Social unrest through the Alligator’s Lens

Published: July 8th, 2013

Category: Summer 2013

A look back at the CJC students who documented the furor and turmoil of the early 1970s on the UF campus

Protests at the University of Florida

Few times in American history were as turbulent as the first four years of the 1970s.

Words and names from those days are now a permanent part of our national vocabulary: Kent State, civil rights, Nixon, sit-ins, Roe v. Wade, tear gas, Vietnam, Title IX, Jane Fonda, school desegregation, Watergate, Munich Games, riots, Wounded Knee.

As the decade opened, the civil rights movement was still struggling to find its way after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, unrest from the continuation of the Vietnam War was rampant, and the country was just starting to see a budding women’s rights movement take hold.

As a result, college campuses across the country were dealing with sit-ins, strikes, riots and demonstrations.

The University of Florida and the Gainesville community were no different. The four years were rife with student strikes, sit-ins in support of black students, an abortion rights/First Amendment fight, and Vietnam War riots and demonstrations. Gainesville’s own public school system was struggling to desegregate its high schools, closing the all-black Lincoln High School and transferring its students to Gainesville High.

Alachua County’s population was 104,000, less than half of what it is today; roughly one in five citizens were black. More than 20,000 students called UF home, and although the campus had been desegregated in 1958, only 340 or so black students were in attendance by 1971.

Stephen C. O’Connell was the UF president, and the venerable Ray Graves had just stepped down as football coach but remained as athletic director for the Gators. In 1969, the first black football players — Willie Jackson Sr. and Leonard George — had stepped onto Florida Field; UF students had organized a Black Student Union.

In the UF College of Journalism and Communications, John Paul Jones Jr., JM 1937, had been named dean in 1968 after Rae Weimer was forced to retire because of his age and had moved to Tigert Hall as a special assistant to President O’Connell. The formidable duo of H.G. “Buddy” Davis, JM 1948, MA 1952, and Hugh Cunningham provoked respect and fear from J-school students, while younger faculty members Jack Detweiler, JM 1952, D.Ed., 1969, Jon Roosenraad, Jean Chance, JM 1960, MACJ 1969, and Jo Anne Smith, were building their own distinguished careers.

At the heart of it all on the UF campus was a group of College of Journalism and Communications students documenting the furor and turmoil of the days on the pages of the Florida Alligator, while also butting heads with the UF administration over the newspaper’s content and direction, a multi-year battle that would ultimately lead to the birth of the Independent Florida Alligator.

Here are their stories:

1970: Decade begins with Kent State

Sam Pepper, JM 1971, arrived at UF in the fall of 1969 and quickly joined the Florida Alligator staff as the assistant sports director. Before coming to UF, he had worked with then Alligator editor Raul Ramirez, JM 1982, at The Palm Beach Post. Jeff Klinkenberg, JM 1971, was the Alligator’s managing editor.

“That whole period was a fascinating time,” Pepper said. “My first night in Gainesville we went to cover a riot over on Fifth and a brick was thrown through the back window of our car. It hit me in the head and I ended up in the next morning’s Gainesville Sun.

“The big issues during my stay as editor were the Vietnam War and racial tensions. After a failed bid to become editor earlier in 1970, I, and a number of staffers left the Alligator when the Board of Student Publications (the governing agent of the newspaper) chose an editor from outside the staff who hadn’t worked at the paper before.”

They began an independent publication called the Florida Probe that featured in-depth reporting and analysis of campus issues. It was the forerunner of an independent paper, but they couldn’t sustain it.

At the heart of it all was a group of students documenting the furor and turmoil in the Florida Alligator, while butting heads with the UF administration over the newspaper’s content and direction.

After four students were killed at Kent State on May 4, 1970, while protesting the bombing of Cambodia, campuses across the country erupted in violence. After the killings most of the Probe staff returned to the Alligator.

“After Kent State, we felt like we had to make sure this thing didn’t blow up on campus. We were sitting at the top of the biggest news stories of the century,” Pepper said. “Many student papers were turning into a casual press where subjectivity was rapidly replacing objectivity, but I feel the Alligator always attacked the issues from a strong journalistic view.

“A lot of that had to do with the training we were receiving in the College — on ethics and responsible journalism — and from our adviser Ed Barber, who was one of the smartest people I have ever known,” said Pepper, who was named editor for the fall quarter of 1970 (UF was on the quarter system then.)

President O’Connell called for a day of mourning after the Kent State killings, but didn’t cancel classes. A student strike began on May 6, and UF was closed for three days.

Over the summer, race issues started simmering on campus. The Black Student Union made demands on the administration, calling for the recruitment and admission of 500 black students from a total of 2,800 admitted freshmen and for the continuation of UF’s Critical First Year Program designed to help disadvantaged freshmen with their economic problems.

