LOOKING BACK: The 1970 Lamar Bus Attack, as it happened
EDITOR’S NOTE: The original eyewitness account of the Bus Attack was written by Luke West, the only print journalist and photographer on site as it happened. Mr. West’s photographs and the article were carried by The New York Times and other newspapers across the country. His photos and documents have proved an invaluable record of the event and are now housed in the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research. Here is his article and a follow-up article which appeared in newspapers across the country.
Turned Back by Police
By Luke West
The state police were sent into this town of 4,000 residents over the weekend when it was learned that the whites in the community were ready to employ more violent tac tics. Yesterday a large group marched on the high school and were turned away by the police.
A crowd formed shortly after 7 o’clock this morning across the street from the high school and surged forward when the first bus carrying children pulled up. But the po lice safely escorted the children inside the building.
However, when the next two buses arrived, the white men swarmed over them smashing the windows and disabling the engines while the police tried to restrain them,
The terrified children inside the bus ducked behind seats as rocks crashed through the windows and white adults tried to force open the doors. Middle‐aged farmers in blue denim overalls and snap‐brim hats stood at the side of the yellow buses and whacked the windows with ax handles.
As the police tried to move the crowd away from the buses, other whites hurled bricks and cinder blocks over the roof of the vehicles, striking several policemen. At this point the police leveled riot shotguns at the crowd and revolvers were removed from holsters, according to Leon Gasque, head of the state investigating agency assigned to the Governor’s office who had been placed in charge of the police contingent in Lamar.
After the police fired tear gas into the crowd and the trembling children, mostly teenage boys, were safely inside the high school, the crowd overturned the buses in the street before dispersing.
Mob damages and overturns buses, terrorizes black school children
(LAMAR, S. C., March 3, 1970)—A mob of white men Stormed three school buses carrying Negro children to a newly desegregated high school here today and attempted to attack the pupils with ax handles, lengths of chain and stones before the state police dispersed them with tear gas.
Before scattering, about 200 men overturned two empty school buses and pelted the helmeted police with rocks and sticks. Several persons suffered minor injuries in the melee. Two children were cut in the face by glass when the men smashed bus windows with clubs while they were still aboard the vehicles.
Gov. Robert E. McNair, who last month counseled compliance with the Federal court orders that desegregated two South Carolina school districts, condemned the attack as “an act which defies all human rea son and understanding.”
“As deeply as we deplore this ‘incident, we are equally appalled at those who have helped to create the type of dangerous and inflammatory public attitude which makes such an act possible,” the Governor said in a statement issued in the capital at Columbia.
“We now see the consequences which result from an open defiance of the law; we now pay the penalty for the type of disrespect and disregard for authority which has been publicly advocated by many in recent days. If the safety of our children is not sacred to all men, then the entire process of law and government is meaningless,” McNair’s statement declared.
The Governor ordered the high school closed for an in definite period. An aide said that Mr. McNair spoke by tele phone twice today with Attorney General John N. Mitchell to give a report of the clash. He was told that United States marshals would be sent to the tension‐torn town, where more than 100 state police were already standing guard.
In addition, Governor McNair Ordered the National Guard to be alerted and a detachment of riot‐trained soldiers was stationed at an armory at Hartsville, 12 miles from Lamar.
The violence was the worst outbreak to occur since the United States Court last October ordered the “immediate” dismantling of Southern dual school systems. Whites have abandoned the public schools in many Deep South towns like Lamar where negroes have outnumbered the whites, but the absence of violence in the face of unswerving Federal implementation of the law had com forted members of both races.
“The police came very close to shooting someone this morning if the tear gas hadn’t worked,” said Wayne Seal, Governor McNair’s press secretary, who went to Lamar to serve as the Governor’s liaison.
Questioned as to why no arrests were made, Mr. Seal responded that the first concern of the policemen was the safe ty of the Negro children. “Things got so bad the officers had to draw their guns,” he said. “If the children hadn’t been there, I’m sure there would have been more bloodshed.”
The children, about six or seven aboard each bus, were trapped inside the vehicles outside the high school as the po lice and the demonstrators fought and several attempts were made by the men to board the buses.
Mr. Seal said that community leaders in the nearby city of Darlington complained that if arrests were not made quickly of the leaders who participated in the attack, it could lead to a violent reaction from the local Negro community.
State and Federal attorneys were conferring on possible charges that could be pressed against some of the participants in today’s disorder, Mr. Seal said.
Whites have boycotted the public schools in Lamar since they were desegregated Feb. 18. A loosely formed group of white parents demanding a return of freedom of choice the schools held several “clan destine” meetings recently, according to state law enforcement agents, and violent tactics were urged to countermand the desegregation order.
The leader of the movement, Jeryl Best, who was present at the disturbance today and addressed a crowd of whites before the violence broke out, later issued a statement calling for restraint.