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Student Protests and Strikes at Northwestern University

Identifier: 31/6/89

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Scope and Contents


The development of student protests and strikes at Northwestern University reflected the national fusion of youth popular and alternative cultures with political activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout these years, demonstrations stemmed mainly from opposition to military conflict in Vietnam, but also included national and international political issues, including the presence of the NROTC on campus, the Vietnam draft, the bombing of Southeast Asia, anti-Nixon sentiments, support for the Black Panthers and resistance to structural racism within the university.

In general, these events were peaceful demonstrations that caused more administrative anxiety than physical harm or legal action. However, campus and Evanston police were needed to disperse the crowds in a few protests, and a few arrests were made. As the flyers and handouts which advertised them show, some of the activities were closer to social events, some were vehemently and radically political, and some fell in the middle.

The first major protest action of this era was the Black Student Sit-In at the Bursar's Office in May, 1968. The immediate cause of the sit-in was the administration's refusal to accede to a set of demands submitted on April 22 by For Members Only (the black undergraduate organization) and the Afro-American Student Union (the black graduate student group), but the underlying motivation was the long-standing feeling among black students that the university permitted and even encouraged racism on campus. On May 3, 1968, the students organized a sit-in at the University Bursar's office. They refused to leave until the administration accepted their list of demands. The strike ended 38 hours later. The university conceded to a few of the students' demands, but sidestepped action on others. The student protestors submitted another list of demands. Eventually, the university began negotiations with the students which resulted in several important changes implemented over the next few years.

Student protests against the Vietnam War and specifically against the NROTC (Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps) persisted throughout this time period. (Note: The week-long student strike resulting from the Kent State shootings in May, 1970, is described and documented in a separate collection.) Students participating in these strikes felt that, by allowing the NROTC to operate on campus, the university as an institution openly supported the war in Vietnam, as well as supporting capitalist industries' contribution to the war. By demonstrating at NRTOC events, students who also opposed the military draft showed their opposition to the university's military allegiance. The culmination of the student strikes came in April of 1975, when 16 students were arrested in Norris Student Center for protesting at an NROTC sponsored event. In a backlash against the arrests, students organized a rally and a picket at the court where the students were held on trial on May 16th. These protesters demanded that all charges against the students be dropped and that, above all, the NROTC leave the Northwestern campus.

Description of the Series:

The Student Protests and Strikes Collection consists of diverse materials that document political demonstrations and protests organized by students, spanning from August 1965 through October 1979. Each event included in this collection documents a segment of the history of Northwestern students' political activism. The collection as a whole illustrates the ascendance of political activism among NU students and faculty, both as the product of individual actors and circumstances affecting the NU community as well as the product of the state of American youth at large.

The collection includes items that evince the planning and execution of various strikes, sit-ins, teach-ins, boycotts, demonstrations and discussions, and also contains materials more generally pertaining to student protest, political expression and alternative youth culture in America in the late 1960s and 1970s. Materials include newspaper clippings, flyers, formal demands from and negotiations with the university administration, magazine articles, administrative memos and speeches.

The collection is organized into 22 folders, most of which represent a separate event or time period. Other folders contain a collection of materials, such as flyers or clippings, that document a range of activities. Folders are arranged chronologically, and materials are chronologically arranged within each folder.

A number of the documents in this collection were accumulated in 1973 by Robert Mayo, Professor of English. A letter from Mayo in the first folder of the collection explains how he gathered the documents and remarks on the short lived success of the revolutionary aspirations that propelled the “strike period” at Northwestern.

General Materials relating to student activism span the years 1968 to 1970 and include articles published in larger newspapers, administrative reports and speeches from other universities and a thesis, all of which describe the youth political and cultural galvanization during the 1960s and 1970s. These documents ethnographically examine the culture mergence with youth political activism on a national level.

Flyers dating between 1968 and 1979 reflect the diversity of events transpiring on campus. Flyers from events advertise a grape boycott, general strikes organized by the Marxist Student Revolutionaries, demonstrations against the war in Southeast Asia, opposition to the draft, NROTC opposition, anti-Nixon sentiment, and racial egalitarianism.

The note comprising Student Activism in 1965 shows two individuals' refusal to support groups that do not unanimously and publicly oppose the war in Vietnam.

The materials in the Student/Faculty Protest file document student and faculty opposition to the war in Vietnam in 1967, including correspondence, newspaper clippings, publicity and teach-in materials that record the process by which students obtained the signed opposition of 247 professors to the war in Vietnam.

The Dow Chemical Company Demonstration revolted against the on-campus recruiting of a company that produced napalm, a flammable gasoline-like liquid used for warfare. From student statements of repugnance towards the company and Northwestern for letting Dow recruit on campus, to administrative correspondence and formal plans to avoid and minimize student outcry on the day of recruitment, to newspaper publicity, these papers reveal the intricate student planning and administrative containment of the Dow Demonstration. Ultimately, the 500 student peaceful demonstration articulated anti-war sentiment and left questions regarding the demonstration's infringement on Dow's freedom of speech.

In organizing the Black Student Sit-In of May, 1968, students occupying the university Bursar's office wanted the university to improve race relations on campus by persuading the administration to concede to their formal demands. Included in these demands were increased admissions and financial aid for black students, creation of an all-black dorm and student center, addition of a Black Studies curriculum, and desegregation of the university's real estate holdings in Evanston. These records combine official statements from the university administration, the student protestors, the negotiations between the two, policy statements and press coverage of the sit-in.

