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South Carolina 1970 school bus assault survivors tell their story

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Survivors from Bus Assault

Ronald Bacote, center, speaks as fellow survivors of the 1970 school bus assualt the Rev. David Lunn, left and Clarence Brusnon listens.

“I saw the mob,” David Lunn described the 1970 morning he faced a white supremacist attack on his Lamar, South Carolina, school bus. “I thought that was the last day I was going to be living because it was about 200 people with ax handles.”

On March 3, 1970, nearly two decades after the United States Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, a mob of two hundred armed white adults assaulted dozens of African American children on school buses in rural South Carolina.

“Once the bus stopped, they took those ax handles and knocked out every window in the bus—there were bricks and everything flying,” Lunn continued. “We had to hit the floor. I kept calling everybody’s name to see if everybody was alive,” he said. “Ever since that day, it has been recovery for me.”

The Rev. Lunn, Ronald Bacote, and Clarence Brunson told of the terror they faced desegregating Lamar schools under a federal court order in early March at a University of South Carolina panel with moderator Beryl Dakers and state Sen. Gerald Malloy. The three men, all nearly 70 years old, visibly wrestled with their emotions as they related their memories.

“Sitting in the audience, you are quickly reminded that this is not simply an academic or intellectual exercise."

Here are people searching their minds and their hearts to explain the brutality that they experienced and the trauma that they are still—fifty years later—fighting to overcome,” observed Dr. Bobby Donaldson, director of the University’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research, the event’s lead sponsor.

Bacote recalled that the Tuesday morning was the second attempt to attend the Lamar school. On Monday, March 2, a white mob had blocked the school entrance and fought to enter the bus with high school students. With adults threatening to kill him, student driver Woodrow Wilson managed to block the door and back the bus away from the school to escape. Bacote said that seemed to enrage the adults the next day when the buses of students reached the school.

“As we approached, we saw a commotion. People were attacking the second bus. As we drove up, a lady said, ‘No, no, that’s not the one. There they go right there.’ (She pointed to the third bus.) So I guess they were waiting on us,” he said. “The hood of the bus flew up and the engine died. Rocks and bricks started coming through the windows.

I got on the floor and started crawling. I heard two gunshots. I think it was tear gas. It smelled, and my eyes teared.

Then the back door of the bus came open, it was a highway patrolman with a gas mask. He said, ‘Come on, get off.’ I ran to the school. I looked back, and the bus we were on was turned over.

“For too many years, it was hard even to move on with my life. It really bothered me. It still does,” he said before taking a deep breath. “The reason I don’t talk about it is that I get angry when I talk, and I don’t want them (his family) to see that.”

Brunson said, “It’s something I want to forget, if you can tell me how I can forget it. My life was that close to being snuffed out.” Pointing to Lunn, he said, “That was the leader. He got us out of there,” adding, “I wear a leg brace, can you imagine what it was like for me to crawl off that bus?”

Segregationist Jeryl Best of nearby Lydia organized and led the school bus attack. Brunson said he saw a truckload of ax handles pass by him on the way to a Lamar store on Monday. He believes those were the ax handles at the assault, along with chains, bricks, clubs, and other makeshift weapons.

Before the assault, white politicians whipped up anger about the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ January 19 order to implement desegregation without delay in Greenville and Darlington counties. In late January, more than 3,000 “angry whites”—with future governor Carroll Campbell at the head—staged a segregationist demonstration at the State House, yelling “give us George Wallace,” the Columbia (SC) State reported.

In Lamar, Congressman Albert Watson, Republican candidate for governor, whipped up Best’s segregation rally, telling the crowd of 2,500, “Every section of this state is in for it unless you stand up and use every means at your disposal to defend against what I consider an illegal order of the Circuit Court of the United States.”

Watson was a long-time client of South Carolina political strategist Harry Dent Sr., the architect of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and the “Silent Majority” that used coded phrases—such as opposition to busing—for racist appeals.

Joe Wiggins, editor of the Hartsville newspaper, wrote that Watson’s address “lent an air of respectability that they didn’t have before. He’s the only person of consequence who’s gotten anywhere near that group.”

Darlington County NAACP leader Arthur W. Stanley told the Washington Post, “You might as well say that Watson poured gasoline on the fire.”

