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Radicals in the HeartlandThe 1960s Student Protest Movement at the University of Illinois$

Michael V. Metz

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780252042416

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252042416.001.0001

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Fall ’68: Project 500

Fall ’68: Project 500

(p.165) Chapter 28 Fall ’68: Project 500
Radicals in the Heartland

Michael V. Metz

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

Barely noticed that summer, the Clabaugh Act was struck down, as time had moved on. Project 500 began with a setback, as new black students meeting in the Illini Union to air grievances were rounded up and arrested even before the school year had begun. David Eisenman, foreseeing the program’s problems, suggested the chancellor could have resolved it amicably. The Chicago Tribune falsely inflated the situation into a riot, legislators loudly demanded answers, and the Black Student Association (BSA) blamed the administration. In the end the trustees supported the program; with most charges dropped grievances negotiated, classes began.

Keywords:   Clabaugh Act, Project 500, underprivileged students, Black Student Association (BSA), David Eisenman, Steve Jackson, Chicago Tribune, Charles Clabaugh

Nearly lost in the news in the summer of ’68 was a decision by a three-judge panel of the United States Federal Court for the Northern District of Illinois permanently striking down that seed of the Illinois student movement, the infamous Clabaugh Act. Said District Judge Alexander J. Napoli:

We hold that the Act, both on its face and as applied to these plaintiffs, has denied them due process of law, because it lacks the precision of language required for a statute regulating an area so closely intertwined with First Amendment liberties; because it is an unjustifiable prior restraint to speech; and because it lacks the procedural safeguards required for a form of regulation amounting to censorship.1

But to many, the law now seemed an anachronism, a marker of a distant past, when the world was simpler and activist victories still possible. By the beginning of the fall semester of 1968, the violence of the Democratic convention had changed the conversation entirely. After the convention, establishment violence was now an accepted factor, a new norm in the minds of many students, along with the norms of ghettos burning in the summer, soldiers returning home in body bags, out-of-control police rampaging where and when they liked, and angry black revolutionaries carrying guns and threatening death to whites.

At Illinois, as the semester began, new, young, black faces, the chancellor’s privileged, underprivileged five hundred, were on campus, and it quickly became clear that they were not happy with the state of their affairs. The accelerated recruitment program, largely carried out by BSA students, had been more aggressive (p.166) than the administration had planned or expected, and in the first week of school the real number of Project 500 students was revealed as 640. With less money to go around, individual financial packages fell short of expectations. In addition, due to the higher number of students and typical beginning-of-year dorm room assignment problems, some black students were left temporarily housed in dormitory lounges, with those students assuming discrimination the cause. David Eisenman noted that the program had problems baked into it from the beginning: “In the first place the Black Student Association recruited many more people than we had room for, so there were problems with accommodations. They also made promises about financial aid that were far in excess of what they were authorized to promise, so Jack [Peltason] was struggling.” In addition, the chancellor’s “staff never believed [BSA] would recruit even 500 students, so the kids over-recruited, the staff expected under-recruitment, and he was stabbed in the back by his own people who never really thought they’d have to do anything.” Eisenman claims to have seen the troubles as they developed: “[Peltason] didn’t know this yet, but I knew it, because John Lee Johnson, the black activist from the north end [of Champaign] really knew what was going on around campus, and he talked to me.”2

In response to their issues with dormitory accommodations and the financial shortfalls, the black students gathered in the south lounge of the Illini Union in the first week of school to air their grievances. They sent an emissary to ask the chancellor to join them. After much back-and-forth among his staff, Peltason declined. Dean Millet, never the most skilled of diplomats, did appear and attempted to address the crowd, but he was shouted down by Steve Jackson, a local resident and now one of the five hundred. Millet gave up and left, the union closed, and the students voted to remain, again asking the chancellor to come listen to their grievances. Instead, he, who in the previous year had wisely chosen not to send police into the Dow sit-in, avoiding a reoccurrence of the Madison melee, on this night chose to call in an overwhelming show of force, a combined 133 officers, from both cities’ and the university’s police forces.

Looking back, Eisenman suggests that “if Jack had gone to the Union and talked to them, he might have stopped the whole thing in its tracks, but his advisors said there was too great a chance he’d be personally assaulted, and then we’d really have trouble.” Later, Peltason confided to Eisenman, “It wasn’t my choice. My instinct was to go but when the head of your police department and all your advisors are telling you not to, what are you going to do?” In the end, Eisenman judged Peltason “too cautious … his instinct was to stand back, to allow things to happen, always to keep the lid on, to keep the worst escalation from occurring”—but still, “he believed in discussion, and free speech … I would have had him be much more activist than he was, [but] in the long run, I think he [and his choices] may have been right.”3

(p.167) By night’s end 244 arrests were made, a few pieces of furniture were damaged and several paintings slashed. Damages were later estimated at between three thousand and five thousand dollars; the most serious harm may have been inflicted on a white student, John Hackman, a member of student government present at the affair, who was hit by a chair (and subsequently hospitalized) when he declined the group’s direction to leave. Grossly inaccurate stories in the influential Chicago Tribune described the situation as a “black student riot” on the campus. Weeks later Eisenman would publish an article in the Columbia Journalism Review analyzing and critiquing the distortions of the Tribune’s reporting. More accurate reporting by DI editors, in a front-page article, referred to it simply as another example of “An Old Problem”:

The Blacks who met at the Union Monday night had legitimate grievances. … They tried talking to housing division officials … they tried to take their problems to someone in a position to help them. They ran into a problem which students have run into time and time again: administrators will not act when students merely talk. It usually takes some show of student power to force administrators into action.