NU Sit-In Clippings augments the materials in the preceding folder. These newspaper articles from papers such as The Daily Northwestern, Northwestern News and The Chicago Tribune record the negotiations between the university administration and the student protestors as well as the varied support and opposition that the university received for conceding to some of the students' demands.

To prove that “students are people, not machine parts,” the line-up of events planned for Disorientation Week in September, 1968, included discussions, lectures, a peace march, parties, and films. Flyers and handouts document the events, and include a broadside urging students not to answer the required Student Information Test.

A full schedule of discussions on March 4, 1969, confronted the students' suspicion of the role their work carried within the military-industrial complex. These committee programs, the schedule and a flyer advertise discussions regarding the anti-ballistic missile, mass media, recruitment on campus, the relationship between students' politics and their financial aid allotments, and the question of democracy's existence within the military-industrial establishment.

In the Anti-NROTC and Vietnam Moratorium activities, NU students critiqued all elements of the campus that they viewed as politically complicit with the Vietnam War. Newspaper clippings, a profile of new “law violators” as being youthful upper-class protestors from the university, flyers, literature handed out at the moratoriums and politically charged information sheets constitute this folder. These documents reflect growth of suspicion of student demonstrators by the administration, and the growth of suspicion of authority and structural support of militancy, the Vietnam War and other nebulous issues. Clippings combine press coverage of the NROTC protest and the Vietnam Moratorium, articles regarding the general state of the administration of the university, and a Chicago Tribune article arguing that the many unsung heroes on college campuses are not causing trouble by staging riots. These clippings reflect the public interpretation of the events engrossing the Northwestern campus.

Student supporters of Black Panthers chairman Fred Hampton arranged a discussion after Hampton's death (assumed murder by “the pigs,” in sympathizers' eyes). Flyers and statements advertise a benefit dance, a teach-in, a movie screening, discussions, a picket and a demonstration.

Dating from 1970, General Protest Activities (not including May strike) materials include faculty correspondence, a statement to the community, flyers newspaper clippings, information and handouts distributed at protests. The events covered in these papers include anti-Vietnam demonstrations, on-campus property destruction, draft opposition, environmental advocacy, as well as opposition to wages and policy at GM.

The participants in the Medical School Sit-In of May, 1970, protested the nationally determined compulsory service of medical school students to the army. These reports and formal demands exhibit participants' refusal to go to war as medical troops, because they suspected that they would be drafted as combat soldiers. They also protested the increasing disparities between wealthy and poor patients and the scarcity of black medical students, and called for a People's Health Free University.

The Student Protest 1971 folder includes flyers, correspondence, official university statements and student statements. These documents refer to anti-war sentiment, the Israeli diaspora, Kent and Jackson State sympathizers, and opposition to the draft.

The Student Protest 1972 folder also includes flyers, correspondence, official university statements and student statements. These materials document demonstrations, strikes, teach-ins, sit-ins in opposition to the air war, the blockade in Vietnam, President Nixon, heightened cost of housing and NROTC. Clippings from The Daily Northwestern augment the materials in the preceding folder. Two Chicago Tribune articles report on larger war protests in Chicago.

Materials relating to the 1973 Protest on Vietnam includes flyers, newspaper clippings and handouts from student demonstrations regarding anti-war meetings, participation in a national demonstration in Washington, D.C. a march, a teach-in and speakers. These papers particularly speak to the breadth of events and demonstrations in which students took part.

In a series of Anti-ROTC Demonstrations in 1975, students opposed the university's implicit support of the war through its military training programs. Flyers, newspaper clippings and handouts document the student opposition of NROTC presence at NU, and also show the backlash after 16 demonstrators were arrested at an NROTC in April, 1975.

Faculty Activism is documented by correspondence and a clipping from The Daily Northwestern. This folder depicts the faculty support for political candidates including Eugene McCarthy, and for outspoken Vietnam War opponent Staughton Lynd.


  • 1965-1979


Conditions Governing Access

There are no restrictions on use of the materials in the department for research; all patrons must comply with federal copyright regulations.


1.00 Boxes

Language of Materials



The Student Protests and Strikes Collection consists of diverse materials that document political demonstrations and protests organized by students, spanning from August 1965 through October 1979. Each event included in this collection documents a segment of the history of Northwestern students' political activism.


Folders are arranged chronologically, and materials are chronologically arranged within each folder.

Method of Acquisition

The material relating to Student Protests and Strikes was separated from two accessions, 74-120, donated to the University Archives by Robert Mayo on September 22, 1979, and 80-114, transferred to the Archives by Thomas Lifka, Associate Dean of Students, on August 4, 1980. Materials from the University Archives General Files were also incorporated into this collection.

Related Materials

For the Anti-Vietnam-War Strike of May, 1970, see Series 31/6/88. For Black Student Sit-in of May, 1968, see the Archives' Subject files, Room 110, and the digital exhibit at

Separated Materials

Items not relevant to this collection (including those relating to activities that did not take place at Northwestern University or did not involve Northwestern University student organizations) remain in the original boxes. See accession cards for 74-120 and 80-114 for contents. A few materials relating to the SDS and Young Americans for Freedom were added to the existing folders in the Student Activities (General Files). Materials relating to the Anti-Vietnam-War strike of May, 1970, were separated to form Series 31/6/88.

Processing Information

Alison Kanosky, Summer 2006

Guide to the Student Protests and Strikes at Northwestern University
Alison Kanosky
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Library Details

Part of the Northwestern University Archives Repository

Deering Library, Level 3
1970 Campus Dr.
Evanston IL 60208-2300 US