Black Student Movement At NIU Essay Research

Black Student Movement At NIU Essay, Research Paper

?A Racist Institution:? The Black Student Protest Movement

at Northern Illinois University, 1962-70

Jeffrey R. Hart

History 491, Dr. Schmidt

Fall 1997

1. NIU and Dekalb: The Corn Cob Community

Northern Illinois University, a medium sized four year public university, is located in the small city of Dekalb, sixty miles west of Chicago on Interstate 88. Thirty miles from what is referred to as the western edge of the suburbs, Dekalb seems in some ways to be caught between two worlds: the world of Norman Rockwell?s idyllic ?Small-town, USA,? and the world of the encroaching suburbs. Recently, the city has seen the telltale signs of the encroaching world: the line of large department stores, home improvement stores, and fast food restaurants along its highway on the edge of town, drawing business away from the downtown area, and the explosion of modern single family housing development in constructed neighborhoods, or ?estates.?

This encroachment is best symbolized by the plan approved by a former mayor and city council to develop and build a modest sized shopping mall on the southeast edge of town, located on another highway. The plan calls for the developer to receive the city sales tax (presently 1 percent, added to the state sales tax of 6.25 percent) received by the merchants located inside and immediately adjacent to the planned shopping mall. Former Mayor Greg Sparrow said that the tax plan was essential to luring the developer. He and others feel that the new shopping mall will bring Dekalb into the service-based economy, and provide much needed jobs and tax revenues for the city.

Unfortunately for Mr. Sparrow and a few council persons, the voters rejected his bid for re-election to office in the spring of 1997, instead voting in favor of council person Bessie Chronopoulis, who attacked not only Mayor Sparrow?s enticement plan, but also the seemingly rapid rate of change. To her and many of the residents, the change was coming too fast, too soon. Their ideal Dekalb is a small city consisting of permanent residents, or ?townies? on the east and far southwest side, and the university and its community of students, visiting faculty, and the businesses that cater to them (bars, fast food restaurants, apartment complexes, convenience stores, and even an adult bookstore), on the west side. Indeed, some of the residents closest to the university feel that even the university is encroaching on their town, and they have lobbied their council-persons to insure that the university community stays within its assigned boundaries by passing ordinances restricting the growth of boarding houses and other businesses that they feel detract from the historic neighborhoods of the area.

This battle to either stop or abate growth, seen by many as reducing not only the value of the city but also its image, is in some ways indicative of what happened with the university over thirty years ago, with the growing influx of minority students. During the decades of the 1950s and 60s, NIU had changed from a small four year public institution known for its teacher preparation program (in fact, its previous name had been ?Northern Illinois State Teacher?s College?) into a university of medium sized population and area. The area of the university expanded to twice its size with the acquisition of land adjoining its western boundary. The new land provided space for new residence halls to house the growing number of students. The following list indicates the growth in the student population.

On Campus Enrollment in Fall Semesters

Fall 1951 Fall 1955 Fall 1961Fall 1965Fall 1968


There university also added new buildings to instruct them in, made plans for the construction of sports fields and, more importantly, the expansion of academic fields not related to teaching. This growth paralleled what had been happening nationwide. Nationally, institutions of higher learning found themselves having to expand themselves to meet the needs of a growing population of students. The GI Bill and other federal and state programs, in addition to a higher wage base for the working class brought about by the postwar economic boom and benefits of organized labor, enabled many students to become the first in their family not only to graduate from high school, but also to attend an institution of higher learning.

The Black Student Protest Movement at NIU arose from the perspective that NIU, like other government institutions, was racist in that it was not addressing the needs of the black students enrolled in the university or the black high school students who wished to attend the university. They felt that due to de facto segregation at the school board level (particularly the schools in the inner-city of Chicago), the quality of instruction at the schools they attended, the de facto segregation restricting the movement of families to what seemed to be better schools districts outside of the inner city, and finally the admissions policies of the universities themselves, black students had a more difficult task of gaining admission to public NIU than their white counterparts.

When the Civil Rights Movement began to take root in the northern states, black students on the predominantly white campuses took action. When at the university, their experiences reinforced their beliefs about institutional racism and their explorations of ?Black Power.? After 1965, the Black Student Protest Movement changed in five ways: there were different targets, different objectives, different participants, different styles of protest and activism, and the organization of the Movement itself became different. Nationwide, the demonstrations shared the common objective of trying to compel predominantly white institutions to accommodate the needs of a multiracial society. The students, Richard P. McCormick has written, wanted ?the construction of an environment within which they could feel emotionally and physically secure and where their cultural values would be respected and changed.?

