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On May 3, 1968, a group of Black students at Northwestern University made headlines when they occupied the university’s main financial building and announced that they would not leave until their demands were met. Their demands, submitted to university officials in April 1968, focused on a wide range of issues, from campus conditions to the racism they faced at Northwestern. Over the course of two momentous days, the whole world watched as events on the campus unfolded. What seemed to many observers to come out of nowhere, the takeover was connected to a long history of both discrimination and activism on the Evanston campus. It was also a response to the complicated efforts to integrate Northwestern, a process that had begun just a few years earlier. The takeover took place within a wider movement for student power and political and social change that marked the 1960s. And its outcome would have long-term reverberations.
The Evanston History Center Press announces the publication of an in depth look at this fascinating chapter in American history: The Takeover, 1968: Student Protest, Campus Politics, and Black Student Activism at Northwestern University by EHC Director of Education, Jenny Thompson.
About The Takeover 1968:
The Takeover 1968 draws from contemporaneous accounts, archival and primary sources, and interviews with several of the takeover’s key players, including Kathryn Ogletree, undergraduate leader of the takeover; Eva Jefferson Paterson, takeover participant and later president of Northwestern’s student government; John H. Bracey, Jr. and James Turner, graduate student leaders of the takeover; and Jack Hinz, former Northwestern vice president for student affairs and dean of students, who served as the chief negotiator for the university during the takeover. It also draws from interviews with Roger Friedman and Ellis Pines, two former Northwestern students who both played prominent roles in progressive politics on campus in the late 1960s. The book pieces together the events of May 3-4, 1968 as they unfolded, and it also takes a broader view, stepping back from those two crucial days to examine what led to the takeover and what transpired in its aftermath.
Northwestern students in front of 619 Clark Street, May 3, 1968. (Photo: Northwestern University Archives.)
Excerpt from The Takeover 1968
The Takeover Begins
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted.
Frederick Douglass, 18571
Early Friday morning, May 3, 1968, Northwestern University Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, Jack Hinz, was sitting down to breakfast at his home at 1010 Sheridan Road, in Evanston, Illinois, when his phone rang. The campus chief of security was on the line: “We’ve got trouble,” he told Hinz. “You’d better come to campus right away.”2
Earlier that morning, just after 6 a.m., eighteen-year-old Northwestern student, Kathryn Ogletree left her campus dorm room in Allison Hall after a sleepless night. It was just a short walk to a nearby alley off Clark Street, the agreed upon meeting site. As she hurried along, she was “particularly nervous,” as she recalled in a 2018 interview, feeling that she would be “responsible . . . if it went awry.”3 Full of anxiety about how the next few hours might unfold, she arrived early and waited to see how many others would show up.4
At about the same time that morning, twenty-seven-year-old Northwestern graduate student, John H. Bracey, Jr., made the quick walk from his apartment at 1116 Foster Street and headed for the alley.5 He had worked hard to help plan the strategy that would be executed in the coming hours. Once he got to the alley, he “counted heads” and saw that among the initial group of about thirty students who had already arrived, the vast majority were women. The women would be the “powerhouse” behind this action, Bracey recalls thinking.6
Later that morning, twenty-six-year-old Northwestern graduate student James Turner left his Evanston home at 920 Main Street and headed to campus. He had been a bit delayed in leaving that morning; he had to wait for the babysitter to arrive to take care of his young son. His wife, Janice, was attending a conference in Wisconsin. She was unaware of what was about to transpire. It would not be until later that evening, when one of her colleagues told her that there was a man on TV who looked just like her husband, that she would find out what Turner had planned for that day.7
Thirty-six-year-old Jack Hinz hurried to campus, embarking on what would be a thirty-eight-hour ordeal. The “trouble” had begun at about 7:30 that morning. A lone campus security guard had been on duty at the Bursar’s Office at 619 Clark Street when a group of students, intent on occupying the building, amassed secretly and unseen in the alley across the street. Campus security guards were reportedly on high alert that morning. University officials had warned them that a student takeover of a campus building was “in the air.”8
