"And the judge told me I wasn’t doing my job as prosecutor. It was my job to prosecute these long-haired hippies. So, the charges were reinstated, the kids were convicted, and they were given something exorbitant and we appealed to the higher court."

-George Gilliam
Former Charlottesville city prosecutor


Mr. Gilliam was the newest of Charlottesville's city prosecutors during the May Days period. He was interviewed March, 2000 by Anne-Marie Angelo in Charlottesville, VA.


A: Have you seen this book? (May Days: Crisis in Confrontation: a pictorial history of May Days at UVA).

G: I don’t think so.

A: I found your name in it. It’s one of the main sources I’ve found so far.

G: That’s President Shannon, former president of the University. He made a very strong anti-war statement during May Days. Bill Harbaugh is still around, a real nice guy, very accessible.

A: He was a history professor?

G: Yeah, he taught history and he was a scholar of Teddy Roosevelt. I remember all of this. This was 1970?

A: Yes.

G: There’s Charlie Whitebread. He’s teaching out in USC. What did I do in here? There’s the arrival of the Mayflower (moving van to arrest student protestors). That’s the corner of University Avenue and Emmet Street.

A: Were you a law student then?

G: No, I got out in ’68, so I was prosecuting then.

A: So they brought the Mayflower Truck out and arrested a bunch of the students?

G: Yes, they just threw them in there. It was actually a little more complicated than that of course. They (the administration) really thought this was going to be big trouble. It was a really crazy time.

A: Were you living close to the University then?

G: No. What had happened was that I had spent my first two years out of law school as prosecutor, working very closely with the police. So I had a very good relationship with the people in the police department.

Several months before that, a bunch of kids had been brought in and they had been charged with trespass for marching on the President’s house. You know, something really mild. And as always, Virginia was several years behind the curve. This had been going on in places like Columbia and Berkeley for 5 years, and it was just starting in Virginia. It was very mild, no one was being hurt or anything.

So, when they brought these kids in, it was my job to prosecute them. The prosecutors always have a lot of discretion to lower charges, reduce the charges, or to dismiss them. If the prosecutor doesn’t feel like there’s enough there to sustain the conviction, then he really has a duty to dismiss the charges. And I regularly exercised that discretion. The police would come in and charge someone with felonious assault and battery, which is really serious, carries a minimum of a year in jail. But what it really was was a Saturday night fight between two guys that got drunk. I would routinely reduce those charges to misdemeanor assault and battery. They’d plead guilty and do 30 days in jail and pay $100 fine and that was that.

When these protestors--and I don’t remember the exact specifics, except that it was something very, very mild and nondestructive that they had done. If they had been heaving rocks and bottles, and busting up windows, and damaging cars, that would have been another thing. This wasn’t that, it was very orderly. Just demonstrations. So I reduced the charges to something meaningless, like spitting on the sidewalk, cause you don’t want to have their record screwed up when they go to graduate school. The judge refused to accept it. The police had arrested these kids; they didn’t have any personal feelings against them. Their jaws dropped, they couldn’t believe it.

And the judge told me I wasn’t doing my job as prosecutor. It was my job to prosecute these long-haired hippies. So, the charges were reinstated, the kids were convicted, and they were given something exorbitant and we appealed to the higher court, the Circuit Court. We went through the same thing. I reduced the charges and they got something like a $10 fine, something meaningless.

In any event, I had the reputation--even though I’m a very conservative, conventional person--I had the reputation of being the students’ friend. So when the Mayflower incident came up--as I recall, I think the police actually called me and said ‘here’s what’s happening. You understand this situation. You ought to go down there and talk to these kids.’ I don’t remember how many kids were brought in in the Mayflower, it was a large number. We did process them very quickly. My recollection is that only a very small handful were ever charged with anything of consequence, and nothing happened to them. They were mildly fined for trespass.

But it was an interesting time for the University, and an interesting time for the community. Two things sort of came together: the whole national student protest had been going on since ’66. Virginia was years behind and it finally arrived. Edgar Shannon, who was President of the University, was personally very much against the war in Vietnam, although he hadn’t spoken out. At the end of this episode, he put out a statement where he really lambasted the national administration for the war in Vietnam. He was attacked and vilified for that for the rest of his career as Preisdent.

A: By other people in the University?

G: Yes, they said, ‘He’s no better than those long-haired hippies.’ And Edgar Shannon was a scholar of 16th-century English, the most conservative guy in the world, and yet he just couldn’t stomach the war so he spoke out against it. He then was lumped in with all the long-haired hippies.

