VIDEO: How a 1968 protest at Northwestern University still resonates

Protesting at Northwestern University in 1968

By Kira Boyd

EVANSTON, IL — In 1968, a protest movement was growing at America’s colleges, and at Northwestern University, students were making their voices heard by staging numerous demonstrations at the Evanston campus. One of the most notable protests of that year was the bursar’s office sit-in.

Debra Hill, Adrianne Hayward and Sandra Hill were all students at Northwestern at the time of the protest. “We were silly enough to recognize that we could challenge the system. And go after what we thought we could deserve,” said Debra Hill. She noted that the demonstration didn’t happen over night. It was a build up of things that occurred over a period of time.

Many of the black students on Northwestern’s campus at the time felt isolated and not supported by the university. The students, led by a group of their peers, drafted a list of demands and sent them to the university’s president. When they didn’t receive a reply, the students decided to take action.

According to Hayward, who was a sophomore at the time, none of the students other than their “squad leaders” knew what was truly going on. “Follow instructions…we weren’t told any more details than that,” she said.

She said that she was told they were going to protest the Rebecca Crown Center. It wasn’t until the demonstration was about to happen that she found out they would be taking over the bursar’s office. “All I remember was ‘bring Vaseline’ because they might have mace and bring a change of clothes because we don’t know how long you’ll be there,” said Debra Hill.

Sandra Hill said she could not believe the support they received while they were occupying the office. “If you can imagine a big Mack truck…open up the back…and from top to bottom was nothing but supplies and food,” she said. “I don’t know where they came from but I know the Evanston community… turned out for us.”

After 38 hours, the students received an answer to their demands. To their surprise, many of the demands were granted by the university administration. The creation of a black student union and a black studies programs were among the items on the list that were accepted.

When asked about her thoughts on having a lasting legacy on Northwestern University’s campus, Debra Hill said the best part is the ability “to be a living history for people that are coming through. And continue to encourage and support them that they can also be the first.”

Photo at top: Protesting at Northwestern University in 1968. (Courtesy Northwestern University Archives)
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