'I was probably there to protect the student union offices so they wouldn’t get trashed'

Vickie Eslinger recalls her role in UofSC student protest in May 1970

A half century ago, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and seismic shifts in American culture, the campus of the University of South Carolina became a battleground — between students and the administration, between a young generation and the establishment, between radically different worldviews. But the dramatic events of that spring, which came to be known as The Months of May, weren’t strictly destructive. The lessons of that era also changed lives and changed the university itself.

Vickie Eslinger was a leading figure in the women’s movement on campus. As an undergraduate, she started a hotline to provide information on birth control and reproduction, and to help pregnant students obtain access to safe abortions out of state. As a law student, she sued to become the first female page at the South Carolina State House. But her views were not rooted in leftwing politics. “I was a right-wing running dog in high school. I was a Goldwater Girl,” she says. “And I believed, for a while, what the government was saying about the Vietnam War.” Eslinger is now a litigator with Nexsen Pruet in Columbia and a faculty member in the Trial Advocacy Workshop at the Harvard University School of Law.

You had the antiwar group — including the UFO Coffee Shop crowd. You had the African American civil rights group. You had the women’s movement, which I was a part of. And we all knew each other. We were friends, some of us, because there was such a small number of what we would now describe as progressives.

But the groups were radically different. The women’s rights group and the African American civil rights group, people like Luther Battiste and Harry Walker [USC’s first African American student body president], got along because while we were focused on different issues, our goals were very similar: “fix this.”

At that point, I thought the left was extremely sexist. I also thought a lot of the antiwar people on campus were over the top, and that some of them were really in it for their own publicity in terms of their tactics. And we would argue.

Most of the activists who were subject to the ire of Pete Strom were antiwar activists. I was not really an antiwar activist. I came to disagree with the war, and I went to some of the marches in Washington, but that wasn’t my focus.

She was on the Horseshoe at the start of the strike but left when it began to get violent. Later, she was in the Russell House — where she was president of the University Union.

I picked up the phone when the national press called. It was Newsweek or TIME, some national publication — “Has the Russell House been taken over?” I looked around and said, “Yep, pretty much.” [She laughs.] I don’t remember, but I was probably there to protect the student union offices so they wouldn’t get trashed.

When you’re 19 or 20, I don’t think you have a real sense of your own mortality.

The following Monday, Eslinger was in the crowd outside the Administration Building but didn’t participate in the vandalism. And when the Guard began firing tear gas, she ran — like everyone else.

I ended up over by the old law school, when it was in Petigru, but there were a lot of people chasing a lot of people. There were also a lot of students just running around — just trying to see what was happening. When you’re 19 or 20, I don’t think you have a real sense of your own mortality.

Despite the chaos of the era, Eslinger says there was a positive momentum building.

You could see things were starting to change. And I really do think my generation stopped the war. But if you look at all the things we had to do, the youth at the time were busy. We weren’t only trying to stop the Vietnam War.

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