Place of Protest: Chicago's Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption

Northwestern University, 1968

Occupying Higher Education

Black students take over the bursar's office to disrupt discrimination.

AT 619 WEST CLARK STREET STOOD THE BURSAR'S OFFICE OF NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, a private, predominantly white institution located just north of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois. The number of black students on campus began to grow in the 1950s and 1960s, but many continued to experience racist encounters, housing discrimination, little representation in course content, and general lack of institutional support. As attempts to communicate black student needs with the school's administration failed, a sit-in provided a way to force the conversation. Occupying the bursar's office in particular guaranteed to disrupt the daily financial operations of the University and draw attention to black students' demands for improved "academic, cultural, and social conditions."
STUDENTS HELD THE LOCATION FOR 38 HOURS. Their careful planning ensured an effective communication network and strong support system beyond the walls of the bursar's office. Signs reinforced a narrative of black self-determination, as did the fact that black students occupied the building while a growing crowd of white students stood outside in solidarity. The administration faced a choice: respond to student demands or deploy city police to forcefully remove protesters. Columbia University in New York had chosen the latter tactic just days before against student anti-war demonstrators and drew substantial negative nationwide press. Black students at Northwestern, meanwhile, proved tightly coordinated and prepared for rigorous negotiation.

NORTHWESTERN'S ADMINISTRATION RESPONDED TO BLACK STUDENT DEMANDS SERIOUSLY while stopping short of appearing to appease every request. Like black student protests on campuses across the city and country, the bursar's office takeover led to the creation of black studies programs, housing for black students, and more inclusive admission policies. At the same time, the seemingly mass politicization of both black and white students contributed to an emerging narrative that conflated all student protests into a generalized generational desire for disorder and protest.

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