augment Col. Beverly Leigh’s small university police force. More than 100, equipped with riot gear, arrived on campus around 5:30 AM Friday, and shortly thereafter, authorities reclaimed the Union Building without incident.
Troopers remained on campus for several days to quell what they assumed was an insurrection. Attempts to rally were met with gratuitous violence and the arrests of students and faculty, frat boys and hippies alike, inadvertently creating a bond between Greeks and freaks that effectively broadened the base of dissent at the university.
(An incident some weeks later neatly summarized the police attitude toward the insurgents. The public television center had booked two staffers from Atlanta’s underground paper, The Great Speckled Bird, to appear on a public affairs show. When the host of the show, Greg Bass, picked them up at the Greyhound station downtown, cops attempted to detain the outsiders. “They were disappointed to see Atlanta Police press passes,” he recalls. “But I’ll never forget what they said: ‘We’re gonna run this town.’”)
You may already have guessed what transpired ultimately. The new coalition was unable to hold together against police repression and the administration’s unwillingness to negotiate demands, while the exigencies of final exams frankly outweighed many students’ newly mustered political proclivities. Graduation took place June 1, 1970. The Vietnam War would not end until April 30, 1975.
One mystery persisted, however; the cause of the fire at Dressler that triggered the clampdown. Though it was generally attributed to wackos on the Left, somehow no evidence was ever collected to pin the deed on Commie-loving anarchists.
That’s because the outside agitators carried badges.
In September 1970, during the city trial of Craig Nutt, one of 150 people arrested during the May disturbances, defense lawyer George Dean, affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union, dropped a bombshell in open court, alleging that said disturbances had been instigated by “an agent of the Tuscaloosa Police Department.”
Dean introduced the world to the mysterious Charles Grimm. Then 21, Grimm had come to UA on a wrestling scholarship in 1968, but lost it, either as a result of academic problems or disciplinary actions connected with his supposedly having set a fire in Paty Hall in 1969. In a statement published in Tuscaloosa’s underground paper, High Gauge, Dean, with fellow lawyers Ralph Knowles and Jack Drake, laid out details of their three-month investigation, alleging that, probably because he or his fiancée got jammed up by city cops, Grimm had become a narc for the Tuscaloosa police in 1970. Answering to Detective Loyd Russell, he reportedly set up at least 13 drug busts.
Stepping up the level of perfidy, Russell apparently shared his operative with the FBI, which recruited Grimm to infiltrate campus antiwar groups, “to provoke students into committing acts of violence and to make regular reports on his activities and the activities of those he observed.”
When students could not be persuaded to violence, Grimm took up the slack. The lawyers’ statement alleged that Grimm said in the presence of witnesses that he’d burned down Dressler Hall May 7, that he made and threw Molotov cocktails near an apartment complex May 14 and that he hurled objects at police from the Union Building May 18, which action triggered 45 arrests after troopers declared an unlawful assembly.
During the Nutt trial, Dean himself testified about his talks with Grimm concerning these matters. Then, according to Paul Davis’s report in The Tuscaloosa News, he called Russell and local FBI agent Eric Wilson to the stand to corroborate the testimony. Wilson declined to answer questions on grounds that he needed Attorney General John Mitchell’s permission, but Russell was less able to weasel out, identifying Grimm from a photo likely taken by Tuscaloosa police.
City attorney Howard Rainey (but for a fluke of fate his associate, now-Senator Richard Shelby, might have caught the case) deflected the allegations, suggesting that if Dean had evidence, he should turn it over to a grand jury. Meanwhile, the provocateur himself was now nowhere to be found. Grimm departed Tuscaloosa hastily, leaving Eric Wilson’s post office box as his forwarding address.
Shortly thereafter, reporters from The Los Angeles Times found Grimm driving a bread truck in Minneapolis, where he had relocated in response to supposed death threats. He admitted being “an undercover political agent” and witnessing fires, but he denied participating in them. Dean called a press conference to insist that Tuscaloosa police and the FBI come clean about their involvement in campus unrest. Rainey responded, calling such allegations “irresponsible and improper,” and, according to Jack Drake, J. Edgar Hoover himself felt compelled to issue a denial.
The story remained in limbo until October 1971, when PBS announced it was editing an episode of its series, “The Great American Dream Machine” to excise a fifteen-minute segment on how the FBI instigated campus uprisings. Appearing was the otherwise elusive Charlie Grimm, but he had a different tale to tell now, claiming that Loyd Russell had threatened him with jail if he didn’t cooperate and become a narc. “These people had me by the throat and they knew it, “ he said. “And eventually the FBI came in and said we want you to work for us, too.”
Grimm claimed that G-man Eric Taylor indirectly directed him to commit acts of violence: “These aren’t his exact words, but this is what he was saying, ‘If there was a fire on campus, we could get in there and crush those Communists that are on campus.’ Well, there is no Communist on campus, just students that are concerned...and I did burn a few buildings and throw a few Molotov cocktails. And eventually the state troopers did come in.” Asked by interviewer Paul Jacobs if Taylor knew he was going to torch the buildings, Grimm replied, “Definitely...he did tell me that destruction was necessary.”
When George Dean heard about the televised confession, he said he wasn’t surprised, but he had stated his conclusions in High Gauge the year before: “We have talked with Grimm at length and it is our opinion that he needs professional psychiatric assistance. However, we all should remember who hired Charlie Grimm and who told him what to do. The FBI and certain Tuscaloosa city police are the real criminals in this sordid mess. They found Charlie Grimm, they manipulated him, they played upon his weakness, they abused his humanity; they, in effect destroyed him.”
Forty years away, furor has cooled. The firebrands of 1970 are AARP-eligible and their tales from the ramparts make good cocktail chat. Dean and Russell have passed on, Taylor has retired and Grimm lives who knows where nowadays. No one was ever held accountable for the campus destruction, but the university did receive $140,000 from its insurance company. Bob Dylan had it right all along: “Nothing is revealed.”
However, one thing in America hasn’t changed. People of conscience still protest unjust wars prosecuted by their government and they still struggle to make their voices heard. There should never be a statute of limitations on resistance.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to Courtney@bhamweekly.com