“There was such fear then between the races; the polarization was so great,” Pepper said. “Gainesville’s high schools were being desegregated and while that was difficult, it did seem like there was a lot of dialogue going on in the city.

“But when you stepped out of Gainesville, it was completely different. I remember taking a trip over to Crescent Beach one night and we saw something burning in the distance and it turned out to be a burning cross. Then you understood what the blacks felt.”

1971: Racial Issues and Abortion Rights

Phyllis Gallub Coleman, JM 1970, served as the Alligator’s managing editor alongside Pepper before assuming the editor’s job the spring of 1971.

A graduate student at the time, Coleman was one of several talented women working at the Alligator who were struggling to break through the male-dominated editor’s ranks and grab the top rung. Karen Eng Schaffner, JM 1970, held the editorship in the summer of 1970, but Coleman was the first woman editor during a regular quarter.

Michael Gannon

Michael Gannon, then a chaplain of the St. Augustine Catholic Student Center, was a calming force amid the student protests.

“At that time, the Alligator was pretty much male-dominated, kind of a reflection of the whole ‘Mad Men’ thing going on,” Pepper said. “That was really the dawn of the whole feminist movement. Carol Sanger, JM 1970 (a CJC Alumna of Distinction who went on to a storied career in corporate communications for Federated Department Stores) should have been named the Alligator editor earlier, but she was never really considered because she was a woman.”

Coleman was at the helm on April 15, a day that would become known as “Black Thursday,” when the UF Black Student Union organized a sit-in as an expression of discontent with the university’s policies on black student enrollment and employment of black faculty.

“As the first female editor during daily operations, I have to acknowledge the changing views about women’s roles allowed the Board to elect me,” said Coleman. “Nevertheless, I was actually more emotionally affected by the racial issues. Trying to maintain objectivity (while covering the story) was tough, but it was what the journalism school trained us to do.”

The protest became heated and 66 students were arrested. The April 16th issue of the Alligator was bursting with the coverage, along with an advertisement announcing Bill Cosby’s upcoming Saturday appearance at Florida Field. Student tickets were $3.

Of the students arrested, 60 were placed on academic probation. O’Connell refused to grant amnesty to the students, and ultimately, 123 black students and two black faculty members left.

“As a human being, I was inspired by the students’ passion and willingness to put themselves on the line, and ashamed and embarrassed by the University’s refusal to discuss the issues and insistence on punishing the participants,” Coleman said. “I believe it was one of the Alligator’s most important jobs to help eradicate the ignorance. Unfortunately, although we tried, it was years before there was real change.”

Alongside the racial issues, resentment of the escalation of fighting in Vietnam continued to fester and on April 26, the UF’s Veterans for Peace began camping on the lawn at the President’s House on West University Avenue, where President O’Connell and his family lived.

In early May, a group of Alligator reporters and photographers headed to Washington, D.C., for the 1971 May Day protests that were being held to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Kent State.

In the group was Ron Sachs, JM 1972, a brash, young reporter who would ultimately set in motion the issues that would put the Florida Alligator on its path to independence.

Sachs had cut his teeth as an Alligator reporter pursuing a story about a drifter who had been jailed for marijuana possession and was found hanging at the county jail. The death initially was ruled a suicide, but Sachs’ reporting resulted in an investigation that showed the drifter was murdered by another inmate.

In Washington, Sachs, Alligator managing editor Ken McKinnon, JM 1971, photographer Tom Kennedy, JM 1972, and several other reporters set about to cover the attempt by college students from all over the country to shut down the bridges from Virginia and Maryland leading into Washington to bring the city to a standstill.

Black Thursday protests

On April 15, 1971, on what would become known as “Black Thursday,” students gathered in protest outside President O’Connell’s office.

“We were at the HEW building when police formed a circle around the protestors and were going to arrest everyone and take them to RFK Stadium,” Sachs said. “Ken was arrested, but I avoided arrest by pulling out my reporter’s notebook and stepping up on a wall that ran the perimeter of where the police were. I just stood on that wall, feigning I was taking notes and sashayed my way across until I got past the line of police. Then I ran to a phone and phoned in my story.”

That fall, Sachs took over as editor of the Alligator and decided to take on another explosive issue: abortion rights.

Early in his tenure the staff began interviewing UF students who had undergone legal — and illegal — abortions for a series in the Alligator. At the time, a UF student could only obtain a legal abortion in New York, Hawaii or Puerto Rico and many students couldn’t afford to travel to those areas. Abortions in Florida were forbidden under an 1868 statute.

In putting together the issue, Sachs decided to publish a sidebar that listed counseling services available to women.