The other thing going on at that time was that the black leadership in Charlottesville was confronted by a group of very angry young blacks. They said that there were no jobs in the area, which was true except for things like sweeping the floors of the University. A bunch of them went on a rampage just after this. They walked down Main Street. On West Main Street where the bus station is, right across from this there were a couple of auto dealerships. This is before they had all moved out to the suburbs. They went through and heaved rocks and bottles and stuff and broke a lot of windows. Again, there was no burning, no looting, but a sort of malicious destruction.

I think a lot of people in the public sort of conflated these two and lumped the long-haired hippies who were upset about Vietnam in with these black kids who were upset about the economic situation. They felt like they were being left behind, which they were. So there was a reaction locally, you know ‘we’ve got to crack down on all of this stuff; this is really serious.’ This was followed by a fairly oppressive time for two or three years where any sort of demonstration was put down. People were just afraid it would get out of hand.

A: Do you know anything about how the administration was toward the students? Were they oppositional?

G: I don’t think so. I don’t think that UVA ever really went through the sort-of ‘student governance issues’ that other schools went through. I graduated from Columbia in ’65 and I was out of there by the time this stuff really started at Columbia. But the issue there was, we don’t need somebody telling us what courses we have to take. We want to set our own curriculum. And we don’t need somebody telling us that we have to be back in our dorm rooms at such-and-such time or there could be no women in the rooms or whatever. Virginia never really had that. Those challenges to the administration’s authority never really took hold here.

I think part of that was because Edgar Shannon, who was the President, was very open-minded. People said he knew the name of every student. He had the great ability to remember names and when the first-year class came in, he’d hold a reception up there at Carr’s Hill and he’d shake every hand. And people said he remembered every name. He would drop into dorms and just visit students and walk up and down the Lawn. He continued to teach.

Shannnon’s job was to be a leader of the faculty. He saw his role a lot more traditionally, as an intellectual rudder on the ship. He was very active with the faculty. He had a real good sense of where people were. He knew the faculty was pretty much conservative, but sort of moved people along gradually. And I think the students thought that here was a fair-minded guy who was doing the best that he could and throwing rocks at his house wasn’t going to change anything. Particularly after he made the statement on the Vietnam War, they said, ‘Here’s a kindred soul. He’s not part of that PIG establishment.’

A: I read that some faculty were fairly supportive of the students while some were not. Do you know anything about the faculty support for it?

G: On the Law School faculty, there was Charlie Whitebread. He and several other young folks on the Law School faculty were very with the student movement. Of course, they wanted to overthrow the administration. They were really radical. And the rest of Virginia were still in coats and ties.

A: Do you think that the students’ coming together was more a result of other student movements? Or was there a deep, heartfelt feeling?

G: I think like always, you see stuff on television, you read about stuff in the papers and it increases interest. Their consciousness was raised because they always heard about it going on at other places. Martin Luther King, Jr. came here and spoke in ’63. That stirred a lot of people into at least paying a lot of attention . . .

A: Do you feel like the student atmosphere has changed a whole lot? Do you see students now as similar to how they were during May Days in terms of their activism?

G: Larry Sabato was Student Council President in 1974. He wanted students to be a lot more active and to get involved in local things. Larry went to every meeting of the Charlottesville City Council. I think that was sort of the high-point of student involvement. Nobody’s ever done anything like that since. I think Virginia’s always been a lot less involved than students at other places. They’re not wearing coats and ties yet, but I think intellectually they still are. There are not many real radicals at UVA.

The racial composition has changed a lot. My years in law school, there was one black student and there were two women. The school reaches a lot further today to bring in students who are a lot brighter than they were 30 years ago. But I don’t really think they’re that much more engaged. What is your sense?

A: I tend to feel like there’s a lot of knowledge, there’s a lot of rhetoric that goes around certain issues. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the October Camp, but it was a rally this past fall that some students tried to form around the affirmative action issue that the administration was looking at. They had some students who camped out on the Lawn for a couple days. There was a lot of reporting about it, a lot of talking about it, but in terms of students actually coming out, I was really surprised. I would have expected more participation than that.

G: How many would you say came out?

A: I’d say around 15 or 20. I was really surprised because I had been reading these things that said that towards the end of the week, there were thousands of students out on the Lawn. I was trying to imagine that. That’s why I was curious: was the time period really different? Or were the students back then different? Or was it just a result of all of the changes that were going on at the time?

G: I don’t know. I think it was probably just a result of seeing things on TV and saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing this here?’ And there’s not that much student activism around the country now. People want to graduate and get their jobs on Wall Street or go to Silicon Valley and make their 6 zillion dollars. People just aren’t engaged in public policy issues like they were some years ago. But you can change that.

reflections