The most troublesome episode of the spring occurred at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, one of the nation’s largest historically black campuses with 2,200 students. By the spring of 1969, the mood on campus had been radicalized. First, campus violence had erupted the previous spring following the (Martin Luther) King assassination. Then, in December 1968, black radical Stokely Carmichael told students that he had stayed home and cleaned his gun rather than vote during the recent election ...

In short, the campus was on edge, and all it took was a student council election at nearby all-black Dudley High School for it to explode. The students elected Claude Barnes, a student activist, to be president, but a faculty-student committee disqualified him because of his political views. The decision led to picketing and a student boycott, then escalated to rock throwing and police clearing the area with tear gas, which spread through residential neighborhoods. As the situation worsened, (Gov. Robert W.) Scott first ordered in 50 highway patrolmen and 735 National Guard troops …

Around midnight, the governor decided to clear Kerr Scott Hall, Cooper Hall and the Student Union at 6:30 a.m. At the appointed hour on May 23, 500 National Guard troops began forming in the darkness on the southwest corner of Scott Hall to prepare for a military assault on an American college dormitory.

Four armored personnel carriers accompanied them, as did a helicopter to lay down a tear gas barrage and an L-19 Bird Dog military observation plane of the type often used in ground assaults in Vietnam …

The military assault was a product of faulty police intelligence and miscommunication. A police informant had said that there were 200 to 300 guns in Kerr Scott Hall, plenty of ammunition and a first-aid station set up on the first floor, according to an FBI report.

None of that turned out to be true. Police also reported seeing as many as 20 individuals firing down from the dormitory roof, the FBI said.

Chancellor (Lewis) Dowdy was informed at 6:30 a.m. that Kerr Scott Hall was about to be stormed. At 6:45 a.m., a police major ordered the students to evacuate, although it is not clear how many heard the order. Their campus counselor, following the chancellor’s instructions, told them that they were under strict orders to stay in their rooms.

At 7 a.m. the helicopter and plane dropped tear gas and smoke over the men’s dormitory while one group of soldiers laid down a heavy screen of tear gas. Other soldiers ran to an outside staircase and raced to the roof, working their way down, room by room. In many cases, the soldiers went down the residence hall with their guns blazing; they shot the locks off more than 80 doors. A survey in the governor’s file afterward found 27 rooms damaged by gunfire in Kerr Scott Hall and 17 rooms in Cooper Hall, which the soldiers took next.

Some 200 students were taken into protective custody and released that afternoon — with no charges or arrests — to university officials …. “It was tragic that the university had to be closed,” Scott wrote in his diary “But our intelligence was correct — there were firearms in the dormitories. I feel that the Nat. Guard was a little too rough when they went into the dorms — that is, they shot off too many locks and maybe did more damage than necessary. But then, it was a military operation. Thank God no one was killed in the actual sweep of the campus — it was a miracle. ...”

Actually, it was not a miracle because the students were not armed. Police initially reported having found nine high-powered rifles but later retracted that statement. Only two were operable, and the rest were dummy guns used by the ROTC.

A decade later, when a Greensboro Daily News reporter visited the dorm for a story, he found the red brick of Kerr Scott Hall still pockmarked with 60 bullet holes — something you would expect to see on a college campus in a banana republic rather than in the United States.

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This excerpt is adapted from “The Rise and fall of the Branchhead Boys: North Carolina’s Scott Family and the Era of Progressive Politics” by Rob Christensen, copyright © 2019 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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