Whitman survivor Claire Wilson James said, ‘It was so important to me that a student group organized this event, and that a younger generation is carrying these stories forward.’
AUSTIN — Students at the University of Texas held a Living Memorial for the 1966 UT Tower shooting victims on Friday, August 1.
Under a hot August sun, the students led a gathering across the campus from Littlefield Fountain to the Main Mall, the West Mall, and then to an area adjacent to the Turtle Pond on the north side of the Tower. Six times they stopped to hold up photos of the dead and read to those assembled a few words about the 17 lives that were lost. One of the victims recognized was David Gunby who died from injuries years after the event. His death was ruled a homicide.
Charles Whitman had killed his mother and wife before he drove with his weapons and 700 rounds of ammunition to the campus. He killed a University receptionist and two people who had come to see the view of Austin from the 27th floor deck as he made his way on to the observation deck to continue his deadly mission.
A former Marine, he had been well trained at Guantanamo as a marksman. The first shot he fired from the Tower deck was aimed at Claire Wilson’s abdomen. It took the life of her eight-month old unborn child. His second shot killed Thomas Eckman who was walking beside Claire.
Claire, just 18, was already a civil rights veteran, having been arrested in Dallas protesting a segregated restaurant chain. At 17, she joined a voter registration project in Mississippi run by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and then worked with the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) in Appalachia. She joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Austin as did her boyfriend Thomas. It was through SDS that I knew Claire and another sniper survivor, Sandra Wilson, unrelated to Claire.
Claire Wilson James traveled from Texarkana for the Living Memorial. Like many of the other older participants, her life had been forever changed by the event. Austin musician and satirist Artly Snuff and his wife were there as well. Artly was one of two people who braved bullets on the Main Mall to carry Claire to an ambulance. Claire and Artly only met in person last year.
The University of Texas administration does not wish to have the memory of August 1, 1966, kept alive. Only a small plaque at the Turtle Pond commemorates the event. In 2008, a Travis County Building was dedicated to the law enforcement “Tower Heroes.” But, there is no list of victims’ names.
In 1997, Gary M. Lavergne published A Sniper in the Tower. It is the definitive book about the event, and particularly about sniper Charles Whitman. Still, for Claire and many survivors and relatives of victims, it is the memory of their loved ones that they wish to keep alive. In an important way, Lavergne did that for Claire recently. He located the unmarked grave of her child and asked her if he could place a gravestone there. The Austin grave is now marked “Baby Boy Wilson.”
And last Friday, August 1st, University students kept the memory of the sniper victims alive. Claire, who is active in the movement against gun violence, said, “It was so important to me that a student group organized this event, and that a younger generation is carrying these stories forward.” The task of memorializing will have to fall to a younger generation. As Claire says, “Forty-eight years have passed. The youngest survivors are now in our mid-to-late sixties.”
For those of us marked by this event, it was particularly poignant to hear the younger voices of Hannah Whisenant, Justin Perez, and Victoria Prescott recount the stories of the lives lost. So many of the lives taken were young people like the students holding their photos.
Another person, a filmmaker, has taken on the task of remembering. Keith Maitland was there at the Living Memorial with his camera. He is working on a documentary film about August 1, 1966.
As the toll of school shootings rises, the history of the Tower shooting is rarely referenced. Claire would like to see a memorial on the University of Texas campus with the victims’ names. “But my greatest hope,” she says “is that one day this event will seem as strange to children as ‘Whites Only’ signs seem to the current generation of youth.”
[Alice Embree, a contributing editor to The Rag Blog, co-chair of the Friends of New Journalism, and a veteran of the original Rag, is a long-time Austin activist, organizer, and member of the Texas State Employees Union. Read more articles by Alice Embree on The Rag Blog.]