At about 7:30 that morning, the guard at the Bursar’s Office was standing just inside the door of 619 Clark when one of the students, political science major, Victor Goode, approached the front door and asked the guard if he could enter the building to pick up a form. His intention was actually to assess the situation more closely: to determine if the guard was armed and if the doors of the building were locked.9 Soon, two other students, sociology major, Michael Smith, and music major, Steve Colson, rushed into the building, carrying locks and chains. They hurried past the guard, assuring him that they were not going to hurt anyone. They entered the building, proceeded to the back door and secured it, before going through the rest of the building, chaining and padlocking all the windows.10
Once Smith and Colson were inside, the students outside created a decoy to lure the security guard away from the front door. A few students began shouting and running at top speed toward the neighboring Rebecca Crown Center, the university’s administration building, prompting a handful of guards from that building to come outside to investigate, leaving their posts unattended. Meanwhile, the guard at the Bursar’s Office moved away from the front door, concerned with what was going on outside.11 Within minutes, Kathryn Ogletree, John Bracey, and the other students were inside. Two members of Northwestern’s clerical staff, who were already inside the Bursar’s Office, stood up from their desks as the students announced, “We’re taking over the building. Will you please leave?”12
“They picked up their pocketbooks and looked around, and they had that kind of look, like, well, you know, like are you all going to wreck the place?” John Bracey recalled in a 2018 interview. “We said, ‘We didn’t come in here to destroy the building. We just want to hold it for a while.’ ”13 When the staff members hesitated, looking at their desks with their displays of family photographs and small personal effects, the students assured them that they were not going to harm anything in the building, but if they wanted, they could put their personal items in their desk drawers for safekeeping. If any damage was done to their property, the students promised to replace it.14
Outside, Northwestern security guards approached the Bursar’s Office to find that the revolving front door had been chained and barricaded. The back door had also been chained. They surrounded the building, awaiting further orders from the administration which had now been alerted that an action was underway. The occupation of the building took roughly ten minutes.15
And thus the students began the “takeover,” to use the term they used at the time.16 They were, to use a more modern term, occupying Northwestern’s central financial building, a building that housed the university’s accounting, finance, and payroll operations, along with its IBM computer system.17 A spokesman for the students, who answered a reporter’s phone call to the bursar’s office, confirmed that an action had begun. The students promised that they would do no harm to the building or its contents and they pledged that they were prepared to continue their occupation until the end of the summer if their demands were not met.18
At about 8:00 a.m., Hinz arrived at the Bursar’s Office, followed by his colleague, William Kerr, Northwestern’s vice president and business manager, whose office was located in the occupied building. Both men quickly surveyed the situation and left shortly afterward.19 Students from the takeover were now posted at the building’s back and front doors. Employees arriving for work at the Bursar’s Office were told they could not enter. After the initial occupation, more students joined the takeover, entering through a window on the east side of the building. Soon, the total number of students inside reached 107.20 Just after 8:00 a.m. a truck pulled up to the side of the building. A group of men got out and supplies, including food and blankets, were unloaded through a window.21 Their work was just finished when the police arrived. They moved in to catch them, but they “took off like bullets” and each one got away.22 A sign was hung at the building’s entrance that read: “Closed for business ‘til racism at NU is ended.”23
Numerous Black students at Northwestern planned this action and many took on leadership roles, particularly among the undergraduates. But two students would serve as the takeover’s primary leaders: Kathryn Ogletree, president of the campus group, For Members Only (FMO), and graduate student, James Turner, chairman of Northwestern’s Afro-American Student Union (AASU).24 The students had organized their action carefully, from planting a false rumor that an action was going to take place that morning at the Rebecca Crown Center to contacting WCFL radio host, Jeff Kamen, the night before and arranging for him to come to Evanston early Friday morning to cover an undisclosed event. The students would use Kamen’s microphone to announce, live on the air, that the takeover had begun, with one of the students reading their demands, word for word, over the airwaves during the morning rush hour.25
The students had chosen to occupy the Bursar’s Office for several reasons. It was located off the campus proper on a fairly busy street. It was a two-story, relatively modest size, stand-alone building with first-floor access to the street. The large parking lot on the building’s east side allowed students to enter and exit, communicate with those on the outside, and receive delivered supplies.26 Given the building’s prominent location near the heart of downtown Evanston, it was clearly visible to passersby and motorists, but most importantly, it housed critical materials.
