Charlottesville As I Remember It – Then and Now
I lived in Charlottesville twice. The first time was shortly after my birth; my father was attending University of Virginia Law School and rehabbing from his war injuries incurred after his jeep went over a German land mine in France. Hard to believe, but I have lifetime friends from both my first stay and my second stay in Charlottesville.
Fifty years ago in the fall of 1967, I entered UVa Law School. This was a tumultuous time. Four years earlier President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, then a hot bed of angry opposition to civil rights. The Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid had just passed under President Lyndon Johnson’s leadership. We were engaged in a bloody, unwinnable and interminable war in Vietnam. The civil rights and peace movements were in full swing. Dylan, Baez, the Beatles and Stones were on our radios and stereos.
Senator Byrd machine’s massive resistance to school integration was crumbling, and its political dominance was coming towards its end. The closure of the last holdout, Virginia’s Prince Edward County public schools, to prevent integration had just ended. A moderate Republican Governor, Linwood Holton was elected, and the state was slowly moving away from the sway of the Southern Democratic machine that had disenfranchised the state’s African American citizens for 100 years.
As I first came on campus, I ran into an old friend, and we exchanged pleasantries. I asked what the undergrads thought of the law school; he replied “mostly, they think you are a bunch of communists”; I said “really why is that”; he explained because the law school believes in integration.
I was now entering a new world. Some of my classmates were just returning from their tours in Vietnam, and some were there for their draft deferments. It was a great mix of people from very different life experiences. My classmates included a mix of young Southern gentlemen clad in their suits, northerners wanting to join the big Wall Street and DC firms, and a few Westerners and Midwesterners as well. I found my niche of public interest lawyers-to-be early on. Elaine Jones went on to a distinguished career with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and J. Harvie Wilkinson, coming from a different political stripe, went on to an equally distinguished career on the federal bench.
There were plenty of superb professors to engage with, and they treated us as serious people. My favorite, Professor Charlie Whitebread, brought us into the great constitutional debates of the time on criminal law and procedure. Then-Professor Antonin Scalia had a great sense of humor along with his trenchant legal observations. Retired California Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Traynor transformed Conflicts of Laws, a real snoozer of a subject, into a most fascinating excursion into understanding his great judicial debates and collegiality with Justice Raymond Peters.
During law school, I did door to door canvassing and research among poor rural black families in several nearby counties on hunger and nutrition in support of efforts that eventually led to nationwide expansion of the food stamps program. The families had little, and, in some cases, no income. Many lived with no electricity, and the kids read their lessons by lamps; heating was by wood stoves; some food was grown, fish and game were caught or shot. Work was occasional at the local lumber operations. They were living in the conditions of the 19th century. I was advised to be out of these counties in my little but noticeable VW before dark as the KKK ruled the nighttime, and we would not be safe.
I knocked on doors canvassing for Senator Robert Kennedy during the presidential primaries of 1968. The outpouring of love and rage after the 1968 assassinations of Senator Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King was extraordinary. This was the period in our country’s life known as Johnson’s War of Poverty, and I was an aspiring foot soldier. During the summer, I worked in a two lawyer office in Roxbury/Dorchester; the second lawyer had just moved to Washington, and I, the summer intern, inherited her caseload, learning welfare and housing law and representing her (now my) clients in adjudicatory hearings. Back at UVa, I trained 2nd year students in welfare law in Virginia and supervised them on their cases. I was hooked; my future decided.
In the fall of 1968 to my utter dismay and disgust, Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States and arch segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama won five Southern states. Nixon handily won Virginia, and Wallace made a strong showing there. After his election, President Nixon sought to slow down civil rights enforcement, to appoint conservative Southern justices, to trim funding for the Kennedy-Johnson anti-poverty programs and to eliminate Legal Services. We were back and forth between Charlottesville, the legislative debates and the massive civil rights and peace demonstrations in our nation’s capital. It was a heady and highly divisive time in our nation’s history.
President Nixon is best remembered for the disgrace of Watergate, his impeachment, and his relentless prosecution of the Vietnam War, including the bombing of Cambodia. Yet he was also the effective President who opened relations with China, negotiated nuclear arms reductions with Russia, signed the Environmental Protection Act, expanded Food Stamps, and proposed a progressive precursor to the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare).
When he ordered the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970, college campuses erupted in protest. Students were shot to death by National Guard troops during protests at Kent State and Jackson State. The typically placid UVa campus joined in the peaceful protests around the nation in response to these student deaths, and it spilled onto the nearby streets and highways. Police entered the campus to stop the protests -- arresting several fraternity presidents, the head of Young Americans for Freedom and other campus leaders. Professor Charlie Whitebread, the head of Young Republicans at Yale Law School, was denounced on the floor of the Virginia General Assembly as a dangerous communist.
Everything has changed in fifty years, yet the stubborn residue of white racism remains, now revived, rejuvenated and stoked by President Trump and reviled by much of the rest of the country.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin