Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Ed Finch attended the University of Virginia for undergrad to get away from home. He stayed on to pursue his law degree, which he believed would open up many professional opportunities.
Finch remembers both the college and the law school being a “little more conservative” than surrounding universities, despite the increasingly liberal youth culture sweeping the nation, particularly after the Woodstock music festival in 1969. While some students picked up bell bottoms, many others remained in coat and tie—the traditional dress for male UVA students. With the onset of May Days, however, that conservatism began “melting away,” he says. At the very least, the conservative culture on Grounds was challenged.
Finch was not immune to this “evolutionary period,” as his own views began to shift in spite of his “relatively conservative background.” As the Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia and student demonstrations surged across the country, Finch recalls being “glued to the newspapers.” He read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times daily.
"I’m sure my grades were suffering as a result of my fascination with the whole thing."
When student demonstrations hit UVA, Finch found himself caught in the middle—both in his centrist political views and via his role as the law school representative on the Student Council. He describes the Council as “interestingly divided,” with very liberal and very conservative students struggling to find compromise. Finch recalls that the legal marshals were partially influenced by the desire to “balance the interests” of the two extremes and ensure that both sides maintained their freedom of speech and right to assembly.
During the first sit-in at Maury Hall the evening of May 4th, Finch quickly learned that “balancing the interests” was not going to be easy:
"I’m not even clear whether the marshals were a formal entity then or whether I was just going there as the Student Council representative from the law school, and therefore with some 'legal background,' having some feeling of that I should, I should help and stop what was going on. And that I could help. But my legal reasoning didn’t do so well there. I remember that. Neither side cared much, listened to my recitation of the Constitution."
Two days later, on May 6th, Finch recalls the aftermath of the Kunstler and Rubin speeches that incited hundreds of students to march from University Hall to President Edgar Shannon’s house at Carr’s Hill. Fearful of what might happen to the students and the President's family, Finch called some of his undergraduate friends and asked them to come to President Shannon’s house “and surround it." Confronted by a wall of students, they moved on to Maury Hall to occupy it a second time.
When Finch and McDermott were not on the ground, they were posted in a room in the Downtowner Motor Inn, at the intersection of Emmet Street and Ivy Road.* Finch suggested establishing a look-out post there during one of the initial legal marshal meetings to “alert people to movements of the state troopers and students.” They shifted between their motel room and the roof to survey the “Honk-for-Peace" demonstrations that took place over several evenings.
However, on the night of the arrests (May 8th), Finch vividly remembers standing in front of the Rotunda between the protestors and the police. When the police charged with their “clubs and dogs,” Finch recalls “leading the charge away from the cops.” He jumped the serpentine walls and hid in the gardens.
As the May Days events came to a close, Finch recalls attending President Shannon’s speech which he believes aptly spoke to those in the political middle and Finch's mindset at the time.
“And so I think maybe that’s the significance I take away from it that it anchored in my political feelings.”
* The Downtowner Motor Inn eventually became the Cavalier Inn and was demolished in 2018.