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Northwestern University
Photograph of one of the sit-in members.left

The Black Student Sit-In of 1968

The strike of 1970 may have been the largest student demonstration at Northwestern, but it was not the first major action of the protest era.

That distinction belongs to the Black Student Sit-In at the Bursar’s Office in May 1968. 

The sit-in was a pivotal event for Northwestern’s small but growing population of African-American students, many of whom had only recently been recruited in an effort to diversify the historically white campus. Though their numbers had more than tripled, their presence was still meager: there were just 160 black students on campus in 1968, compared to less than 50 in 1966. 

Northwestern, the students felt, needed to do more to improve the environment for blacks on campus.

The action began shortly after 7 a.m. on Friday, May 3, 1968. An African-American student approached the Bursar’s Office at 619 Clark St. and told the unarmed security guard that he needed to pick up a form. As he entered the building, another group of students began yelling slogans in the Rebecca Crown Center courtyard. As the guard responded to the diversion, more than 100 members of the black student organization For Members Only poured into the Bursar’s Office and secured the windows and doors. Within 10 minutes, they had assumed control of the building. 

Among the demands presented by Afro-American Student Union president James Turner ’68: that Northwestern enroll more African-Americans, increase financial aid, create dedicated student housing for black students, create an African-American studies curriculum and desegregate the university’s real estate holdings in Evanston. 

A tense stand-off followed. Dean of Students Roland Hinz, the only white person allowed in the office that weekend, went in to negotiate. 

Thirty-eight hours later, the administration had agreed to a number of the students’ demands, promising to reserve student housing for African-Americans, increase student participation in policy matters, and create what is now the university’s Department of African-American Studies. 

Today, the sit-in remains a beacon of inspiration for student activists, including Sarah Watson ’15, the current leader of For Members Only. The group continues to advocate for many of the same issues first raised in 1968, including the admission and retention of African-American students.

An appreciation for the organization’s history “helps make sure that we are still doing what we need to do and asking for what we need to be asking for to represent black students,” Watson said. 

In an interview with the Daily Northwestern in 1988, Hinz reflected on the legacy of the sit-in. 

“They left the place better than they took it,” Hinz said of the students who occupied the Bursar’s Office in 1968. “That was their whole approach to the situation: not to trash the place, but to make the university a better place.” 

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