The Duke Riot 1969


1969: The Duke Riot

In 1969, Duke was the second large university to have a campus riot. In this case even that Ivy League stalwart, Columbia had already trumped us. The common denominator for both schools was that the riots being directly related to the Civil Rights movement as well as charges of racial discrimination by black student organizations against school administrators.

The seeds of the Duke riot of 1969 were sown the year before by students who staged sit-ins protesting the grossly substandard wages paid by the University to its large pool of local black workers, which at that time was about ninety cents an hour. The Federal minimum wage was $1.30, but somehow the University had creatively skirted it. The workers had no union representation and I doubt they even had much in the way of ancillary job benefits.

One particularly large protest in 1968 prompted the folk singer Pete Seeger to abruptly fly in unannounced to give an impromptu lawn concert on the worker’s behalf.

The ensuing spontaneous candle light vigil was answered later that night by the local KKK putting on a light show of their own when they burned a cross on the lawn in front of the Duke Chapel. When we heard about it, at dawn several of us ran over to view the still smoldering ashes, but still had very naïve opinions about the message it intended to deliver. We thought it was a joke.

For a long time before this the local residents had resented the rich boy preppy Duke students’ intrusion into the idyllic forests of eastern North Carolina. However, sometimes one should learn to live with and accept the devil that one knows because now the local rednecks faced an even worse devil: the hippie civil rights crusader who was bent on restructuring local Southern society.

Meanwhile although none of these devils happened to be the iconic school mascot Blue ones, the local police were bristling at the potential opportunity to come on campus and bust open a few of these longhaired hippie heads.

1968 in and of itself was a watershed year in American history. In April Martin Luther King was assassinated followed shortly thereafter in June, by Robert F. Kennedy taking a few bullets.

It was also the year that Lyndon B. Johnson announced his intention not to run for a second term as President, which paved the way for the reemergence of tricky Dick Nixon, who eventually won the 1970 election on the promise to end the Viet Nam War.

Campus protesting then became relatively low-key until February of 1969 when 50 members of the Duke Afro-American Society occupied the Allen Administration building. They threatened to burn university records if their demands were not met or if the police were sent in. This group had been negotiating with the school to improve the racial climate on campus and in being frustrated by the lack of progress decided to take radical action. They had a list of eleven demands that included the establishment of a black dormitory, the establishment of an Afro-American studies department, and an increase in black undergraduate enrollment to 29 percent

At that time there were only 85 black students in a total of 6,000 undergraduates, a statistic that made me stop feeling sorry for myself as a White minority of Italian descent who failed being integrated into a fraternity.

The mayor of Durham immediately mobilized 240 National Guard troops.

Having heard about the occupation of the building, I went over to the main campus to see what was going on and happened to join my old girlfriend along with about 200 other students who were blocking the entrance of the building.

The demonstration was innocently impromptu enough, and having arrived early at about noon, I found myself standing next to her on the building’s front steps.

The local police had just been called in and were trying to wedge their way through the crowd in an attempt to enter the premises so they could dislodge the black students, when people started throwing things at them. They did not at all take that very well.

It was then, just before the tear gas was fired that I thought the better part of valor was to flee, leaving my stubbornly resolute ex-girlfriend behind where she soon got Billy-clubbed by one of Durham’s finest who was leading the charge into the fortress.

All hell broke loose after that. The student dormitories emptied out and the quadrangles became a melee of charging students, counter charging cops, and disorganized chaos with students being forced to scatter under a white cloud of tear gas. Dressed in riot gear and gas masks, the scene took on a peculiar appearance that resembled a Hollywood version of an attack by space aliens.

It was truly surrealistic and because most of us interpreted it to be idiotically ludicrous; as we ran around dodging the tear gas clouds and laughing it off as though it might be a romp in the park. After all, why would the police really want to seriously harm a college kid? But twenty people in fact were injured and five more arrested before the tear gas vapors finally settled to earth and peace was restored.

After order was restored I caught up with my ex-girlfriend who had not been seriously injured, but who in stunned disbelief kept saying over and over again:

  • I can’t believe he hit me. I can’t believe he hit me. I’m a woman.

I did not respond verbally other than to make small talk about hoping she was all right, but could not help but think to myself about the hypocrisy of the Women’s Liberation rhetoric she had always espoused in its demands for equality with men.

What I felt like saying was;

  • If you want to be equal, then you can’t have it both ways. If you want to be treated like a woman, then act like one; and not like a rioter. If not, then just suck it up and take it like a man. Look on the bright side, too. You’re probably lucky your head wasn’t split in two.

In fact, we were all lucky and considerably more so than the poor souls who bought the farm at Kent State the following year when the focus of campus protesting shifted into high gear against the Viet Nam war.

After the riot, I retreated to the safety of Big Funk where I pretty much became an armchair philosopher on the subject of racial equality and war. I had been cured of any great desire to be a front line activist. Beside that I had too much studying to do as well as not wanting to be arrested and then thrown out of school only months before graduation.

It was too risky. If one got expelled, the school would automatically send a notice of the fact to the local draft board at home making the result no choice but to wind up facing a less than humorous drill Sergeant, instead of the cop you could simply run away and hide from.

Arthur had a much more simplistic and an ulterior motivated view about racial equality at school. We had already become addicted to the thrill of going to every home college basketball game and were also becoming frustrated by the fact of Duke’s relatively mediocre performances. The teams were good. But they were never great and we always seemed to lose to our archrival down the road, The University of North Carolina.

Arthur’s take on things was that Duke would never become a powerhouse in the ACC, nor would it ever win a National Basketball tile unless it recruited some black athletes. He was right.

The Duke teams up to then had all been Lilly white, and basketball was simply not that kind of game anymore.


Alien space cop emerges from Ork Cloud to beat fully armed Duke Earthling into submission. Notice the Earthling’s sharp, menacingly dangerous and poisonous claws.

Background facts and photo taken from: Durham Civil Rights Project

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