List of counseling services

The mimeographed list of the counseling services available to women.

“John Parker, a friend of mine who was a UF law student at the time, offered an unsolicited opinion that the statute also included a section that prohibited anyone from an activity to hint, print or advertise for an abortion, meaning the publication of the list would constitute a felony,” Sachs said.

The Alligator staff decided to submit the controversy to the Board using the process that was in place at the time for such issues, and to their surprise, they prevailed and set about preparing the list for publication.

However, President O’Connell intervened. He said that because the Alligator was subsidized by student fees and was considered an official organ of the University, that he as president of the university was also the publisher, and had the right to prohibit the publication of the list. At the same time, the paper’s printer in Ocala decided he would not print the issue with the abortion services list.

In a late-night meeting at the home of faculty member Jean Chance and her then-husband, attorney Chuck Chance, Sachs and other members of the Alligator staff made the decision to mimeograph the list and insert it into each newspaper in the wee hours of the morning.

“It was journalistic zeal,” Sachs said. “We wanted to publish this information before we ever knew it constituted a 103-year old felony so nothing about that changed just because we learned it was against the law. I believed what I was learning at the College of Journalism — that Congress and the states shall pass no law to abridge the freedom of the press and religion.”

“I believed what I was learning at the College of Journalism — that Congress and the states shall pass no law to abridge the freedom of the press and religion.” –Ron Sachs, JM 1972

Sachs was arrested the next day and charged with a felony. His arrest made national news and was reported in papers across Florida. Later that day after Sachs was released from jail on his own recognizance, President O’Connell — with Sachs standing next to him — held a press conference announcing that if convicted, Sachs would face certain firing as Alligator editor and likely expulsion from the University.

O’Connell, who earlier had served as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, went on to say that he was seeking an advisory opinion from Florida’s attorney general about whether the UF president could exercise prior restraint to stop publication of any particular matter.

Shortly before Sachs’ December trial, the attorney general’s office rendered its verdict on the First Amendment issue. It said no to O’Connell; he and the University could exercise no prior restraint over the college newspaper.

In the subsequent trial in Alachua County court, Sachs’ attorneys, Chuck Chance and UF law professor Fletcher Baldwin, argued the case in front of Judge Benmont Tench (the father of a namesake son who is a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers).

“I didn’t think going in that we’d prevail,” Sachs said. “I was convinced we were right, but I wasn’t certain that the court would agree. It was a very sobering time, but I had confidence in my lawyers.”

Black Thursday protests

The “Black Thursday” protest ended with the arrest of 66 students, 60 of whom were put on academic probation.

After the arguments, Judge Tench ruled in Sachs’ favor, finding that the section of the law that dealt with the publication of materials was unconstitutional; Chance and Baldwin then decided to go after Florida’s existing abortion law, and Tench struck down that 103-year-old law as well.

Shortly thereafter, O’Connell announced plans to force the Alligator off-campus by cutting off the student fee support. He assembled a Presidential Ad Hoc Committee to come up with the plan to make the Alligator independent. The only student named to the committee was Tim Condon, JM 1973, who would ultimately become editor of the newly formed Independent Florida Alligator in the spring quarter of 1973.

1972: Vietnam War protests escalate

After Sachs’ graduation in the spring of 1972, Steve Sauls, JM 1972, took over as editor of the Alligator; Randy Bellows, JM 1974, was the managing editor. The two of them, along with Condon, would form the group that would lead the Alligator to independence.

The abortion rights issue continued to move its way through the U.S. court system with the Florida legislature reforming its abortion law in the spring of 1972 and the U.S. Supreme Court continuing its arguments on Roe v. Wade before rendering a 7-2 majority vote in favor of Roe on Jan. 22, 1973.

On U.S. college campuses though, the Vietnam War remained the issue of the day.

“As a Vietnam veteran and at age 26, one of the older members of the Alligator staff, I had serious misgivings about American policy intervention in Southeast Asia,” Sauls said.

In early May as the second anniversary of Kent State was looming, tensions on campus were high. Every day brought something new. More than 100 people demonstrated at UF’s ROTC Military Ball. National UPI coverage of the war was front page, every day. Pro-abortion speakers staged a rally on campus.

On May 9, 1972, riots erupted on the UF campus and more than 1,000 students blocked 13th Street near the intersection of West University Avenue. After dark, the city moved in riot forces with an estimated 112 state, county and city officers using tear gas, water hoses and batons to disperse the students.

The Alligator’s headline the next morning proclaimed “Antiwar demonstrations rip UF.” A timeline outlined the news. Photos by Kennedy, Tom Hamilton, JM 1974, and Gary Wolfson, JM 1972, documented the night’s events.

