Race Riot at Urbana High
I was seated in the auditorium at Urbana High, waiting for the senior class speeches to begin, when Larry Green suddenly appeared out-of-nowhere wearing an elegant double-breasted pinstriped suit. “Can I borrow your hat?” he asked. “Sure, I said,” tossing him my blue hat, famous around school for having “LSD” embossed on it.
I was the publisher/editor of The Tin Whistle at the time, and Larry was our official candidate, and I’d run a campaign promoting Larry’s election. Our school was in great emotional turmoil at the time, starting when the football coach, Smitty, encouraged members of the U-Club to beat-up longhairs and Frank Sowers hit the kid with the longest hair in school, Doug Blair, over the head with a baseball bat. Then blacks sided against the U-Club and jumped on one of the head jocks in the halls. At first, that seemed like maybe a good thing. Unfortunately, it was not.
I remember standing on the second floor of Urbana High about a day later when I saw a typical violent altercation about to go down. There were around six sophomore blacks ganged-up against one prominent senior starter on the football team. But before anything could go down, a half dozen white members of the football team appeared out of nowhere, running to the rescue from all directions. Obviously some sort of alarm system was now in place amongst the team to thwart these random beat-downs that were taking place. At that moment, all sympathy shifted away from the blacks, who had suffered under Smitty’s racist regime, and back to the head jocks, who were now just viewed as total innocents trying to defend themselves against superior numbers. I started thinking how could The Tin Whistle help end all this senseless violence?
Meanwhile, Charlie Geron, a columnist in The Tin Whistle was stoking the flames, challenging any jock in school to a one-on-one match, and I’m sure Charlie would have gladly taken anyone on, had anyone ever accepted. Jim Cole, former lead singer of the Finchley Boys, came back to school for a few days while still living at Eric Swenson’s house. One morning Cole was asked to read the day’s announcements over the public address system and he read them all perfectly, except for the fact he added one additional of his own: “the AFS [Association for Foreign Students] will be sponsoring a race riot in the cafeteria at noon. Bring your own weapons.” You see, the previous day, a racial altercation had cleared the lunchroom momentarily, and everyone was still on edge from that incident. But Cole sure let the air out of the balloon with that fake announcement. We all laughed heartily together, blacks, white, jocks. Cole, meanwhile, bounded straight out of the school and never came back. I guess the Grandmaster of Mayhem had been searching for a proper exit line and that was it. So this was the background to the student elections taking place at Urbana High in the fall of 1968.
My hat must have provided the final magic touch, because Larry certainly wowed the crowd that afternoon. It may have been his first “great performance,” although certainly not nearly his last. Sauntering across the stage in a sort of Fred-Astaire-meets-Lenny-Bruce persona, Larry launched into a beatnik poem by Shel Silverstein lifted out of Playboy magazine. (I wonder if any students thought he was jivin’ off the top of his head?) When this performance was over, Larry asked everyone to vote for Jim Wilson. And then Jim took the stage and gave a very serious speech about the need to address the racial communication issues at the school, a speech that soon swept Jim into office, with all of us in full support.
Except for that slight last-second, ego-meltdown by Larry, who, after his grand performance was over, was swarmed by sycophants urging him to stay in the race. I remember Larry coming up to me soon after he heard I was urging people to vote for Jim Wilson. He was super mad and saying “I am running!” I was crestfallen at that moment because I knew Larry was letting the magic slip away. It was a sort of Frodo-won’t-let-go-of-the-ring moment.
You might wonder, why the hat at the last minute like that? Larry was still under haircut rules at the time, and I had just recently escaped them. I think I wore that hat so much because it helped disguise the fact my hair was really shorter than it should have been. And I think that’s the same reason Larry employed it, as his character that day was an ultra hipster. And Larry was running against another white dude with almost shoulder-length blonde hair. So the hat may have been the perfect touch to his act. You’ll also notice that in my column for that month, I’d created these white and black devils as a comic illustration, representing, no doubt the twin paths that had emerged at the beginning of the counterculture, one of which involved violence and one of which did not.
Jim Wilson was now the first black senior class president in Urbana High history, thanks in no small part to Larry Green throwing him his support (and then taking it back too late for anyone to notice), and the fact no member of the U-Club ran against him, and as a result of the football coach unfairly blackballing him off the team. And the first thing Jim did was ask every student to fill-out a one-page query on racial attitudes. We didn’t know it at the time, but Jim edited these responses and was going to have them read aloud in public assembly, just to show us how crazy deep our collective racism really ran. See, most of us were living in our own little worlds. Some of the more liberal families certainly had no idea of the savage beliefs being held by some of their fundamentalist fellow students. The reading of selected passages of these forms caused great stress, as evident in a photo of the reaction published in the yearbook (above).
Charlie Geron, in fact, rushed the backstage and began pounding on the door, eventually reduced almost to tears. Charlie wanted to beat-up the students reading those ugly responses behind a screen. Charlie didn’t realize those weren’t the same students who thought black people smelled bad and were spawns of the devil, that was just Albie Fisher and some friends of Jim’s.
Jim’s student forum on racism worked to perfection, however, as no one in the school from that day forward ever asserted there was no such thing as racism at Urbana High. The only question now was, what was Jim going to do to try and get rid of it?