At NIU, the students wanted the same result. In the past, black students who happened to be allowed admission to NIU were forced to live off campus, kept apart from the ?regular? students in the dormitories. This did not help matters very much, for there was usually only a handful of black residents in the city. They were made to feel apart from the university itself, and certainly not part of the city.

Nevertheless, during the decade known for campus activism, the Sixties, the students were allowed to live in the dorms with their white counterparts. The integration of campus housing, however, introduced problems in itself. Some students and their parents did not want black students for roommates, neighbors, or floormates, and requested to be placed in other rooms. The black students felt that there wasn?t a place to immerse themselves in surroundings they felt comfortable. There was no recreation room where their music could be heard coming from a radio and no study lounge filled with art or literature of the African or African-American culture. There were certainly no classes where students were immersed with the history or culture of blacks. The courses offered by the university, the black students felt, stressed only the importance, and therefore legitimacy, of the white culture. To the black students, they were being told what was correct and acceptable (the history of white Americans and Europeans), and what was not ( the history of black Americans and Africans). The time had come for change, and the students set out to make the change happen.

Like today?s residents of Dekalb, some of the ?established? members of the university accepted the change, some accepted but wanted to control the rate of change, and others didn?t want any change to occur at all. This is the story of how these groups acted towards each other, and how the changes that did occur took place. Many of the demands made by the students were the same as demands raised at the larger, more urban universities, and all of them were accepted. But the reasons that the demands were accepted at NIU were in some ways different than those at the other institutions such as Rutgers University, New York University, and San Francisco State University. Unlike other institutions located in or near inner cities or other centers of large minority populations, Dekalb and NIU were located far from any sizable minority population, and therefore, fairly free to do what it wanted without pressures from groups outside of the university. Although not legally required to do so, NIU accepted and implemented some of the demands. This thesis explores how and why the university made changes, as well as how and why a relatively small group of students (one percent of the population) changed forever the face and body of NIU.

2. ?Black and White Together, We Shall Overcome:? 1962-63

In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that public schools could not by law separate (segregate) the students of its district on the basis of race, even when the schools appeared to be ?equal.? The case, Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education, or more simply, Brown v. Board, made segregation of public schools illegal under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It did not, however, open the public schools to black students in districts where segregation was taking place. It lacked the power to enforce its own ruling, leaving the responsibility to other branches of the federal government, the states, and the local authorities. In essence, the decision became meaningless without someone, anyone, willing to implement it. Certainly, the racism of the federal, state, and local electorate played a major role, but so did the Court, when it vaguely worded its order to integrate the public schools with ?all deliberate speed.? Under these circumstances, authorities were slow to act upon the order, but not as slow as the districts themselves. Without fear of legal ramifications, many of the segregated districts remained untouched.

Most of these districts were located in the Southern states, where racism was identified by whites and blacks across the country as a way of life, good or bad. After all, the consensus was that the Civil War of 1861-65 had been fought over the issue of whether or not a white person had the right to own a black person as one owns an inanimate object, otherwise known as slavery. The Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century attacked this way of life, beginning in the South. The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, the sit-ins at department store lunch counters, the ?Freedom Rides? of the interstate bus lines, and the voter registration drives were all part of a mass movement in the South to draw national and international attention to the dual problems of racism and its governmental enforcement or ignorance in the supposed most free country in the world. The images of peaceful, nonviolent marchers being hosed, beaten, arrested, and otherwise attacked by the local authorities or white residents caused many Americans, both black and white, to join together to change lifestyle of the South. When blacks and whites from the North took time off from school, work, and home, and went south to fight the southern way of life, the arrests and beatings continued, and now the nation and world were seeing not only blacks, but also liberal whites being beaten and arrested, and in some cases, killed.

These images, of men, women, and children being mauled by dogs, shot with water hoses, and beaten by hulking white policemen, were embarrassing to the presidents, because it allowed the Soviet Union, our Cold War nemesis, to claim that the US would treat non-white third world countries in much the same manner that it treated its own non-white citizens. The fear that these third-world countries might fall into Soviet ?influence,? and therefore act as an enemy to the US in the United Nations, led President Kennedy to begin actively enforcing the Brown v. Board decision, to protect the nonviolent demonstrators peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights, and to call for legislation that would guarantee equal access to government sponsored and regulated business and activities, including interstate busses and their facilities, and most importantly, the right to vote.

