Turmoil, ideals of Sixties led to today’s diversity, author says

Rusty Monhollon remembers waking up June 5, 1968, to find out that Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

“I was 10 years old, and I was devastated,” said Monhollon, who grew up in Rossville.

He also remembers his cousin being sent to Vietnam, causing his mother and aunt to worry like they’d never worried before.

“I couldn’t figure out what they were so worked up about,” he said.

And of course, there were always stories in the newspaper about events in Lawrence, where it seemed like somebody was always protesting something.

“I was too young to be in thick of what was going on in the 1960s, but the events of the 1960s shaped the world I grew up in,” said Monhollon, who later earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in U.S. history at Kansas University.

Now a history professor at Hood College in Frederick, Md., Monhollon, 43, has written “This Is America? / The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas.” A byproduct of his doctoral thesis, it’s a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the in-town and on-campus events that defined an era.

Tonight, Monhollon will be at The Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh St., for a reading and book signing.

“It’s very thorough. There’s hardly a stone left unturned,” said Pat Kehde, the Raven co-owner.

Historical treasure trove

While at KU, Monhollon sorted through thousands of documents in the archives at KU and at the Kansas State Historical Society.

“I mined everything I could get my hands on,” he said. For starters, there were the correspondence collections of former U.S. Sen. James Pearson, U.S. Rep. Robert Ellsworth, Gov. Robert Docking, KU chancellors Laurence Chalmers and W. Clark Wescoe, and the Kansas Board of Regents.

“One of the things that was really interesting was the Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest that (President Richard) Nixon started in 1970 in the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State (universities),” Monhollon said. The commission sent a five-person team to Lawrence.

“They ended up filing a formal report, which a lot of people have probably seen. But they also circulated 500-odd questionnaires that asked different groups of people questions like ‘What do you think of the Lawrence Police Department? What do you think about civil rights? And what do you think is the source of tension in the community?'” he said.

As part of his research, Monhollon reviewed the never-published questionnaire results.

Racial disputes abounded

In keeping with the times, many of the respondents blamed Communists and outside agitators for the town’s troubles, Monhollon said.

At the same time, Lawrence’s white majority struggled to understand what the black minority found so objectionable about the segregation blatant and subtle that defined daily life both in the city and on campus.

While looking through Chalmers’ papers, Monhollon found a letter from K.S. ‘Boots” Adams, chairman emeritus of Phillips Petroleum and one of KU’s best-known alumni, taking the chancellor to task for so much as listening to a Black Student Union demand that a black homecoming queen be crowned during half-time of a home football game.

Though Chalmers denied the union’s demand, Adams assailed the chancellor for allowing the “colored minority communistic group” to think it could dictate university policy.

Violence flared

The city’s long-simmering racial tensions peaked on July 16, 1970, when police officer William Garrett shot and killed Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, a black teen-ager.

Dowdell’s death triggered several days of sporadic violence, including snipers firing at police cars and firetrucks, as well as Journal-World Editor Dolph Simons Jr. and KLWN radio station owner Arden Booth.

“They missed,” Simons recalled. “I was with a group that was standing outside of where the sheriff’s used to be, over by South Park. We heard shots fired, and then we heard it splatter on the limestone (building). There was one shot for sure.”

Rusty Monhollon, author of “This Is America?: The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas,” will be at The Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St., at 7:30 p.m. today for a reading and book signing. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, copies of “This Is America?” sell for $39.95.

Four days after Dowdell’s death, Nick Rice, a white KU student, was shot and killed during an altercation with police outside the Gaslight Tavern, 13th Street and Oread Avenue.

Community reaction was harsh. Monhollon writes:

“Rice’s death generated much more sympathy and outrage from the entire Lawrence community than did Dowdell’s.”

“Indeed, many Lawrencians believed the town’s troubles resulted from a lack of respect for the police department and the rule of law.”

Shortly after Dowdell’s death, “Vortex, a radical underground newspaper, published Garrett’s photograph with the caption, ‘Wanted for Murder.’ Not surprisingly many Lawrencians were outraged. Assistant Douglas County Atty. Mike Elwell warned that anyone circulating the Vortex would be charged with defamation.”

Other factions of unrest

Other chapters deal with violence and protests tied to the war in Vietnam, and the arrivals of the counterculture and, later, the women’s movement.

Most startling, perhaps, is Monhollon’s telling of conflict between controversial black activist Leonard Harrison and Ocoee and Keith Miller, who started Penn House in February 1969 in hopes of helping poor mothers help themselves.Harrison objected to the Millers, who are white, running a program that often reached out to blacks.

An intimidating and charismatic character, Harrison launched a bitter campaign against the Millers in hopes of taking over Penn House and its funding.

Harrison, who later moved to Africa, was not above resorting to threats and intimidation.

A Journal-World reporter read several pages of Monhollon’s account to Ocoee Miller last week.

“I might quibble with a few of the details, but he got most of it right,” Miller said. “I’m impressed.”

Miller said she plans to be at tonight’s book signing.

“That was such a significant chapter in our family’s history,” she said. “I remember having our house staked out at night, and having to tell the kids never to let anybody in and never to let anybody know where their parents were. It was a very scary time for us.”

Ocoee Miller retained control of Penn House until resigning in 1979.

The 1960s, Monhollon said, forced Lawrence to change its ways.

“Lawrence today is a much more open community than it was in the early 1960s, and a lot of that, I think, is a direct result of the violence and lines of communication that were forced to open up,” Monhollon said.

“I wouldn’t call it an ‘ideal place,’ but it’s become a place where a lot of different people can be comfortable, whether it’s somebody like (counterculture author) William S. Burroughs in his final years or people who consider themselves conservatives and who’ve lived there for years.

“They all feel welcome. That’s the 1960s legacy in Lawrence.”