A brief history of student activism at Northwestern

    What's the deal with activism?

    The Presidential Election of 2000 had all the ingredients for a great spectacle: a campaign drowned in suspense, the plot twist that was Florida and a Supreme Court ruling serving up the sudden denouement. Beneath all this activity was a worrisome trend. According to predictions, this election would not reverse the low youth turnout that has characterized the past. At least Northwestern studentswere focused on the rise of Ralph Nader, an unashamed progressive. Some supported him so much that they painted “VOTE NADER” on the Rock.

    What were the results? Bush won, Nader was blamed for spoiling the ballot and youth turnout remained at a third of that electorate. As the idealism of a few died away, so did the election's spectacle. For the election of 1960, College Democrats and Republicans sponsored debates and took out full-page advertisements in the Daily Northwestern, all so Kennedy or Nixon could win a mock vote — the voting age in Illinois was 21 then.

    If there is less interest in elections, what can be said of political activism on this mostly White and well-off campus?Northwestern has seen great political activity, as well as political animosity. Students with great spirit once rose to the challenge; the mystery is where the spirit is now.

    The early 20th Century

    Being founded by Methodists, Northwestern has always housed a faction dedicated to activism. Away from Garrett's shadow, though, lay a university with a population more typical of American society. The University would see the first clash between the two in 1924, during the first years of the pacifist movement.

    That February, 150 students voted on a series of propositions at a religious conference. One vote was on refusal to join any other war. Out of the 96 who voted, 38 voted in favor. Those 38 found themselves in the old Patten Gym a few days later, publicly shamed before a crowd by the American Legion's Northwestern section. This association of veterans would accuse the pacifists of treason and compared them to Judas Iscariot. The 38 were also lambasted by the Alumni Association; one purported leader of the group was expelled; the story was sensationalized by the local papers; and the only person who asked for restraint was President Walter D. Scott, though he condemned the pacifists more.

    Another flare-up in March involved a lecture by war resister Brent D. Allison, invited by the pacifist Methodist Epworth League. Reports after the fact described jeering the American flag, rowdiness and rioting, which were not the case. One American Legion heckler did climb up to the podium and demanded a speech on “Americanism,” but was booed off.

    But an editorial in the Northwestern is telling. It stated that pacifists are “pleased to be hammered to the cross...we will let [them] starve, and we will not pound the nails... too vile to be touched; too abominable to speak of!” Another described pacifists as those “who hate America...and want to see a proletariat revolution.”

    Pacifism had staying power regardless, and by 1938 the Northwestern was fiercely isolationist. That year its editors planted a “Peace Tree” to the left of Deering Meadow, a tree which will stay so long as there is peace. The corollary was that it must be chopped down if an editor dies in combat. Then came World War II, and the newspaper's editorial board supported intervention in a vote of 26-1 in 1941. Then former editor James Milmoe, fighting for the Air Corps, vanished over the Pacific in 1944.

    It would seem those of the Daily Northwestern had to chop the tree down, but on November 10th the board decided to rededicate the tree as a memorial to the perished. For them, the war is a necessity, “another blow for freedom in a fight that...must continue as long as mankind lives.”

    The exact location of the Peace Tree has since been lost.

    The late sixties

    At 7:00 in the morning on the 3rd of May, 1968, a student walked up to the Bursar's office, let in by the guard. Then a crowd entered through another entrance, then another. Before security could react, 105 of the 120 Black undergraduates had occupied the office, starting a sit-in lasting almost two days. Also included in their ranks were graduate students, sympathetic Whites and a few alumni. Counterculture had brought back explosive activism.

    The sit-in was an action of last resort after talks between Black students and the administration broke down. Black students proposed a list of 14 demands to the University, viewed as a White institution refusing to accommodate Black-specific challenges. The demands included a Black student population proportional to the national makeup; a counselor for Black students; and “Open Occupancy,” non-discriminatory housing regulations.