Once they were inside the building, one of the students, Roger Ward, entered the bank vault in the basement where the university’s massive computer system was stored, fans whirring to keep the machine cool. Ward was an applied mathematics major and a “computer genius,” according to John Bracey. Soon, Ward was sitting in front of the mainframe computer, running his fingers across the keys. All of Northwestern’s financial records were stored on this computer, from payroll to fundraising information. And all could be deleted. But, as Bracey stated, that was one thing they did not want to do. The students had planned the takeover as a nonviolent action. It wasn’t about destruction. It was about building something up. And in fact, the students viewed the computer as something of immense value to them. They felt that they would be protected by their own proximity to it should police try to evict them by force. The students’ presence in the building, near such a critical system, gave them “countervailing leverage,” as James Turner explained in a 2012 interview.27 It would, in effect, “guard against white men using an irrational approach,” he said.28 If the administration “had to consider only our well-being,” Turner surmised, they would have “pounce[d] on us.”29
Just after the students had taken over the building, a phone rang inside. On the line was an Evanston police officer. He ordered the students to evacuate immediately. Bracey recalled that the police officer was informed that they were not leaving. He was also told that one of the students was sitting in front of the university’s computer at that very moment. Pause. The officer responded, “We’ll get back to you.”30
By the time Hinz left the building that morning, news of the takeover had reached members of the university administration. Soon, Northwestern’s vice presidents, including Hinz, gathered to strategize in a nearby building at 1808 Chicago Avenue, the university’s investment office. Northwestern President J. Roscoe Miller, who was attending a Sears board meeting, was reached by telephone. “The officers met,” Hinz recalled in a 2012 interview, “and I guess I wasn’t the only one anxious, but I think the president’s view was we have to resolve this as quickly as possible. It’s not good for us. It’s damaging and so forth and so on.”31 In fact, President Miller reportedly wanted all the students ejected from the building immediately.32 Administrators had already made progress toward that end: they had begun “marshaling Northwestern’s security force.”33 They had also alerted the mayor of Evanston, John Emery, and the Evanston police department, which sent out a call to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.34 Soon two police vans were standing-by in Evanston. In the neighboring towns of Niles and Skokie, seventeen additional officers were placed on standby.35 The police would make no arrests unless requested to do so by university officials, however.36 Evanston’s Chief of Police, Bert Giddens, informed Northwestern officials that assembling a force sizeable enough to evacuate the building would take some time. But once they had enough officers, an eviction of the building’s occupants could be carried out “in just a few minutes.”37
Soon after the initial takeover, reporters and television crews began arriving outside the occupied building, along with a crowd of onlookers. Local media, including reporters from the Chicago Defender and the Chicago Tribune, and all three national networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, would soon file reports, covering the takeover on nightly newscasts and in papers nationwide. The New York Times would carry a story in its Saturday paper, complete with photographs. According to one source, at least two FBI agents were deployed to the site (surreptitiously) that morning and four confidential sources on the campus were feeding information directly to the FBI as events unfolded.38 “Rebellion at N.U.,” the Chicago Tribune announced dramatically.39
From inside the building, the students soon spied James Turner standing outside, talking to reporters. After his delay in getting to the building that morning, he arrived to confront an already sizeable crowd outside. He made a brief statement to the press before joining the others inside.40
Wary of the media circus that was now encamped on Clark Street, university officials knew that this was a story of immense public interest. There was no chance that it could be handled without sharp scrutiny by the curious public, not to mention parents and alumni. While they wanted to end the incident quickly, they were concerned with the larger issue of safety on the campus. What might happen if they mishandled this event? What if anyone got hurt? What if an eviction of the students incited more protests and more takeovers or even violence? This was, after all, a tense time in the United States, with student protests, uprisings, and strikes taking place on a seemingly weekly basis throughout the United States.
