A Long Weekend In A Long Hot Summer
July 16, 1970
At about 10:30 on a hot summer night on this date in 1970, former KU freshman Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, 19, a local African-American youth, was shot and killed while fleeing police in downtown Lawrence.
The incident marked the beginning of five days of violence that represented a flashpoint in the long simmering confrontation between student antiwar activists and civil rights advocates on the one hand, and law enforcement authorities on the other. Before it was over, a white KU freshman named Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice would also be killed, two policemen and numerous others would be injured, and the situation in Lawrence and on the KU campus would be approaching that of a battle zone.
This account of the period beginning on the night of July 16, 1970, is based on news stories, oral history, and the official Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) report issued about a month after these incidents. Even to this day, not all the details of events are clear, and some information remains suppressed. What follows is a summary of what is publicly known:
At about 10:15 on July 16, police were called to the 900 block of New York Street in East Lawrence to answer a report of gunfire in the area. While en route to the scene, another call came in stating that Mildred J. Johnson, 61, had been hit in the left leg by sniper fire coming from the front steps of St. Luke’s A.M.E. Church on the corner of 9th and New York. As police were responding to that call, yet another one came in reporting a shooting at the “Afro House,” located at 946½ Rhode Island Street in East Lawrence. (Afro House was a community center financed in part by KU and designed to nurture black culture, but often ended up being utilized for more radical purposes.)
Melvin Eugene Reynolds, the 17-year-old Afro House victim, was wounded in the head and shoulder by shotgun pellets that he later claimed had been fired from a patrol car parked on the street. At about the same time, two other policemen in their patrol car plus another witness observed two suspects from the Johnson shooting entering Afro House. This patrol car continued to the vicinity of St. Luke’s AME, but was fired upon en route, the officers reporting that the same two persons seen entering Afro House earlier had been observed with pistols in their hands running across 10th street. At that point, another patrol car entered the area and began a surveillance of Afro House.
While considering whether to approach the house, the two officers saw two young African-Americans, a man and woman later identified as Rick Dowdell and Frankie Cole, leave Afro House in a light-colored Volkswagen. Followed by a police cruiser, the VW quickly picked up speed. It ran two stop signs and subsequently failed to yield to red lights and siren when the police attempted to stop the vehicle. The car then failed to negotiate a southbound turn into the alley on 9th Street between Rhode Island and New Hampshire Streets, stalling on the sidewalk. At that point, Dowdell got out of the passenger side of the VW and ran up the alley. Officer William Garrett gave chase, and a brief exchange of gunfire occurred. Dowdell resumed running down the alley and it was then that the police officer Garrett fired the fatal shot that struck the fleeing youth from behind at the base of the skull.
Cole, the driver of the VW, was a KU student who lived at Oliver Hall. At first, she told police that Dowdell had pulled a gun on her, but later recanted that story. Eventually, she issued a statement saying she did not know how many shots were fired, but could only remember one shot. Officers arriving at the scene in the aftermath of the shooting found a recently fired .357 magnum lying next to Dowdell’s body. A night watchman in the vicinity reported he had heard several shots being fired. Officer Garrett was temporarily suspended with pay but ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing.
The next day, about 60 black citizens presented a petition with 75 signatures to City Manager Buford Watson demanding the suspension of Garrett and a “thorough and objective investigation” into the death of Rick Dowdell. That night, in the vicinity of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania streets along 10th Street, Lawrence police responded to a report of “four to five Negroes” shooting out streetlights and sniping at passing motorists.
But when the police arrived, they found themselves in a pitched gun battle with 45 armed African-Americans near the corner of 10th and Pennsylvania. Officer Eugene Williams, 48, was shot in the chest with buckshot and hospitalized. Violence also erupted at the “Hippie Haven” neighborhood near 12th and Oread. Trash fires burned in the streets, and firebombs were tossed into a building known as the “White House” at 1225 Oread. Police accompanied firemen into the neighborhood and were pelted with rocks and bricks. About 75 youths marched to KU Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers’ residence. When no one came to the door, someone threw an object through a window, but the crowd responded with a chorus of boos.
Tensions remained high over the next few days. Unknown persons threw firebombs at the residence of District Court Judge Frank Gray, but damage to the home was minimal. On July 20 at 7:30 p.m. the following Tuesday, police responded to a report that a fire hydrant had been opened at the northeast corner of 12th and Indiana Streets. When they arrived, they also found several small trash fires burning on the southeast corner of 12th and Oread. The hydrant was closed, the fires were extinguished, and the police left the area. Around 9 p.m., similar reports brought police back to the scene and where they found the same scenario, the same hydrant was open and fires were burning on the same corner. By this time, it was getting dark, and a crowd had gathered around the Rock Chalk Café (12th and Oread Avenue), then a popular hangout.
When the Lawrence police made their second appearance, a crowd of demonstrators pelted the officers with rocks, bricks, and tomatoes. Witnesses stated that police herded people into the Rock Chalk Café, a building too small to handle the large crowd, and then let them out, dispersed them, and closed the restaurant. About an hour later, someone called in a report of firebombs being thrown into the Rock Chalk Café and police returned to the scene for a third time. Firemen also responded, but finding no fire were leaving the area when a loud noise was heard to the south. Many demonstrators and bystanders had gathered, numbering between 150 and 300. Several of them turned over a red Volkswagen in the middle of Oread Avenue. The owner of the car had reportedly stated that he needed the insurance money and it was okay to destroy it. Police reported they saw a youth, (some witnesses say it was the owner of the car), striking matches in an attempt to ignite the gasoline that had spilled out of the vehicle.
