The Sit-In at Northwestern University, May 1968

Fifty years ago, a group of Black students at Northwestern University made headlines. On May 3, 1968, they occupied the university’s business office (commonly known as the bursar’s office) and announced that they would not leave until their demands were met. Their demands, submitted to university officials in April 1968, focused on a wide range of issues, campus conditions, and racist encounters they had experienced at Northwestern. Over the course of two momentous days, the whole world watched as events on the Evanston campus unfolded. The sit-in took place within a wider movement for political and social change that marked the 1960s, with the year 1968 arguably proving to be the decade’s most dramatic and transformative. The Evanston History Center Press announces the publication of an in depth look at this fascinating chapter in American history: The Sit-In: Campus Politics, Student Protest, and the Experiences of Black Students at Northwestern University, 1968-1969 by EHC Director of Education, Jenny Thompson.

Scheduled for a summer 2018 release, The Sit-In draws from contemporaneous accounts, primary sources, and interviews with former Northwestern student government president, Eva Jefferson Paterson, and two of the sit-in’s key players, James Turner, former Northwestern graduate student and sit-in leader, and Jack Hinz, former Northwestern Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students. The book pieces together the events of May 3-4, 1968 as they unfolded, and it also takes a broader view, stepping back from those two crucial days to examine what led to the sit-in and what transpired in its aftermath.

Northwestern students in front of 619 Clark Street, May 3, 1968. (Photo: Northwestern University Archives.)

Excerpt from The Sit-In

The thing the sixties did was show us the possibility and the responsibility that we all had.

It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.

John Lennon, 1980[1]

The Setting, Spring 1968

The year 1968 got off to a rough start in January with the launching of the Tet Offensive, a surprise assault on U.S. forces and allies throughout Vietnam. The assault would cause a majority of Americans to decide that the war was not winnable; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. followed on April 4, with uprisings in 115 American cities taking place in its wake. On high school and college campuses, protests and activism were heating up, as students staged walk-outs, strikes, and sit-ins to take a stand on a number of issues, from the war in Vietnam to racism to university politics.[2] It was a season of violence. It was a season of change. For many who looked toward building a better future, it was also one of possibility.

The Sit-In Begins: Friday, May 3, 1968

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.[3]

Frederick Douglass, 1857

Early Friday morning, May 3, 1968, Northwestern University Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, Jack Hinz, was sitting down to breakfast at his home in Evanston, Illinois, when his phone rang. The campus chief of security was on the line: “We’ve got trouble,” he told Hinz. “You’d better come to campus right away.”[4]

Earlier that morning, 26-year old Northwestern University graduate student James Turner left his Evanston home at 920 Main Street and headed to campus. He left his young son in the care of a babysitter. His wife, Janice, was attending a conference in Wisconsin. She was unaware of what was about to transpire. It would not be until later that evening, when one of her colleagues told her that there was a man on TV who looked just like her husband, that she would find out what James had planned for that day.[5]

The 36-year old Hinz hurried to campus, embarking on what would be a 38-hour ordeal. The “trouble” had begun at roughly 7:30 that morning. The guard at the University Business Office at 619 Clark Street had been approached by a student, who told him he needed to enter the building to pick up a form.[6] Once the student was inside, a small group of students began shouting outside, prompting the guard to come out to investigate. The guard, it was reported in one newspaper, had been “alerted by university officials that a student take-over of a campus building was in the air.”[7] Within minutes, James Turner, along with 94 other Northwestern University students, had entered the building.[8] They told the clerical staff inside to vacate the building. They then blocked the revolving front door with chairs, padlocked the back doors, chained the windows, and began their “sit-in,” to use the language of the time. They were, to use a more contemporary term, “occupying” Northwestern University’s central financial building, a building that housed the university’s computer system and financial operations.[9] A spokesman for the group, who was soon reached by telephone, announced that the “action” had begun. They promised that they would do no harm to the building or its contents,[10] and they pledged that they were prepared to continue their occupation “until the end of summer” if their demands were not met.[11]

At about 8:00 am, Hinz arrived at the building, followed by his colleague, William S. Kerr, Northwestern’s vice president for business. Both men quickly surveyed the situation and “left shortly afterwards.”[12] Students from the sit-in were now posted at the back and front doors of the building. A truck pulled up to the side of the building, and supplies were unloaded through a window. A sign was hung at the entrance that read: “Closed for business ‘til racism at NU is ended.”[13]

Numerous Black students at Northwestern planned this action, and many took on leadership roles, particularly among the undergraduates. But two students would serve as the sit-in’s primary leaders: Kathryn Ogletree, an undergraduate student and president of the campus group, “For Members Only” (FMO), and graduate student, James Turner, chairman of Northwestern’s Afro-American Student Union (AASU). The students had organized their action carefully, from planting a false rumor that an action was to take place that morning at the administration building, prompting police to show up there, to contacting WCFL radio host, Jeff Kamen, beforehand, so that he could stand-by to announce over the airwaves that the sit-in had begun.[14]

