Skip to main content

Paterson, Eva



  • Existence: 1949    


Eva Jefferson Paterson was born on June 16, 1949. Her father was an Air Force officer. She and her family lived on Air Force Bases in France, Germany, and England before moving to Southern Illinois. Paterson attended largely desegregated schools; however, she was often the only African American student in her classes. While in high school, Paterson participated in the student council and the speech and debate team. She also traveled throughout Illinois, reciting Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. In Paterson's senior year, her father had orders to serve for a year in Vietnam.

In 1967, Paterson enrolled at Northwestern University. In the 1960s, the institution recruited African Americans to diversify the student body. Paterson entered when more than 100 Black students attended, a notable increase at the time. In her first year, Paterson continued to participate in student government as class treasurer. She was later elected a sophomore senator in April 1968. On May 2, 1968, she and two other students put forth a bill for Student Senate approval to support demands from Black student organizations' For Members Only (FMO) and Afro-American Student Union (AASU). Black students presented demands to the administration regarding changes they wanted to see implemented on campus to improve their student experiences in response to racial discrimination they experienced and to eradicate institutional racism. When the demands were not met, from May 3-4, 1968, FMO and AASU led a "takeover" of the Bursars Office (see https:// Like her peers, Paterson faced the difficult decision to participate in the protest. She ultimately defied her parents, who threatened to cut off her financial aid if she participated. Although Paterson realized they were concerned for her safety, she remained in the building in solidarity with her peers and supported the cause. The protest lasted 38-hours and ended with an agreed-upon resolution between FMO, AASU, and the University.

Paterson's student activism and student government involvement continued into her junior year when she was elected Vice President of the Associated Student Government (ASG). The election results were announced while Paterson was engaged in an FMO-led hunger strike. They protested the University Disciplinary Committee's (UDC) decision to charge 21 Black students with restitution for damages and suspending and expelling some for an incident with the Triangle Fraternity. In April 1970, Paterson ran for ASG President on a platform to increase student participation in administrative and faculty decisions. Paterson won the election, becoming Northwestern's first Black ASG President. Just a month into her presidency, at Kent State University, four students were killed and nine were wounded by the Ohio National Guard during a student protest. Like campuses across the country, Northwestern canceled classes to allow students and faculty to join the national protest against the war and acknowledge the lives lost at Kent State. For a week, they held daily demonstrations, set up a barricade on Sheridan Road, and presented demands to the University. The protest and the national protest against the war were controversial. Paterson, was referred to as a "peace warrior," as amid the division, she encouraged students to exchange ideas, listen to each other, and focus on making their society a better place, while holding those in power accountable to protecting students freedom of speech and assembly. During the protest, some students planned to burn down the NROTC office in Lunt Hall. Paterson persuaded them to instead protest peacefully. Paterson also used her platform as a voice for students on a national level when she debated United States Vice President Spiro Agnew on the "David Frost Show" and testified before the Commission on Student Unrest in Washington D.C., also known as the Scranton Commission.

After graduating with a degree in Political Science in 1971, Paterson attended law school and was admitted to the California Bar in 1975. In many of her cases, Paterson advocated for marriage equality, immigrant rights, equal opportunity, voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, and against the death penalty and racist and sexist policies. Some of her notable cases include an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the San Francisco Fire Department, a case on implicit bias regarding the exclusion of Black jurors in jury selections, and lawsuits supporting affirmative action in California and against Propositions 54, 187, 209. She worked for the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County and co-founded A Safe Place, a shelter for battered women in Oakland, California. Paterson also worked for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights for twenty-three years. She also co-founded the California Coalition for Civil Rights, for which she served for eighteen years. Additionally, she was Vice President of the ACLU National Board for eight years and chaired the boards of Equal Rights Advocates and the San Francisco Bar Association. Paterson founded and currently serves as President of the Equal Justice Society, in Oakland, California. The Equal Justice Society has contributed to improving the criminal justice system. Their mission is to "restore constitutional safeguards against discrimination" and "transform the nation's consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts" by educating the legal community about modern-day discrimination, conducting social science research on implicit biases, joining amicus briefs, and litigating against discriminatory cases.

Paterson has returned to the Northwestern campus numerously to speak about student activism. To honor the alumna and activist, January 16 is Eva Jefferson Day. The University invites Evanston youth and students from Chicago Public City Schools for arts and crafts and to learn about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Eva Jefferson Paterson (1949- ) Papers

Identifier: 31/17/202

Eva Jefferson Paterson (1949- ), a graduate of Northwestern University's Weinberg College of Arts and Science class of 1971, is a civil rights attorney. Her collection spans the years 1970-2013 and contains biographical materials, correspondence, interviews, publications, and awards.

Dates: 1970 - 2017