The problem of racism was seen as a southern problem by northern whites, and as long as the issue was restricted to the south, it became ?us? (northern whites and the nation?s blacks) versus ?them? (southern whites seen as dumb, backwards, uneducated thugs). It was this attitude that led to the first publicized demonstration for civil rights at NIU, on October 12, 1962. The Student Education Association held a rally to address the racial problem in Mississippi. The NIU community, like others in the North, were shocked and appalled that American citizens were being denied their most basic, fundamental right, the right to vote. The university newspaper, The Northern Star, gave a generally positive perspective to the event, focusing attention to the problem in Mississippi, and describing the efforts of whites in the north to help solve the problem. However, the article did mention two things that we can now say were warnings of things to come. First, Walt Wernick, an advisor, told students to begin socially integrating, and student Barry Schrader said to look for racism in both Dekalb and NIU, mentioning the segregated Greek (fraternity and sorority) community and the local housing problem (blacks often could not find someone willing to sell or rent their home to black families, and lived in the same area). The calls to look homeward seemed to have been ignored.

3. Turning the Fire Up on the Great Melting Pot: 1963-65

Another sign of things to come came in the fall of 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, identified as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, led the now famous ?March on Washington,? calling for an end to racism in the US, and support for President Kennedy?s proposed Civil Rights legislation. The Northern Star, in an editorial, stated that the March added to the unrest, that demonstrations were bad, and that equality could not be achieved by animosity. The editorial stated that Dr. King had ?overstepped boundaries of democracy and common sense.? The same Dr. King, who had marched in Selma, Montgomery, Atlanta, and numerous other places in the South, and had won the respect of northern liberals, was now being denounced for doing the same things in the North.

One can now see that this was what President Kennedy was afraid would happen when he heard of the proposal for the March. Initially, Kennedy wanted to scrap the March altogether, insisting that it would hurt the chances of getting his voter rights legislation passed. The March was intended to call for jobs, housing, and freedom. Kennedy convinced the organizers that if they would change their platform of the March to support of his legislation, he would insure that the federal government would support them. He called for diverting attention away from demonstrations and towards getting the right to vote because he felt that while Americans valued liberty for blacks, they valued law and order even more. So the March occurred, King delivered his ?I Have a Dream? speech, and the President averted what he felt would have been a disaster for everyone.

Another foreboding sign came when some black students in Chicago?s public schools boycotted classes to protest what would soon become an oft-heard phrase: ?de facto segregation.? The students had walked out of their classrooms to protest being forced to attend schools that were overwhelmingly black due to the way that the school district boundaries had been drawn, a practice known as ?gerrymandering.? If the students were being forced to attend these schools, and not allowed to attend other, ?better,? predominantly white schools because of gerrymandering, then the case could be made that in fact, and not in practice, that the students were being segregated.

The case was made, and the resistance to change came with it. The Northern Star, in an editorial, said that the students were wrong to boycott the classes. Providing evidence that would prove Kennedy correct, the editorial stated that while there may or may not be de facto segregation, the students were obligated to respect the law and work within the institutions. Finally, as yet another sign of what was to come, the editorial stated that bussing as a solution to end the supposed segregation was wrong. Common themes between the NIU community and the nation began to appear. As long as the Civil rights Movement confined itself to the South, it would remain to have the moral and financial support from northern liberals. However, when it moved into the North, non-violent, peaceful tactics approved for use in the South, such as boycotts and marches were frowned upon. When issues such as de facto segregation were addressed, many Northerners become defensive, and resistant to change.

That is not to say that Northern whites had stopped supporting the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, what became known as ?Freedom Summer? occurred that same year, and NIU played a role. Nine students from NIU, as part of the Northern Wesley Foundation, including one black student, Verna McClure, spent their spring semester vacation in Georgia working to get the black residents registered to vote. From campuses across the North, students, clergy, and housewives went to the South to help the Civil Rights Movement in their federally approved and supported fight.