The police were tense from several continuous days of sniper fire and fire bombings. Having already been pelted with rocks and bottles on this evening, they moved toward the crowd firing tear gas. A few also fired their weapons, which reportedly ranged from shotguns and rifles to service revolvers. Some witnesses reported hearing an order to shoot. One bullet struck the fleeing Nick Rice in the base of the skull; almost the exact location where the bullet fired by Officer William Garrett had struck Rick Dowdell several days earlier. A bullet also struck Merton Olds, a black graduate student from Topeka, in the right leg. Lawrence police officer Donald Dalquez, 26, was struck in the face by a rock.
Fleeing protestors and bystanders headed for an apartment building on the west side of Oread Avenue and the Gaslight Tavern, another popular hangout situated where the top of the parking garage is today (and formerly known as Brick’s Café). Numerous witnesses claimed that Lawrence police denied aid to the seriously wounded Rice, who lay dying on the sidewalk on the west side of Oread Avenue. Two students, Tim Cragg and Allen Miller, reportedly tried to help Rice into the Gaslight, but tear gas canisters landed next to the wounded student. Eventually, bystanders carried him into the tavern, where 20 minutes passed before an ambulance was able to reach the location. Riley Werts, a bartender and KU junior, told the Kansas City Times that police had laid down a barrage of tear gas in front of the Gaslight while Rice was inside on the floor. Another observer at the scene confirmed that account.
Among the many conflicting eyewitness accounts of that evening’s events, the most glaring seems to be the discrepancy between the Kansas Bureau of Investigation report, released on August 22, a month after the shooting, and the accounts of students and others who witnessed the whole scene unfold. Many students said they saw the police fire at the demonstrators, some even said they heard the police saying, “Shoot ‘em.”
Whatever the case, the KBI report brought no closure to the incident. “[S]ome tear gas was thrown in the direction of the crowd [standing near the Volkswagen],” it noted, adding, “Police weapons were fired. Mr. Rice was later discovered dead.” The report did not take a position on the culpability for Rice’s death. “We cannot demonstrate that [Rice] was killed by a police bullet,” it advised. “We cannot demonstrate he was not killed by a police bullet. One shot was fired at a fleeing felon. We cannot demonstrate that that bullet struck Mr. Rice.” Finally, concluded the report, “When police approached the VW, they did not use riot control techniques. They really weren’t attempting to disperse a crowd at that time, but instead were attempting to stop a fleeing felon. The police were not armed for riot control.”
Many Lawrence residents were dissatisfied by this report, but then, dissatisfaction was hardly in short supply by July 1970. KU students had been protesting the war in Vietnam since the mid-1960s. “Hippie Haven” was becoming a way station for followers of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Black militants, some of them members of the Black Panther movement, had taken advantage of the Afro House. Fire bombings were increasingly common, nearly a daily occurrence, and the Kansas Union suffered $1,000,000 damage from an arson fire on April 20. Indeed, the city of Lawrence and the campus of KU had become fertile grounds for New Left activism. Low rents and understaffed law enforcement agencies attracted a large number of maladjusted and discontented youth, black and white.
According to Laird Wilcox, a former student activist who became disillusioned with the totalitarian aspects of the movement and lent his inside knowledge to the authorities, approximately 600 radicals lived in town, of which no more than 200 were highly motivated. Of these, perhaps only a few dozen were actually dangerous. In addition, there were probably 1,000 individuals – students, faculty and townspeople – who were available when the need for a show of force arose.
The more radical of these leftist protestors formed groups that would intimidate opponents, vandalize public property, and generally make a nuisance of themselves in order to further their agenda. But most were simply individuals who opposed the war in Vietnam or supported gay and women’s rights. These people had helped disrupt the ROTC spring review the previous year and regularly held demonstrations against the Vietnam War, a practice that increased following the US invasion of Cambodia on April 30 and the killing of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard on May 4.
Racial discord had also found its way into Lawrence. In April, a group of African-American protesters occupied Lawrence High School demanding black cheerleaders, a black homecoming queen and black faculty members. Black students at KU had walked out of a meeting with University administration officials when those officials did not act on the students’ demands for specifically black curricula.
White radicals, including members of the militant wing of Students for a Democratic Society known as “Weathermen,” occasionally passed through the Lawrence/Kansas City area and found a haven in both cities. The goal of violently overthrowing the US government was commonly discussed in rage-tainted prose in the pages of publications such as Reconstruction and Vortex, underground newspapers shared by the SDS, Black Panthers, and others.
Excesses on both sides seem to be the core cause of Dowdell’s and Rice’s untimely deaths. “What Happened in Lawrence?” was the Kansan headline in the aftermath of this turbulent week. Perhaps this was a bit myopic. The question could just as easily have been “What Happened in the United States?”
Department of History
University of Kansas