When the dogwoods unfurl in beautiful splendor and Greensboro is awash in the warm scents of spring, Claude Barnes' thoughts turn to his junior year at Dudley High School and the days of bullets, tear gas and tanks in May 1969.
He smells the gas as it wafts across the Dudley campus. He hears bullets smacking the sidewalk and the crunch of treads as tanks roar down Market Street.Once again, Barnes relives what he and others call the ``Greensboro Rebellion,' and some remember as the ``Greensboro Riots.' For three weeks in May 1969, east Greensboro turned into an armed camp, and race relations in the city changed forever.
Before those three weeks ended, hundreds of N.C. A&T and Dudley High School students, including Barnes, were tear-gassed, beaten and/or arrested; gunfire erupted between police and N.C. National Guard troops on one side and people on the A&T campus on the other; an A&T student, Willie Grimes, was killed; and four police officers were wounded, one seriously. Grimes' killing and the officers' wounding have never been solved.
The hostilities left a wedge between the Greensboro Police Department and the city's black community that lasts until this day.
But they left something else, too, Barnes says. ``They left us a respect from the white establishment we never felt before. They knew we'd fight back.'
The hostilities grew out of a confrontation that began with Barnes and a handful of Dudley students protesting what they believed to be an unfair decision made by school administrators.
Dudley Principal Franklin Brown, backed, and many thought directed, by the central administration, refused to recognize Barnes' overwhelming victory in the election for Dudley Student Council president.
Barnes, 17, was a popular honor student in the spring of 1969. He was a former president of his class, vice president of the school service club, a member of the student council and a member of the Greensboro Youth Council. He was also a linebacker on the football team and ran track.
It was only natural for him to want to contend for his school's highest elective office, that of student council president.
But a couple of weeks before the election was held on May 2, school authorities ruled that Barnes lacked the qualifications. They gave no reasons.
Barnes thought he knew the reasons. In an era of emerging black political consciousness, Barnes was becoming politically aware and was very outspoken about it.
Barnes traced the beginnings of his awareness to his sophomore year in 1968 when he attended a summer session for superior and gifted students at Western Carolina University. ``The white students were talking about books and authors I'd never even heard of,' he said. ``That's when I saw that black students were being short-changed.'
Another major turning point was a meeting of the Greensboro Youth Council where Nelson Johnson, then a student at A&T and now the Rev. Nelson Johnson of Faith Community Church, and A&T student Walter Brame spoke. ``Until then I thought people were responsible for their own choices,' Barnes said. ``But they talked about landlords with guns on their hips coming down to Gillespie Street to collect rent on dilapidated shotgun houses with open sewers running between them.'
Barnes immersed himself in the works of black authors and poets such as Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Leroi Jones, Langston Hughes and Sonja Sanjez. He met and talked with black power leaders Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. He associated with Nelson Johnson, Brame and other students considered by many in Greensboro's white power structure to be ``militant.'
Barnes organized Dudley High School students. He became youth director of the Greensboro Association of Poor People, a community action organization started by Johnson, and one which police claimed was an organizing tool of the militant Black Panther Party. He was a founding member of Youth for the Unity of a Black Society and Black Students United for Liberation.
Barnes urged students to fight Dudley's strict dress code against jeans and dashikis and long hair. He protested the administration's refusal to allow students to leave the campus during lunch, a privilege allowed at other schools. He demanded a more black-oriented curriculum and protested the obvious disparities between Dudley and predominantly white schools, such as Dudley's crumbling tennis courts and stadium.
By the time Dudley student council elections rolled around, school authorities considered Barnes a militant coached by the Black Panthers. ``That wasn't true, of course,' Barnes said. ``They (school administrators) believed anyone who wore black belonged to the Black Panther Party. I dressed in black, like a lot of black kids at that time.'
Barnes stroked his neatly trimmed beard as he sat in his office in A&T's political science department and thought back over the decades to that second day in May 30 years ago.
Although the administration refused to allow his name on the ballot, students wrote it in anyway. Barnes won by more than 400 votes. School authorities declared his victory ``illegal.'
Barnes and four of his friends walked out and picketed in front of the school in protest. The next day nine walked out. ``That's all that would come. If they had just left it alone, it would have run its course and nothing would have happened,' Barnes said.
Instead, school authorities called the police, and the school system's central office sent its own representative to the school.
``That just encouraged others to join the protest,' Barnes said. A week after the election more than 100 students protested in front of the school. On May 16, nearly 400 students boycotted classes, some of them carrying signs calling for the return of ``our exiled president.'
Nelson Johnson and Brame, as well as more established leaders in the black community at that time, urged school authorities to recognize Barnes' election. ``We pleaded with them to meet with us,' Johnson said. ``They wouldn't.
``There was a complete unwillingness to follow the democratic process,' Johnson said. ``To this day, Greensboro still struggles with democracy.'
The protests at Dudley exploded in violence on May 19. ``It was the most surreal thing I ever saw,' said Barnes, who was bopped in the head with a nightstick as police began arresting students for ``disrupting the public schools.'
It got worse two days later when police riot squads fired tear gas to disperse students, who threw rocks at the school's humanities building where the representative from the schools' central administration had set up office.
``It got worse and worse,' Barnes said. ``It seemed like the entire black community came out to help us, and they gassed the entire community.' The students ran toward the A&T campus. ``We thought A&T would be our sanctuary,' he said.
Barnes said he could hear bullets ricocheting off the sidewalk as he ran as fast as his legs would carry his 5-foot, 7-inch, 130-pound body away from Dudley High School.
Willie Grimes was killed that night about 1:30 a.m. near Carver Hall on the A&T campus. Witnesses said someone fired on him from a car. Some said it was a police car. Others said it was unmarked. Police emphatically denied shooting him.
On May 22, the next night, four police officers were wounded, one seriously, when they were shot near Scott Hall.
On May 23, A&T President Lewis Dowdy closed the university. Students grimly and silently, some seemingly in shock, filed from the campus toward the airport and train depot.
Barnes spent most of the time in his aunt's house. He said he carried a pistol for a long time after the violence. ``I became paranoid,' he said. ``I was sure the police were going to come after me and shoot me.'
Three months later, when Barnes began his senior year at Dudley, he and the school administration ``finally worked things out in a cooperative spirit,' Barnes said.
``I agreed not to seek office. They agreed to about everything we had asked for.' Barnes said that included giving students input in determining the curriculum; relaxing the school dress code; allowing students to leave campus at lunch; and establishing a committee to determine ways to get money for tennis courts and a stadium.
But the Greensboro Rebellion was not about that, said Barnes, who remained active in community organizing and still stays in contact with Johnson and other black leaders. ``It was about the authorities and police feeling threatened and overreacting when a few students got impatient with the pace of change and decided to exercise their rights.'
The Greensboro Rebellion was also about the ``inability, or the refusal, of the power structure in Greensboro to listen and the inability to project the consequences of not listening,' said Johnson. ``The black community was tremendously united over this. Pastors and other leaders pleaded with the authorities to sit down and talk, to show restraint and reason. They wouldn't listen.'
Barnes said that to this day, 30 years later, many in the black community remain suspicious of police and school authorities because of those violent, fatal events that began with a high school junior protesting authorities' decision to deny him an election.
``It was overkill,' Barnes said. ``That's all you can say. Overkill.'