What happened that fall, when the registered black voters of Mississippi found that their right to vote meant not being able to represent themselves as the legitimate delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, is seen as the beginning to the end of cooperation between black and white activists. The Mississippi Free Democratic Party (MFDP), whose symbol was the Black Panther, allowed all persons registered to vote in the federal election to vote in the state party primary, while the Mississippi Democratic Party, allowed only whites to vote. The National Committee, under President Lyndon Johnson, offered to allow the rival MFDP to seat two of its members as delegates at large, and the seats allocated for Mississippi would go to the members of the ?regular? Democratic delegation from the state. To further complicate the situation, Johnson ordered that at least one of the seats given to the MFDP had to be occupied by a white. Martin Luther King accepted Johnson?s terms, while Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the organization that lost 3 of its workers in Mississippi to the shotgun blasts of a deputy sheriff and other members of a local Klan) refused.

The rift between civil rights workers, leaders, and northern white liberals, became more wide. Many of the blacks working in the Civil Rights Movement began to distrust their white counterparts, whom they felt had always been acting paternalistic towards them. Within a year, the organizations led by younger, more active black students had purged themselves of their white members. The older, soft-spoken and more acceptable leaders, such as King, were seen as trying to ?kiss up? to an establishment that had rigged their efforts to fail by throwing the blacks into the arena of electoral politics, an arena that, by definition, was a place where the majority would take whatever it wanted, and the minority would receive nothing but only what the majority allowed it to have.

Perhaps as an indication of the rift between the white liberals and black activists, on March 26, 1965, only six persons (a white clergyman, four white students, and one black student) left NIU to spend their spring break in Selma, Alabama, to march in the streets for black civil rights. They left NIU thirteen days after one hundred and fifty people at NIU protested the death in Selma of a white clergyman who marched for civil rights. As a sideshow, there were two white counter-demonstrators. The ?liberal consensus,? as Godfrey Hodgson described the black/northern white/labor/clergy coalition, becan to fragment.

4. ?Burn, Baby, Burn!!:? The Pot Boils Over

In May of 1965, Hosea Williams, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, warned an audience at NIU that the Civil Rights Movement was heading north, and that Illinois might be the first state to feel the impact. He described racism in the North as very different from that of the South. In the South, he said, it was vocalized, but in the North it was silent. At this period of time, blacks in the North, experiencing racism in the form of de facto school segregation, housing segregation, and unemployment, began telling each other and anyone who cared to listen that they would no longer be silent while whites in the North pointed fingers at whites in the South. Riots erupted in the Watts district of Los Angeles; in Cleveland; in Newark, New Jersey; and many other cities across the North. Images of police and National Guard units patrolling the streets with firearms, helmets, and bulletproof vests filled the television screen amid backgrounds of angry, loud, and menacing young black men venting their anger in words and deeds. Fortunately or unfortunately, Dekalb and NIU were spared those deeds, but not the words.

The slogan of ?Black Power? began to be said and to be heard. Many whites seemed not to hear the arguments of how black students in inner-city schools were being given a second-class education, and how poverty begot poverty, but paid attention to two simple words: ?Black Power.? Did the persons who spoke these words know that they were getting attention? Stokely Carmichael, one of the first leaders in the Movement to publicly use the phrase, knew so, and so did Noble Harris, president of the Afro-American Cultural organization (AACO). In the December 14 issue of The Northern Star, he defined Black Power as blacks determining their own settings, actions, and results, free from pressures put upon them by whites. As an admonishment to those who had suddenly taken notice of the situation of blacks in the North, Harris stated that ?They should have known we had problems.?

In Chicago, a city known for its liberal, Democratic political machine, King marched in Marquette Park, calling for an end to housing discrimination. The working class residents and others responded with bricks and bottles. King commented that the racism in Chicago was worse than the racism in the South. These words produced indignancy from the whites. King became an enemy to many whites across the nation for his activities, including his opposition to the Vietnam War.

Like other members of the Civil Rights Movement, he was abandoned by many members of the white liberal community, for both his civil rights activities, and his stance against the War. To white conservatives and some liberals, he was unpatriotic for being against the War. Other white liberals, turned off by the rhetoric and purges of the SNCC, had abandoned the Civil Rights Movement after 1964 and turned their attention to the war in Vietnam. To the anti-war/anti-draft liberals, Dr. King was spending too much time on the Civil Rights Movement, and not enough time on the Anti-War Movement. King felt that the war and civil rights were inseparable, and wanted more white liberals to work towards ending racism as they worked towards ending a war. As if King did not have enough problems with whites, he faced mistrust among blacks as well. He was seen by many young activists as an ?Uncle Tom,? a ?bootlicker,? someone who would do the bidding of ?The Man.? On April 4th, 1968, in Memphis, as he was preparing for a multiracial ?Poor People?s March on Washington?, King?s earthly problems were solved by an assassin?s bullet, and the problems of others across the nation, including NIU, were brought to a head.