The students had chosen the University Business Office because it was a stand-alone building with first-floor access to the street (allowing students to come and go and for supplies to be delivered easily). More importantly, they felt that they would be protected by their proximity to the valuable materials inside should officials try to evict them by force. Their location would give them “countervailing leverage,” as James Turner explained in a 2012 interview;[15] it would, in effect, “guard against white men using an irrational approach,” he said.[16] If the administration “had to consider only our well-being,” Turner surmised, they would have “pounce[d] on us.”[17]

A window on the east side of 619 Clark served as the entry and exit point for students during the May 1968 sit-in. (Photo: James S. Sweet Collection, Northwestern University Archives.)

By the time Hinz left the building early that morning, news of the sit-in had reached members of the university administration. Soon, Northwestern University president, J. Roscoe Miller, along with his vice presidents, including Hinz, gathered to strategize.[18]

“The officers met in the president’s office,” Hinz recalled in a 2012 interview.[19] “And I guess I wasn’t the only one anxious, but I think the president’s view was we have to resolve this as quickly as possible. It’s not good for us. It’s damaging and so forth and so on.” According to one source, Miller wanted all the students ejected from the building by police force immediately.[20] In fact, administrators had already made progress toward that end, and had begun “marshaling Northwestern’s security force.”[21] They had also alerted the mayor of Evanston, John Emery, and the city’s chief of police, Bert Giddens, who informed them that an eviction of the building’s occupants could be carried out “in just a few minutes.”[22]

A crowd gathers on Clark Street as the Sit-in is underway. May 1968. (Photo: James S. Sweet Collection, Northwestern University Archives.)

Soon after the initial take over, reporters and television crews began assembling outside the occupied building, along with crowds of onlookers. Local media and all three national networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS, would soon file reports, covering the sit-in on nightly newscasts and in papers nationwide. The New York Times would carry a story in its Saturday paper, complete with photographs; Now, a swat team soon stood at the ready, along with local and state police, and, according to one source, at least two FBI agents were deployed to the site (surreptitiously) that morning; “Rebellion at N.U.,” the Chicago Tribune announced dramatically.[23]

The crowds and press outside of 619 Clark St., May 1968. (Photo: James S. Sweet Collection, Northwestern University Archives.)

Wary of the media circus that was now encamped on Clark Street, administrators knew that this story was of immense public interest. There was no chance it could be handled without sharp scrutiny from the curious public, not to mention parents and alumni. While they wanted to end the incident quickly, they were concerned with the larger issue of safety on the campus. What might happen if they mishandled this event? What if anyone got hurt? What if an eviction of the students incited more protests and sit-ins, or even violence? This was, after all, a tense era in the United States, with protests, uprisings, and strikes taking place on a seemingly weekly basis throughout the country.

At the time, student protests focused on a wide range of issues, from ending inequality to stopping the war in Vietnam, and the Black student movement in particular was growing exponentially, with efforts underway nationwide to protest discrimination, alter campus conditions, and assert Black cultural identity. “Since last fall, the Black cultural revolution has raged with unprecedented fury on high school and college campuses,” historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. had written just that month in Ebony magazine.[24]

Northwestern officials worried about making things worse through their actions. In fact, they later revealed that the university had received intelligence “indicating that certain organized off-campus, activist groups from throughout the Chicago area were prepared at the first opportunity to attach themselves to any developing incident, with a view to a swift and major magnification thereof, aimed at visiting disaster upon the university.”[25]

One recent disastrous incident stood out sharply: Just days earlier, in the early morning hours of April 30, 1968, Columbia University president Grayson Kirk had mobilized a thousand police officers to quash a weeklong student take-over of the New York City campus that had shut down the entire university. Using tear gas, police entered the occupied buildings and dragged many of the students out by the arms and legs. In the end, 132 students, 4 faculty members, and 12 police officers were injured, and more than 700 people were arrested.[26]

Having witnessed the chaos at Columbia, not to mention the recent uprisings following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. just one month earlier, officials knew that the potential for violence was real. Polite and proper Northwestern, with its history of having a rather tepid counter culture and very little protest in years prior, was facing the eye of the storm of the sixties.[27]

 

 

James Turner (center) and Jack Hinz (behind Turner) on the steps of the occupied building, May 3, 1968.  (Photo: James S. Sweet Collection, Northwestern University Archives.)


[1] Jon Wiener, “Lennon’s Last Interview: ‘The Sixties Showed Us the Possibility,’” The Nation, December 8, 2010. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://www.thenation.com/article/lennons-last-interview-sixties-showed-us-possibility/.