“The lefties…squealed that we were trying to kill the Alligator, but we weren’t, and in my opinion, neither was the university, since it ultimately survived.” –Tim Condon, JM 1973

“I’m particularly proud of the Alligator coverage during the spontaneous student anti-war protests following the U.S. decision to bomb Cambodia,” Sauls said. “Students spilled into the streets, and the protests were pretty dramatic. Every law enforcement officer within 40 miles showed up to establish order. The Gainesville police, who had had urban riot training, were the most restrained, but others were not.”

That summer Sauls and Bellows traveled around the state to meet with members of the Florida Board of Regents and newspaper editorial boards in an effort to prevent the University from moving the Alligator off-campus. Although they received significant support from many of the state’s newspapers (who, of course, were made up almost entirely of Alligator alumni), they had no success in persuading the Board of Regents to step in.

“Our ambition of influencing the body was much greater than reality,” Sauls said. “It was one of those heady experiences that students do. These were very intense, engaged times, and we were fortunate to have Ed Barber there. He turned out to be the real hero.”

In the fall of 1972 as UF elected Samuel Taylor as its first black student body president, Bellows took over as editor with Condon as the managing editor. They began the process of transitioning the Florida Alligator into the Independent Florida Alligator.

Condon, also a Vietnam veteran and a self-avowed libertarian/conservative, had long believed in an independent Florida Alligator and that the free market should decide its fate; he crossed swords with those on the staff who were fighting against its independence.

“The lefties at the Alligator and in student government squealed that we were trying to kill the Alligator, but we weren’t, and in my opinion, neither was the university administration, since it ultimately survived,” Condon said. “All of those events allowed me to play an essential part in founding the Independent Florida Alligator.”

1973: Independence realized while Watergate explodes

On Thursday, Feb. 1, 1973, for the first time ever, the words “Independent Florida Alligator” and “Not officially associated with the University of Florida” appeared on the banner of the front page. The editor that day was Bellows, the managing editor Condon.

Staff writer Jay O’Callaghan, JM 1973, wrote the front-page story, his article outlining the process that had resulted in the newspaper’s newfound independence and the work that still had to be done. The university had agreed to let the newspaper remain on campus through the end of the summer, and negotiations were continuing on the financial aspects of the move.

The Alligator's first editorial

The editorial from the first issue of the Independent Florida Alligator, published on Feb. 1, 1973.

“I didn’t approach this (historic cover story) any differently than I did any other story I wrote,” said O’Callaghan, who had also written much of the coverage on the Vietnam War riots and was himself tear-gassed.

Bellow’s term as editor ended a month into the newspaper’s independence, and Condon and managing editor Deborah Smith, JM 1974, led the paper through the spring and summer as the Watergate hearings took center stage.

“The move to independence was a frightening and exhilarating time because the survival of the paper was very uncertain during the early years,” said Smith, who took over as editor in the fall off 1973. “So much was at stake with such a venerable institution at risk.”

That fall, the Watergate investigation was unfolding rapidly and the Alligator staff struggled to keep the national news in the paper because they didn’t have the money for the wire service for newspapers, just the abbreviated wire service for television and radio. A new writer, Carl Hiaasen, JM 1974, began taking people to task in his column.

“Watergate was a national story that echoed what we were experiencing as Alligator staff members,” Smith said. “We were carrying a lot of responsibility — first to get the story right, then to print it in the paper, all the while insuring there would be a paper for future stories.

“It was a struggle for us to provide accurate news of the scandal given our limited resources. Yet, pre-computer, the Alligator was the central news source for most students on campus so we worked hard to provide accurate national headlines in the paper, along with the local news and editorials.”

The staff was also under pressure to forge the path of the new independent Alligator and ensure its financial stability.

“There was a divergence of opinion among staff members about how best to ensure the survival and continued legacy of the Alligator,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, the exchanges were not always civil, yet we managed to make deadlines and the paper was always in the orange stands each morning.”

Ultimately though, the Independent Florida Alligator, with the guidance of Ed Barber and the support of its alumni and numerous people on campus, became financially viable and served as an example to other universities around the country. Since then, thousands of UF College of Journalism and Communications students have entered those doors and found their life’s passion in the dingy offices on West University Avenue.

“I think that above all, that even despite the tensions and the passion of those times, we were able to assemble a staff of journalists that were able to put aside personal views and feelings to produce one of the finest student publications in the country,” Pepper said. “We never backed down from controversy, and we never compromised our ethics.”

Video

Ron Sachs, Jean Chance and Chuck Chance discuss with journalism professor Mike Foley the events surrounding Sachs’ arrest and trial for publishing a list of women’s counseling services in the Alligator.