A Week in People’s History, May 9 to May 15

The May 9, 1970, demonstration in Washington against the War in Vietnam was unusual in two ways: it was much larger than the organizers expected it to be, and it was co-sponsored by the Black Panther Party

This is the first installment of a weekly column about People's History. It will take a close look at one or more events with anniversaries that occur during the seven days after the column appears. 

The time-frame for today's column is May 9 - 15.  There are, of course, many anniversaries of important events the took place during that week. Here is one of them.

Fifty-three years ago, on May 9, 1970, in Washington, D.C., a very large, angry, and somewhat unusual demonstration took place outside the White House.

Big demonstrations against the Vietnam War were not unusual in 1970. This one was different in two ways. For one, the demonstration was, to an unusual extent, spontaneous. For another, it was co-sponsored by the Black Panther Party and emphasized the connection between what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam and what the police and FBI were doing in Black communities from coast to coast.

The New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam had been planning and organizing a big May 9 antiwar demonstration for months. In late April the New Mobe's leadership  was growing very concerned that the turn-out was going to be disappointingly small, indicating to the Nixon adminstration and others that the anti-war movement was losing steam. The concern was justified, but when all hell broke loose on April 30, the demonstration's great success was practically guaranteed. 

What happened?

On April 30, the United States Army announced it had invaded Vietnam's neutral neighbor, Cambodia, an act of aggression that was a BIG escalation of a war that was way too big already. Hundreds of thousand of antiwar activists were confronted with a new reason to hate what the U.S. was doing in Southeast Asia.

Then on May 4, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on a large, peaceful student protest at Kent State University against the attack on Cambodia. Four students were killed and 15 seriously wounded. If the somewhat abstract news of the invasion of Cambodia wasn't enough to build the May 9 crowd, the gory photos of unarmed dead and dying students was more than almost anyone could take.

Overnight, New Mobe supporters went into high gear, replacing the slogan "End the War, Bring the Troops Home" with "The United States government is now carrying on open warfare on three different fronts: against the peoples of Southeast Asia, against the Black communities in America, and against the people of the American campus.

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"We must strike the war, IF NOT NOW WHEN?"

The May 9 demonstration was about twice the size of what its organizers had been expecting 10 days earlier. At least 100,000 people filled the Ellipse next to the White House, loudly demanding the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from southeast Asia, an end to the deadly attacks that the FBI and the police were making on the Black Panther Party and other anti-racist organizations, and the an end to the presence of heavily-armed troops and police on college campuses.

The Black Panther Party's co-sponsorship of the demonstration had come about because when the demonstration was being planned in late 1969 the Panthers had been targetted, as never before, by murderous police violence. During the last six months of 1969, four Black Panthers had been shot dead by police in Chicago. Two of those killed were Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panther's Illinois chapter and deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party and Party member Mark Clark. 

Hampton and Clark were killed during a pre-dawn police raid on Hampton's apartment. Hampton was asleep in bed at the time of the raid (it was later learned that an FBI informer had slipped a heavy dose of barbituates into something Hampton was drinking to insure he would be disabled during the raid). Police shot the unresisting Hampton twice in the head at very close range.

One did not need to be a staunch Black Panther supporter to be convinced that Hampton had been murdered in cold blood.  When four Ohio State University students suffered the same fate four months later, the importance of linking the struggles against deadly imperialism and deadly racism was clearer than ever.