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Flashback: 1970

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine... or if you were there, remember.

Photos courtesy of Northwestern University Archives

EVANSTON — The streets are a sea of leaflets — mimeographed and handwritten — floating through the air. Northwestern students have barricaded Sheridan Road, and traffic has been diverted to side streets. There are daily demonstrations on Deering Meadow and small bonfires in the evenings, and chants and songs of protest echo everywhere. Fliers and posters scream the sentiments of the day: “Let’s Get Organized.” “Support the Strike but Don’t Be Nixon’s Pawn.” “Solidarity with Kent University Victims.” “All Troops Out of Southeast Asia.”  “Bring All the GIs Home Now.” “Don’t Forget the Jackson State Murders.” “Meeting Tomorrow on Deering Meadow.”

It was early May 1970, and the anger and frustration that had been simmering on college campuses for months and even years had finally bubbled to the surface like lava from a long-rumbling volcano. At Northwestern, these emotions boiled onto Sheridan Road and manifested in the chants and cries of thousands of students on Deering Meadow. Some of these young people were among the most privileged in the nation, but they felt little connection to their government and particularly to their president, Richard M. Nixon. 

Two major events had prompted this eruption. On April 30, Nixon had announced his Cambodian Incursion, upping the ante on a war many believed to be winding down. Then, on Monday, May 4, the incomprehensible had happened. Four students, two of whom had been protesting the war, were killed at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. 

At Northwestern and other colleges and universities across the country, it was a watershed moment. Students and administrators were compelled to look within and decide where they stood. But the ground on either side was not always solid. Many students had been raised to support their government, no matter what. But the events at Kent State forced many to question that premise. 

At Northwestern, the days that followed the Kent State shootings — May 5 through May 13 — triggered aftershocks that would reverberate for decades. In fact, many aspects of the modern-day Northwestern student experience, from curricular offerings to activism on campus to involvement in the university’s administrative affairs, had their genesis in the heated days of the protest era. The students who described their actions in 1970 as a “living strike” were more prescient than they realized. 

Pushed to the Edge

By 1970, the United States was no stranger to violence. In addition to the rising body count in Vietnam, the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy had shaken the nation. The bloody confrontation between police and protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year had been broadcast on televisions across the country. The Kent State killings had finally pushed the nation and its college campuses to the edge. 

“It was white middle-class kids with pretty faces and flowers. That really cut to the heart of middle-class fear, because [now] we were shooting our own,” said Jeff Rice ’72, who was among the leaders of the Northwestern chapter of the activist organization Students for a Democratic Society. 

Now a Weinberg College academic adviser, Rice said that the violence at Kent State was a shock but not necessarily a surprise. 

“We had experienced Malcolm X being killed and Martin Luther King Jr. being killed and [Black Panther leader] Fred Hampton being killed,” Rice said. “So being killed in America for standing up for what you believed in did not strike us as unpredictable.”

As a high-school student in a working-class city outside of Boston, Rice had participated in a number of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations even before he arrived at Northwestern. 

“When I came to Chicago in 1968, I was already an activist,” he said. “I did not have to become radicalized.” Almost immediately upon his arrival on campus, Rice joined Students for a Democratic Society. “[That] was the place to be,” he recalled.

That may have been true for some students, but not necessarily for all of them. Northwestern was increasingly divided between traditionally-minded students who attended fraternity and sorority mixers in their spare time and those who spent their weekends mimeographing anti-war fliers and attending teach-ins and rap sessions. Many others found themselves caught between the two camps as the mounting body count in Vietnam drew increasing concern on the idyllic campus. 

Among the more conservative students arriving on campus in the late 1960s was Eva Jefferson Paterson ’71, a self-described “Air Force brat” who had grown up on military bases in Texas, England, France and Illinois. For her, as with many military children, love and devotion to country and president came first. 