    Days before the occupation, the University responded by stating it had already accomplished the demands in some way. But, to quote the Black student association, “What good...is [promoting Open Occupancy] when Northwestern is in effect the main promoter of segregation in the City?”

    The administration accepted all the demands in the end. This victory came at a loss of public support. The press portrayed them as radicals who were chanting “Black Power” and causing disorder. The Chicago Sun Times called the sit-in a move only for “desperate groups,” and the students should be glad they weren't expelled. Northwestern's proportion of Black students — 1 in 54 — was praised as already one of the highest nationwide. A loss of $4 to 5 million in donations was predicted after the president of the Alumni Association defended the administration's resolution to the sit-in.

    This protest polarized the campus, but also fell short in filling its demands. As an example, the proportion of African American undergraduates on campus is now 3%, compared to African Americans making up 12% of the national population.

    It then took only two years for students nationwide to march against the Vietnam War and the Cambodia Bombings. The National Guard shot four Kent State students to death not long after. A trigger snapped at numerous schools, Northwestern included. The Associated Student Government was the first to call for a University strike, then the Daily. A suspension of school activities was evident after Chancellor J. Roscoe Miller supported showing solidarity for Kent State.

    The Vietnam War student strike went on for over a week. A human barricade was built before Sheridan Road, its participants wanting only to be heard. Students flooded into Evanston, handing out fliers; it did not take long for city hall to call in the National Guard. The campus was packed with seminars, movie showings and concerts, organized by ragtag New Left associations. The strike soon became as much about apartheid and opposing the police state as it was about Vietnam and Kent State. It became a great gasp for a revolution of something, supported by students, faculty, veterans and ideologues of all sorts.

    On May 8th, 5000 voted against Chancellor Miller's appeal for normalcy. On May 12th, a referendum was held on continuing the strike, returning to classes or allowing the creation of a “New University” alongside the regular curriculum. Students decisively voted for the New University, an institution intended to preserve the strike by offering a passing “T” grade to whoever enrolls in it. This would mean the end of mass militancy on campus. A day later, a ransacking of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps headquarters in Lunt Hall led to several arrests.

    The greatest demonstration in Northwestern history remained peaceful: the most severe incident was attempted arson of the Linguistics Department weeks before the strike, followed by another attempt at a traffic cop training institute. Subsequent protests would only decrease in scale.

    The end of the century

    Throughout the 1990s, the Asian American Student Board has demanded an Asian Studies Department, to no avail. A request for six tenured professors dropped to two, and signatures from students and faculty ran into the hundreds, but then-President Bienen thought the program to be too costly. An organized protest was staged by the Rock. Initially attracting 150 students, 17 remained, and remain they did for weeks on end.

    The Asian American hunger strike was a shock after decades of decreasing activism. A hunger strike was potentially more dangerous than a protest or a sit-in; the University had to hire medical supervision while the AASB tried to disassociate with the protestors. The 17 dwindled; apart from the dozens who only fasted for a day, others would leave due to academic concerns or simply unpreparedness for the duration of the strike.

    Despite around 18% of the campus being Asian American, there was no solidarity like Black students had with the sit-in. Asian Americans passing by chose not to join because of academics or because they simply cared little about the proposal.

    What was left of the protestors agreed to the University's proposal: four ad hoc courses and a program review by the Trustees. The Board of Trustees quickly gave approval, but Bienen's implementation of the program passed its 1996 deadline. There were complaints, but no plans for a second hunger strike were made.  The AASB organized ad hoc gatherings until an Asian American Studies minor was introduced in 1999.

    The election in 2000 came a year later, a confused end to a century of action. The lack of youth participation in politics has become the status quo. After all, according to a Medill professor, “Politics is a very small band on a very wide spectrum of things that [youth] pay attention to.” The human mind has no time for the political spirit.

    Or does it? Across the 20th century, Northwestern has went through periods of action and inaction. It has been ten years since the 20th century ended: in that time America has entered two wars, two recessions and a confused electoral landscape. With the crises ahead, that political spirit may spring back in an even more radical form.


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