After the assault, Watson defended the white rioters, “(Y)ou can expect that to happen when you have frustrated people … People get restless and then things occur.”

The Fourth Circuit Court’s order came in response to a set of lawsuits first filed in 1962 by South Carolina’s cadre of NAACP attorneys led by Matthew Perry and Lincoln Jenkins. In the late 1960s, Darlington County responded with a “freedom of choice” plan that allowed parents to choose which school their children attended. However, in the rural agricultural setting of Darlington, that meant white landowners, business owners, and the Ku Klux Klan threatened African American parents to keep their children out of the Lamar schools.

After the court order, the Rev. Matthew McClollum, president of the state NAACP, endorsed a student boycott at Spaulding—the historic African American high school—in protest of the school board’s gerrymandered busing plan. He said, “a court-approved plan to transfer some 500 black students to an already crowded, predominantly white school in Lamar is unconscionable.

“It seems to be a move to antagonize the black community or to enforce them to request freedom of choice,” he was quoted in the (Columbia, SC) State.

On the day of the bus attack, Best stood on a pillar and whipped up the armed crowd. An audio recording captured the chaos and anger that his rhetoric and the latent resentment unleashed as the crowd became a mob: people called police officers snakes and repeatedly decried the schoolchildren with vile slurs. When the buses arrived, women were at the front of the shock troops, swinging weapons, screaming at the children, and identifying targets for assault. One woman leaped on the front bumper of a bus, lifted the hood, and pulled distributor wires to stall the engine.

Remarkable to the students was the lack of response by dozens of police officers. Seventy-five state police officers and patrol cars lined the road leading to the school and another 50 waited in reserve. Federal marshals and FBI agents stood as “observers.”

“Nobody lifted a hand to help us. That has to stay with you for the rest of your life,” said Lunn. “(S)tate troopers were there. I just wonder what was it and why didn’t somebody help us.”

“March 3, 1970, remains a poignant and painful moment in our state’s history when innocent African American students in a rural area confronted an enraged white mob, hundreds of people who intentionally terrorized them in an unapologetic defense of bigotry and discrimination,” said the Civil Rights Center’s Donaldson.

The students said the mob was made up of their neighbors, employers, and others from the town.

“As sharecroppers, we worked right alongside them,” Brunson said. The state police showed the students photographs of people, “and these were our neighbors. One of the people who attacked us, I knew her all my life.” He distinctly recalled that the criminal sentences were few and light: Best and another man were allowed out of jail every week to run their businesses.

After a trial, Best was sentenced to two years imprisonment, to be suspended upon service of six months imprisonment and payment of a fine, with two years probation, the Atlanta Constitution reported. Circuit Judge Wade Weatherford tried to reduce the sentences further and allowed them to go home on weekends, according to the Baltimore Afro-American. In 1972, the state Supreme Court reversed the sentence reduction and ordered the men into full-time custody.

“As long as we were going to Spalding High School, there wasn’t a race problem,” said Brunson. “We were not good enough to attend Lamar High School.”

The three men left Lamar as soon as they graduated, and Lunn said, “Nobody said anything to me from that day up until last year” about the violent attack when state Sen. Malloy invited the men and their families to Columbia to recount their memories.

“I wouldn’t have minded if some of those wielding ax handles were on this stage with us,” Lunn said. “You’re not going to stop racism with milk and cookies.”

Panel moderator Dakers concluded, “I think we have to acknowledge that there exists in our state a conscious attempt not to open old wounds and to deny a part of our history.”

The men also attended a prayer vigil in Lamar, and Brunson and Lunn spoke at a community symposium, the first time that the bus attack and mob riot was discussed openly in the town.

“(P)eople of good will are working to unify the Lamar community,” Mayor Darnell Byrd McPherson said, and “to acknowledge the terror which occurred in March 1970.”

Donaldson added that the Civil Rights Center sponsors panels and compiles “in-depth research, oral interviews, and public outreach to document a complete history about the contested struggle for justice in this state and nation.

“We seek to provide a platform, a space for people to tell and reclaim their story.”

The University of South Carolina Center for Civil Rights History and Research was founded in November 2015 with the receipt of the congressional papers of Representative James E. Clyburn, the state’s first African-American member of Congress since the late nineteenth century and a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement.

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