“I actually supported the war in Vietnam until the spring of my first year at Northwestern,” Paterson said recently. “Most of our fathers were in Vietnam, and I told my friends, ‘We have to support the war because the president says it’s right and we have to do what the president says.’ That is kind of an extraordinary thing for me to think back on 50 years later.” 

Paterson doesn’t remember the precise moment that she changed from an unquestioning teenager into an anti-war activist who would go on to debate Vice President Spiro Agnew on national television in September 1970. But somewhere in her memory is the voice of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and his criticism of the war, and the way his words reverberated in the changing climate at Northwestern. 

“Do we have the right here in the United States to say that we’re going to kill tens of thousands, make millions of people, as we have, refugees, kill women and children, as we have?” Kennedy said in 1967. “I very seriously question whether we have that right.”

“I was around a lot of anti-war people; there were teach-ins at the university about the war,” said Paterson, who by the end of her first year had emerged as a campus leader and participated in the Black Student Sit-In at the Bursar’s Office (see page 23). “But I believe what really pushed me to be against the war was Bobby Kennedy.”

Torches and Tensions

By May 1970, Paterson, who was by now the student body president, and many others at Northwestern knew where they stood, and it was firmly in opposition to the war. They might not have agreed on the best way to express their displeasure, but many increasingly felt their country was headed in the wrong direction. And they wanted their school to back them and avoid any complicity in the war efforts.

Student activists at hundreds of universities, colleges and high schools across the country felt similarly and declared a national boycott of classes to register their anger. 

On the day after the Kent State shootings, in response to student outrage, Northwestern student leaders convened a forum and decided to join the strike. That same day, Chancellor J. Roscoe Miller issued a statement condemning violence, whether at Kent State, Northwestern or southeast Asia. He also asked students to “show their concern in a manner consistent with the traditions of the academic community.” An emergency session of the University Senate voted to suspend classes for the remainder of the week. 

On May 6, students initiated the strike with a series of demands. They called for the university to make public the holdings in its stock portfolio; to deny students academic credit for participating in the Reserve Officer Training Corps; to ban Northwestern security guards from carrying firearms; to convert Swift Hall, then being used as an armory, into a community day care center; to offer free legal aid to draft resisters; and to cover the expenses of five Northwestern students who had traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress and the Nixon administration. 

The scene grew heated along Sheridan Road. Student protesters constructed four coffins and held mock funerals on Deering Meadow, further inflaming passions. They also erected a barricade at the intersection of Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue. As the week progressed, the barricade became an enormous irritation to police and Evanston residents, who until that point had had an agreeable relationship with the university community. 

Paterson remembers that some torch-wielding students proposed burning down Lunt Hall, at that time the home of the Northwestern ROTC. She and others sought to discourage them. “I said, ‘Those torches remind me of torches from another time and place,’” Paterson said. The students ultimately were confronted by classmates chanting, “We want the program to go, not the building.” 

A Call for Calm

On Friday, May 8, Northwestern students voted to extend the strike until May 13, the following Wednesday. The vote was 3,959 to 599, according to an account in the Chicago Tribune. That afternoon, about 4,000 students attended a rally on Deering Meadow. Miller was among the speakers. He condemned the actions of the Ohio National Guard and criticized “an unnecessary extension of war.” But he also urged students to wind down the protests and “return to the primary reason for the existence of a university.”

Later that night, more than 5,000 people, including many university and high school students, marched into what is now Ryan Field to participate in an anti-war rally. It was widely known that the National Guard was stationed at Evanston’s James Park at the request of city officials. A few students remained at the barricade to protect it while the rally proceeded. Near the barricade, students gathered around a radio, booing and hissing at the voice of President Nixon as he addressed the nation.

Paterson recalled the tension of the night. She knew the National Guard was on standby. Fearing the worst, she reached out to Northwestern officials and urged them to call off the Guard. “We didn’t want the students and the National Guard to come together at the same time,” she said. To her relief, the Guard never approached the stadium.