Realizing this sooner than most other students have, the Blacks took over the south lounge of the Illini Union and said they would not move until the Chancellor came to speak to them. … We hope the administration will open its eyes and recognize students as ordinary human beings with basic rights.4

The indefatigable Charles Clabaugh, still representing the central Illinois area in the General Assembly and always good for an indignant quote, responded to the incident in his inimitable style. “If the University doesn’t clean its house and put an end to this sort of thing, the legislature will be forced to step in and take greater control,” proclaiming: “We as legislators just aren’t going to put up with all this damn foolishness and continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a University that can’t maintain law and order.” His Democratic peer in the district, Paul Stone, displayed a calmer demeanor. “The legislature has no business getting involved in anything as complicated as higher education. We are involved in enough issues without entering one we know little about.” Stone continued, “Personally, I have great confidence in the administration. The legislature can do nothing to help the situation.”5

The BSA placed responsibility for the incident entirely on the administration for not responding earlier to the students’ needs. “The attitude of apathy and arrogance by the University administration in the face of innumerable demonstrations of bad faith and willful failure to live up to its commitments to students in the 500 Project,” was to blame.6 Eisenman published the best overall analysis of the incident in the DI, accurately describing the situation’s complexities and cautioning his readers about the many issues that warranted consideration:

(p.168) It would have to recognize the heightened degree of insecurity characterizing these students, who come here knowing that it is uphill all the way for them … administrators must realize—and some of them do already—that the students in this special program came here to make it by themselves despite handicaps, and that therefore they will react more desperately when their way to progress seems impeded.

Conversely, the black students will have to de-escalate their tactics. A university community willing to stick its neck out as this one has done, cooperating closely with the BSA in floating a major program for deprived students in a few months, cannot in fairness be treated like certain big city machines. [The university] may bumble, but it has shown an ability to adapt and to learn. … The greater reality is that our University is trying to do a very hard but a very important thing, in which properly we all have a part.7

The local NAACP threatened a lawsuit against the university, and SDS passed a resolution demanding the university drop all charges against the students—and if not, to provide due process for the accused, including trial by a jury of peers. CRJ also quickly came to the students’ support, sponsoring a rally on the quad and asking that all charges be dropped. Chancellor Peltason published his thoughts with a statement in the DI:

A university community cannot long exist in an atmosphere of crisis, confrontation and confusion, demands and counter-demands, threats of force and fears of violence. Such an atmosphere of discord not only undermines public confidence and support for the university, but it leads to internal division, suspicion, and tensions that make difficult the performance of our major responsibility—the pursuit of advanced learning.

However, showing that he was not without some flexibility, he added:

I do not consider any of our existing rules or regulations sacrosanct and welcome the active and vigorous participation by all segments of the academic community to work for their improvement through orderly procedures for change. Where modifications are necessary to better enable previously unrecognized concerns to be voiced, we shall endeavor to make such modifications. But change must be brought about by the procedures appropriate to an academic community, that is by persuasion, debate, consensus and cooperation.8

After several weeks filled with legislators posturing, the NAACP threatening, BSA and SDS demanding, the Tribune editorializing, and the faculty senate passing motions alternately supporting and condemning the students, eventually the calmer heads prevailed. Law professors came forward to defend the students in disciplinary hearings, and the student senate passed a resolution recommending all charges be dropped. The board of trustees issued a statement expressing (p.169) support for Peltason and Project 500, unanimously declaring the program “worthy of support.” Formal charges of mob violence against the students were dropped, and 204 of those arrested received letters of reprimand. Those housed in dormitory lounges were soon relocated to acceptable housing, additional financial support was secured; the students completed their registration and began their college careers.

Clabaugh once again offered an outraged (and outrageous) opinion, declaring the offending students “kooks, nuts, rebels, and anarchists. … The admissions policy they used for the project, if any, is dragging the standard of the University down. I’m as compassionate as the next person, but I’m tired of sympathy for the 500.” Asked how they might respond to his words, he responded, “Oh, I imagine they’ll riot.” If anyone harbored any doubts, he added, “I was against it from the minute I heard about it.”9 Disciplinary hearings for the remaining black students dragged on for months before most of them also received reprimands, with one receiving conduct probation and four acquitted entirely. By the end of the affair, in his never-ending attempts to stay ahead of protesters’ actions, Peltason announced plans to form yet one more committee to review and streamline the university’s disciplinary procedures. The affair of the rebellious black students, the extended disciplinary procedures, the hearings, protests, appeals, the eventual resolution of the incident, and other racial issues all became the central focus of campus activists for much of the school year. Race was again front and center at the university.10 (p.170)


(2.) David Eisenman interview, September 21, 2016.

(4.) “An Old Problem,” Daily Illini, September 11, 1968, 1, 12.

(5.) Carl Schwartz, “Union Incident ‘Damn Foolish’—Rep. Clabaugh,” Daily Illini, September 13, 1968, 1.

(6.) Marcia Kramer, “BSA: Dismiss Charges,” Daily Illini, September 13, 1968, 3, 6.

(7.) David Eisenman, “Project ‘Too Great’ a Success,” Daily Illini, September 11, 1968, 13.

(8.) “Chancellor’s Statement,” Daily Illini, September 25, 1968, 2.

(9.) Carolann Rodriguez, “Clabaugh Criticizes Sit-In,” Daily Illini, October 24, 1968, 5.

(10.) For further details on the black student movement at the university, see the excellent history by Joy Williams, Black Power on Campus: The University of Illinois, 1965–75 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).