5. Year of Discontent: 1968-69

In the week following the assassination of Dr. King, more than a hundred cities experienced riots. The death count reached thirty-seven people, twelve of them in the nation?s capital. Fires and looting were common scenes in cities with a sizable black population. The death of Dr. King at the alleged hands of a white man had provoked more of a response from black militants and activists than his call for a united biracial campaign to march for economic freedom.

At NIU, an impromptu memorial service was held at the University Center (now the Leslie A. Holmes Memorial Student Center). Black and white, students and faculty alike, met to remember the late Dr. King, and to reflect on the meaning of his non-violent life and violent death. Two things occurred which were meant to send a message to the white faculty and students of the university. The first was a verbal warning sent by two black students. An unidentified student said that the blacks in America were about to ?do its thing.? Fifty persons left the service when graduate student Noble Harris issued a call for a ?united front,? saying ?With unity, perseverance, courage, and love of our black people, we shall be victorious in our struggle.? Outside of the Center, a black flag was raised on the flagpole, in place of the Stars and Stripes.

The next day brought relief to the community, when spring break began, and the students went home. A few students patrolled the streets of their hometown or other cities with their police auxiliary or National Guard units, while some students may have actually participated in the riots in Chicago, and others may have stood by and witnessed them first hand or seen the television footage. This point is certain: as with the riots that had taken place in the northern cities in the previous summers, everyone knew that they were occurring.

When the students and faculty returned to NIU from the break in studies, an uneasy calm came with them. Unlike the larger cities and universities, the black students were surrounded by a rural, all-white community. There might be demonstrations, but the university felt that, unlike the larger cities, there was not the ?critical mass? needed in the black community to bring about the destruction of the university or town. For two weeks, there was relative peace, considering what was happening in the nation outside of the academic confines of NIU.

However, the university did not have to wait very long, when on May 10, almost 200 black students, armed with the knowledge of tactics used by earlier Civil Rights Movement activists, moved towards Lowden Hall, the administrative offices building. The students climbed the stairs of the recently constructed building, with it?s modern (for the Sixties, at least) design, perhaps made to look like the regional headquarters of a modern business. Approximately 100 students crossed the imaginary barrier between acceptable and unacceptable protest, and placed their academic and, perhaps, future professional careers in jeopardy, and went inside the building towards the office of University President Rhoten Smith.

Walking down the corridor, they may have had feelings that they had absolutely nothing to lose, that succeed or not, they would at the very least make someone, anyone, listen to them; demanding for once in their academic careers and perhaps in their lives to be recognized as legitimate persons with legitimate concerns. Other students walking towards the office may have been more hesitant, questioning if their own participation was worth losing everything they had worked for in high school, if it was worth losing the opportunity to perhaps be the first person from their family to graduate from college. Veterans of war will sometimes speak of the fear of being in battle, but doing things they never thought they could do, if only because the fear of doing the wrong thing was not as bad to them as the fear of doing nothing at all. To many of the students, inside the building as well as outside, this fear was very real to them. Their fear was overcome by their anger.

The faculty inside the building were afraid, too. President Smith had sensed that things would come to this sooner or later, and hopefully later. He had come to NIU with the realization that the structure and purpose of the university was changing, and that the change could be for the better. Described as a ?progressive?, he had come to NIU with a ?vision.? His vision for a university in general, and NIU in particular, was not unique. A few years before, at the University of California at Berkeley, President Clark Kerr described his ?vision? of a ?multiversity? that worked closely with government and business, providing them with an intelligent workforce and receiving research grants and federal money. Kerr saw the university as an ever growing institution serving a growing populace. Smith?s vision for NIU included all of those things. He knew that to compete with the other universities, NIU would have to be attractive to as many students as possible, by expanding the size of the campus, and expanding and adding programs in the non-teaching fields of study. He saw the need for the university to react to the changing world around it, and to him, this meant an increasing number of black students with high school diplomas.

The students entered President Smith?s office, and occupied it by doing nothing other than sitting down. The university, for all intents and purposes, came to a dead stop, much like a machine that had been ?m

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