With the student strike scheduled to end the following Wednesday, it appeared that the campus would soon return, as Miller wished, to a normal state of affairs. The more radical students, however, found that unacceptable. “At the time, I was livid,” said Rice, who felt that the rallies and speeches were falling short. The SDS decided to make a symbolic move. “Our impatience was getting to an explosive point,” Rice said. “We decided to disregard the vote to end the strike and go to the basement of Lunt Hall to remove the ROTC.”

The SDS members marched into the ROTC headquarters, where they began destroying furniture, files and other organizational material. “We were going to throw the ROTC off the campus, because it was the living presence of the military,” Rice said. 

More than 30 students were detained by the police. But most faced only disciplinary hearings by the university.

The procedures brought an unexpectedly peaceful end to a tense time on campus. “The most militant students found themselves in a procedural event that lasted about two weeks, and they were off the streets,” Rice recalled. “Had they busted us, had they cracked our skulls, had they thrown us in jail, there would have been a major counter-attack. Instead, the strike ended peacefully, and we ended our part in [an uneventful] trial.” 

A Legacy of Activism

Today, Rice has a direct view of Deering Meadow from his office in the Weinberg College student advisory building on Sheridan Road. He has had plenty of time to reflect.

In the late 1960s, he and other students called for a host of curricular changes at Northwestern, including new academic programs focusing on African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino- and Latina-Americans,
women and the working class. “We now have all but the last,” he observed.

To student activists on campus, Eva Paterson still has rock-star status. A longtime lawyer and activist, Paterson is now the president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Equal Justice Society, an advocacy organization that she co-founded in 2003. A lawyer, writer and public speaker, Paterson works to broaden the public’s understanding of race and discrimination through legal, social science and arts initiatives. 

The importance of understanding the past is not lost on student leaders such as Julia Watson ’15, immediate past president of Northwestern’s Associated Student Government. Before she took office, Watson said, she spent hours in the library archives reading about Paterson and the events surrounding the student strike. 

“We really see the Associated Student Government as a values-based organization,” Watson said. “During the ’60s and ‘70s, we saw the ASG living up to its values and its mission statement, and we’re trying to get back to that.” 

That spirit is expressed in the racial- and social-justice training that the ASG will require of all its recognized student groups. It has also inspired a variety of on-campus actions in recent years addressing racism, immigration, protections for sexual-assault victims, and living wages for the university’s food-service workers, among other issues. Partly in response to those concerns, faculty in a number of Northwestern’s undergraduate schools are considering a proposal that would require all undergraduates to take at least one course focusing on social inequalities and justice prior to graduation. 

Student activism may have evolved since 1970 — dialogue happens more often than die-ins, and social media has taken the place of bullhorns. But Paterson observed that youth in America are still leading the charge for change — on campus and beyond. 

“I think things are a little bit different, but I’m very hopeful,” she said, noting that young people have always been at the forefront of activism, whether in response to recent events, such as the shooting deaths of unarmed African-Americans, or to injustices of the past. “They stood up and said, ‘No.’ ” 

Step Back to 1970

Imagine: No Internet. No cell phones. No ATMs. But gas was a little over a quarter a gallon, dorm rooms glowed with lava lamps, and “Love Story” was the must-see movie of the year. Denim was everywhere, from the city streets to high-fashion runways, and macramé belts, crocheted vests and platform shoes were the accessories of choice for both women and men.

The typical apartment rented for about $140 a month, and a brand-new set of wheels would set you back about $3,900. Of course, the average annual income was only about $9,350. And it’s worth noting that not everything cost less: a 25-inch Cinema Screen TV retailed for a whopping $739.95, about $4,600 in today’s dollars.

It was the year we met The Odd Couple and Mary Tyler Moore, The Partridge Family and All My Children. Music lovers (and who wasn’t one at the time?) grooved to the Jackson 5, Simon and Garfunkel, the Carpenters and the Guess Who, but the tunes were only available on vinyl or 8-track. And almost everyone listened to Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” on the CBS Evening News. — RL

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