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Fall 2018

The Takeover

Northwestern honored the 50th anniversary of the Bursar's Office takeover.

Image: Photo of students, courtesy of Steve Coulson; photo: Jim Prisching

Students, from left, Michael Smith ’70, ’72 MA, Steve Colson ’71, Dan Davis ’69, ’78 MA/MS and William Eric Perkins ’70 appear onscreen during the premiere of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association–commissioned documentary The Takeover: The Revolution of the Black Experience at Northwestern University. The film, which was screened at the NUBAA Summit and Salute to Excellence Gala in May at Chicago’s Swissôtel, examined the May 1968 Bursar’s Office takeover by more than 100 African American students protesting inequitable campus policies and attempting to improve awareness of African American students’ experiences. Northwestern honored the 50th anniversary of that protest with a week of commemorative events and an exhibition at Deering Library.

In 1968, more than 100 Northwestern students peacefully occupied the Bursar’s Office to protest the black student experience. The occupation lasted 38 hours, ending with a negotiated resolution in which the administration responded to a list of student demands. Charla Wilson, the Archivist of the Black Experience for Northwestern Libraries tells the story.

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Reader Responses

  • Your spread on the documentary film “The Takeover” about the African American campus protest of May 1968 moved me to share my revisit to campus beginning a month earlier, on April 4, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.

    I was flying in from Los Angeles to defend my dissertation the next morning. At O’Hare I learned of the assassination while proceeding directly to a hotel room to review my chapters and notes one more time. The next morning my defense meeting in the English department went well and, still in my bubble, I hopped on the L to visit the Art Institute for a couple hours before heading for my evening flight home.

    Somewhere on the Near North Side the train rolled slowly to a stop — but not at a station. When I looked down on the street below, I saw scores of looters, white men like me. Some were standing inside smashed store windows, handing out cases of liquor, pieces of furniture and I don’t know what else. A line of uniformed police was moving up and down the street, but they didn’t dare interfere. That day the crush of opportunistic looters had neutralized the state monopoly on violence, a standoff known as “power in the streets.” The train moved again, this time stopping only at stations.

    Of course I found the Loop jammed with outgoing traffic, the air filled with exhaust fumes and impatient honking. Finally I spotted an airport bus idling at a corner. When I tried to board it, though, the door stayed shut, the driver glaring down at me. Maybe because he noticed my overnight bag, he decided to open up. I found a seat next to an elderly African American woman holding a little portable radio to her ear. She pointed out our window at plumes of gray smoke rising from the West Side and said something that had the prophetic truth of a William Blake engraving: “They can see the smoke from the White House!” It was smoke rising in Washington, D.C., not in Chicago, that they were reporting on her radio, but that day it was all the same.

    Luckily, I was able to catch my flight home with just minutes to spare, carrying my new degree across an America that had been changed overnight.

    Patrick Story ’68 PhD, Portland, Ore., via Northwestern Magazine

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