[2] Student activism certainly did not begin in 1968. For many years, protests had been staged on campuses across the country. Anti-war protests had taken place at Northwestern University earlier than 1968. In November and December 1967, two protests at UCLA and San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) made headlines, and unrest would continue. As 1968 began, the momentum was building for more actions, from walk-outs to sleep-ins, occupations, and strikes. These actions were not limited to the United States, but were a global phenomenon.

[3] Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857.

[4] Jack Hinz (Roland J. Hinz), interviews with the author, September and October 2012. On April 4, 2018, I sat down again with Jack Hinz for an extensive discussion during which he provided further detail on the manuscript for the forthcoming book. Those details have been incorporated throughout the text.

[5] James Turner, interview with the author, May 25, 2012. While it was a surprise to see her husband on TV, Janice Turner was well aware of what was going on leading up to the sit in and was active in the movement as well.

[6] The building is commonly referred to as the Bursar’s Office.

[7] “Negro Sit-In at Northwestern,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 4, 1968.

[8] That number would grow to 106 students as others joined in the sit-in throughout out the day. “619 Clark Street; N.U.’s Day of Decision,” The Daily Northwestern, May 4, 1968. Different sources provide slightly different totals for the number of students involved in the sit-in. They range from 90 to about 120 students. Northwestern University lists 106 on its website: http://sites.northwestern.edu/bursars1968/participants/. Accessed March 1, 2018.

[9] “619 Clark Street; N.U.’s Day of Decision,” The Daily Northwestern, May 4, 1968.

[10] “Negroes Protest at Northwestern,” 
New York Times, May 4, 1968. The term “negro” was still in use at the time this book documents, although it was rapidly being replaced by the word “Black.” I use it here only in quoting primary sources, such as in newspaper headlines or quotations.

[11] “619 Clark Street; N.U.’s Day of Decision,” The Daily Northwestern, May 4, 1968.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, 84.

[15] Turner, interview with the author, 2012.

[16] Robert Cross, “James Turner: The Face of Black Power at Northwestern,” Chicago Tribune, July 14, 1968.

[17] Turner, interview with the author, 2012.

[18] James Roscoe Miller (1905-1977) was the university’s 12th president, serving in that role from 1949 until 1970.

[19] Hinz, interview with the author, September 2012.

[20] Biondi, 87.

[21] [Northwestern University president] J. Roscoe Miller, letter to the trustees, “Summary Statement Regarding the Basic Issues Involved in the Negro Student Incident of May 3-4, 1968.” Northwestern University Archives.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Students Seize N. U. Offices,” Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1968.

[24] Lerone Bennett Jr., “Confrontation on the Campus,” Ebony, May 1968, 27. Bennett would go on to serve as the first chair of the African American studies department at Northwestern University.

[25] “Summary Statement Regarding the Basic Issues Involved in the Negro Student Incident of May 3-4, 1968.” Northwestern University Archives.

[26] Robert D. McFadden, “Remembering Columbia, 1968,” New York Times, April 25, 2008. Three months prior to the Northwestern University sit-in, another disaster befell the college world. On February 8, 1968, during a protest of 200 students on the adjoining campuses of two historically Black colleges, South Carolina State College (now University) and Clafin College (now Clafin University), 3 students were killed and 27 injured when South Carolina Highway Patrol officers opened fire on the students. The “Orangeburg massacre,” the first (recorded) incident of college students being killed on a college campus, was not extensively reported by the media at the time.

[27] An anti-war rally and a “teach in” concerning the war in Vietnam were held on the Northwestern University campus in April 1967. Prior to these events there had been no significant student protest movement. Harold F. Williamson and Payson S. Wild, Northwestern University, A History:1850-1975. Evanston IL: Northwestern University, 1976, 328. There was, however, a growing “anti-establishment” faction among the students. In 1967, sophomore Ellis Pines was narrowly elected president of the student government at Northwestern. He held student rallies on campus and ran his campaign on a “Student Power Movement” platform, focusing on reforming the University administration in favor for more student autonomy. Much of the Student Power Movement’s platform included issues that would later be taken up by subsequent Northwestern students, including the university’s “lack of concern” for undergraduate education, the abolition of the University Discipline Committee, and university support for open housing in Evanston. “Northwestern U. Protest,” Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1967. “Pick ‘Student Power’ Leader in N.U. Race,” Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1967. In May 1967, Pines and others presented a set of demands to the university administration which included calling for the university to take a public stand on the issue of open housing. “Flag Incident at N.U. Brings an Apology,” Chicago Tribune, May 6, 1967. In November 1967, the airing of a WBBM television documentary, “Pot Party at a University,” that showed Northwestern students smoking marijuana, caused considerable concern among university administrators. Aldo Beckman, “N.U. Student Tells TV Pot Parry Plea,” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1968.