At the time, student protests focused on a wide range of issues, from ending discrimination to stopping the war in Vietnam, and the Black student movement in particular was growing exponentially, with efforts underway nationwide to protest discrimination, alter campus conditions, and assert Black cultural identity. “Since last fall, the Black cultural revolution has raged with unprecedented fury on high school and college campuses,” historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. had written just that month in Ebony magazine.41
Northwestern officials worried about making things worse through their actions. In fact, they later revealed that the university had received intelligence “indicating that certain organized off-campus, activist groups from throughout the Chicago area were prepared at the first opportunity to attach themselves to any developing incident, with a view to a swift and major magnification thereof, aimed at visiting disaster upon the university.”42
One recent disastrous incident stood out sharply: Just days earlier, in the early morning hours of April 30, 1968, Columbia University President Grayson Kirk had mobilized a thousand police officers to quash a weeklong student takeover of several buildings on the New York City campus that had shut down the entire university. Using tear gas, police entered the occupied buildings and dragged many of the students out by the arms and legs. In the end, 132 students, four faculty members, and twelve police officers were injured and 712 people were arrested.43
Having witnessed the chaos at Columbia, not to mention the recent uprisings following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. a month earlier, officials knew that the potential for violence was real. Polite and proper Northwestern, with its history of having a rather tepid counterculture and very little protest in years prior, was facing the eye of the storm of the sixties.
1 Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation,” speech at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857.
2 Jack Hinz (Roland J. Hinz), interview with the author, September 19, 2012. This was the first of three interviews that I conducted with Jack Hinz. The second took place on October 3, 2012. A third interview took place on April 4, 2018, when we sat down for an extended discussion during which time he provided comments on a draft of this book. Those details have been incorporated throughout the text.
3 Kathryn Ogletree, interview with the author, May 25, 2018.
4 Ogletree, interview with the author, 2018.
5 John H. Bracey, Jr., (hereafter referred to as John Bracey) interview with the author, June 21, 2018.
6 John Bracey, phone conversation with the author, August 9, 2018.
7 James Turner, interview with the author, May 25, 2012. While it was a surprise to see her husband on TV, Janice Turner was well aware of what was going on leading up to the takeover and was active in the movement as well.
8 “Negro Sit-In at Northwestern,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 4, 1968. The building the students occupied was officially known as the University Business Office, but it is commonly referred to as the Bursar’s Office.
9 In March 1968, the Daily Northwestern revealed that for the first time ever, some Northwestern campus security guards were armed. “3 Campus Cops Carry Guns-Arndt,” Daily Northwestern, March 29, 1968.
10 Bracey, phone conversation with the author, August 9, 2018.
11 There are slightly different versions concerning how the students were able to get inside the building and the details of the occupation. The account rendered here is drawn from several sources, including my interviews with John Bracey and Kathryn Ogletree; “619 Clark Street; N.U.’s Day of Decision,” Daily Northwestern, May 4, 1968; Northwestern University’s official accounts issued after the takeover which are found in the Northwestern University Archives and online; and Northwestern University’s history of the takeover found at: Northwestern University, “They Demanded Courageously: The 1968 Northwestern Bursar’s Office Takeover,” Northwestern Libraries, https://sites.northwestern.edu/bursars1968/history/. Many of the documents related to the takeover can be found at this site. Another version recounts that a student hiding in the Bursar’s Office that morning let the other students inside. In her novel, Where I Must Go, Angela Jackson, who entered Northwestern in the fall of 1968, provides an account of a young w