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Campus Unrest at Virginia Tech

Seizure of Williams Hall, Spring 1970

Sandy Hawthorne, President, SGA, Spring 1970

In the spring of 1970, campus unrest was endemic in the United States. Across the country, college students protested. They protested the war in Vietnam; they protested the sometimes-harsh response to their criticism of the country; they protested their lack of voice in the government.

At Virginia Tech, the protests were mainly small, quiet affairs: sit-ins and teach-ins. In late spring, though, the protests began to get more daring and confrontational.

The administration (under the leadership of President T. Marshall Hahn, Jr.) and parts of the student body had been at odds for some time. Some of the students wanted more direct participation in the University's governance, through participation on the various councils and commissions (most notably the University Council). The administration had denied these requests, and in general had taken a hard line toward any disruption of university-sanctioned activity.

In April, a student had been chastised for wearing an American flag as the seat of his pants. In response, some students called for a number of changes in the University's policies, and distributed a flier around campus urging student unrest. This unrest was to culminate in a disruption of the Corps of Cadets drill.

Students disrupt the Cadet Drill In mid-April, the student radicals made good their pledge; they disrupted the ROTC drill on the Drillfield, and forced the Cadets to stop.

The administration took swift action. The ringleaders (those they were able to identify) were suspended and a court injunction obtained to prevent them from repeating the act. This succeeded in calming the campus, but only for a short time.

In early May, four students were killed by National Guardsmen during a demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio. Outrage at this act rippled across the country, touching off more protesting.

On the Virginia Tech campus, students were quick to react to the news of the killings. The SGA urged the University to allow students more freedom in pursuing their consciences in protest. More radical elements of the student body, frustrated in their attempts to gain more representation in the administration and angered by the Kent State incident, chose a more extreme path. On May 12, a large body of students seized Williams Hall.

The administration's response was again swift. The State Police were quickly called in to manage the large crowd of students outside the building as well as deal with the protesters inside.

State Police control the crowd outside
Williams At 6 a.m. on May 13, the State Police forced entry into Williams and began rounding up the students inside. The first few were dragged out of the building; the rest left peacefully. The protesters were herded into tractor trailors and taken to Montgomery County jail.

The administration released a statement on the incident to the media. Dr. Hahn was soon deluged with an outpouring of support for his actions. Many people, wearied by the constant protesting and criticism of the country, welcomed Dr. Hahn's quick, uncompromising actions. Thousands of letters and telegrams poured into Blacksburg.

The students involved in the seizure, suspended and given twenty-four hours to remove their belongings from campus, tried to get a court injunction against the suspension, but failed. Their statement, issued after their release from jail, tries to explain their intent and to refute some of the administration's claims, particularly the finding of materials for a firebomb.

In the end, the administration triumphed. Many students found the protestors' methods distasteful, and not representative of the student body. Several more protests occurred at Tech, but none were violent. The campus soon settled back into the quiet pastoral life it had known.

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Last Updated: February 17, 1997