Now, most of you probably believe the rose-tinted reflections the nostalgia industry has generated about college life in the 1950s. As that account has it, college campuses were peaceful places before the rebellious ’60s and the promiscuous ’70s. It was a time when college students studied, went to football games, studied, went to dances, studied, obeyed the rules, studied and behaved.
Well, it may have been that way, but if it was, on April 29, 1959, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that decade ended and a new one began.
I know this, thanks to my buddy Phillip, who sent me a yellowed and tattered copy of The Gadsden Times, dated April 30, 1959. There, front page, above the fold, was the headline that announced to the world (or at least to Etowah County) that college students weren’t what they used to be.
“Tear Gas Stops 3.000 Students In UA Panty Raid”
At the University of Alabama, my alma mater, the self-proclaimed Capstone of our educational system, authorities used tear gas to break up what the newspaper called “a mob.”
I don’t know how big the university was at that time, but I’d be willing to bet that since most, if not all, the raiders were male, that meant that pretty close to every man on campus was out there after women’s underwear.
(At this point, some of you from the promiscuous ’70s are probably thinking of cross-dressers and such, but we didn’t do that sort of thing back then, so get your filthy minds out of the gutter and pay attention.)
Back then, panty raids were a spring ritual before the no-bra, bare-navel look of the ’60s took the allure out of female “frillies.” It was just one more in a series of college fads (goldfish-swallowing, phone-booth packing, etc.) that had their moment in time and disappeared. The first documented panty raid was in 1948, the second in 1952, and after that it was, as my daddy used to say, “Katy bar the door.”
Of course, Katy did — or at least tried to — which was part of the excitement. To steal the panties, guys had to enter the women’s dorms, those sacrosanct citadels where females and their virtue were protected from this sort of thing. Breaching those walls was against the rules both of the college and of society as a whole, so, of course, it was the thing to do.
Yes, I have. But that’s another story. Let’s stick to this one.
So there they were, 3,000 of ’em, marching on one of the women’s dorms with invasion on their collective minds.
Campus authorities called the police and the police blocked them. So they regrouped and headed for a second dorm. They might have gotten in if the women had not delayed and distracted them by “tossing their undies from dormitory windows.”
That gave the police time to get there and begin arresting “students caught picking up the undergarments” — on what charge the newspaper did not say, but it wasn’t littering.
At this point, the by-gum president of the university, Frank A. Rose, arrived. His show of authority almost brought things under control, but when a young lady threw out “a pair of panties” and they “floated down near him … that started the crowd again.”
It soon became apparent that some of the students had politics instead of panties on their mind.
As night fell, a group of them left campus and headed toward downtown Tuscaloosa chanting “We want Patterson,” a reference to Gov. John Patterson, who was in town for some ceremony. The newspaper did not say what they wanted him for, but that was more than local forces of order and authority could take. Out came the tear gas and the crowd dispersed.
Of the 3,000 who were involved, four were arrested — three for disorderly conduct (panty picking-up, I suppose) and one for public drunkenness.
Another normal night in T-town?
To my way of thinking, what took place that April night was a harbinger of things to come. Up until then, panty raids were essentially apolitical and asexual (unless you are turned on by women’s underwear without women in them, which in the ’50s no one was). Sure, they gently challenged local authority, but they quickly fizzled when the authorities arrived. This one, however, was different. When the authorities arrived in the person of the university president, a young woman threw her “unmentionables” AT HIM.
And it did not end there.
Before the evening was over, the “mob” even threatened the governor.
And police did what police would do in the ’60s when faced with political protests — they brought out the tear gas.
Women defying authority, protests turning political, police responding with canisters of chemicals. A new era had begun — and it began in Tuscaloosa.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: email@example.com.