Voice from the past

Janette Neuwahl

Only a week after her election as the first black president of the Associated Student Government, Eva Jefferson Paterson was forced to confront one of the most difficult situations a leader can encounter.

Four hundred miles away from Evanston at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, four college students were gunned down during a violent anti-war protest, causing students to react in shock. Jefferson Paterson knew she had to had to respond immediately.

A day later — and one week after she was elected — she stood in front of 5,000 Northwestern students at Deering Meadow, where she grasped their attention for the next five days. As she spoke, the young revolutionary known simply as “Eva” managed to appease students’ desire to riot while persuading them to voice their opinions peacefully — helping university officials prevent a potentially explosive situation.

During a week in which classes were canceled, she led students in anti-war marches and gatherings. Her ability to keep activism peaceful yet powerful propelled her into the national spotlight.

“I just drew the energy from the people out in Deering Meadow,” said Jefferson Paterson, Weinberg ’71. “I knew the student body, so I was able to feel what they wanted to do, and I was able to give that back to them.”

Thirty years after the Kent State shooting, ASG President Rachel Lopez is trying to keep some of the group’s goals similar to those of Eva.

Lopez said she wants to encourage students to take an active role in politics and change. Her solution: the Eva Jefferson Paterson Civil Rights Program. Starting today, the program aims to encourage students to get involved in the community outside NU by providing minority mentoring to middle- and high-school students in the Evanston and Chicago area.

“This is a program whose main purpose is to create active students on campus and in the community,” said Lopez, a Weinberg senior. “Eva really embodied both of those … and still remains active, which is what is so empowering about her.”

PERSISTENT FOR PEACE

The deaths at Kent State sent a shudder through universities — including Northwestern — where students were protesting the same causes as those who were killed. But Jefferson Paterson kept the past from repeating.

When a few NU students plotted to burn down the Naval ROTC headquarters in Lunt Hall, Jefferson Paterson persuaded them to march along Sheridan Road rather than become violent. Her ability to command students’ attention immediately brought her into the headlines.

“The force of her will was laid out there, and they wouldn’t (burn down the building) because she said they shouldn’t, and they didn’t,” said Medill Prof. Donna Leff, Medill ’70 and editor in chief of The Daily during Jefferson’s reign. “It might not sound so brave now, but it was a pretty brave thing to do because that was such a different time.”

In the days that followed, when the city police tried to stop her from flyering cars with anti-war literature, Jefferson Paterson put saw horses in the intersection at The Arch, blocking cars from driving on Sheridan.

“It was a spontaneous act on my part,” said Jefferson Paterson. “I think the university was so happy we weren’t burning things down that they didn’t bother us much.”

At the heart of Eva’s success was also a fierce belief in free speech — anti- or pro-war — that won her an award from the American Civil Liberties Union. Jefferson Paterson said being able to listen to opinions and rely on her instincts helped her during the tougher times.

Alumnus Allen Streicker, ’72, a history graduate student at the time, also remembered Jefferson’s influential leadership, especially the day when NU “seceded from the union” during a rally.

“It seemed like the whole campus was there and she was at the center of that,” said Streicker, who is now assistant university archivist. “She was everywhere in those days.”

FORMING A LEGACY

Eva’s legendary status gained her national recognition, as many college students struggled to comprehend the war in southeast Asia. When President Richard Nixon created the Scranton commission on campus unrest, Eva was invited by the White House to apply for a position. Soon her face could be found on the covers of Jet, Mademoiselle and Ebony magazines as well as in the Chicago Tribune.

In September 1970, Eva debated Vice President Spiro Agnew on “The David Frost Show,” where she had no qualms about stating her criticisms of the Nixon administration.

“There was an internal debate in the Nixon White House about what we were doing,” Jefferson Paterson said. “Some people were impressed, but the politics of the decision was more law and order and about demonizing (college kids) to pull the blue collar, (Democratic) voters their way.”

Eva’s activism did not begin with ASG, however. During her freshman year, Eva joined a sit-in at the Bursar’s office. One hundred black students refused to leave until NU created an African-American studies department and a black dorm. At the time, only 160 black students attended NU. Now, the number is almost 650, and the building that houses the Office of African-American Student Affairs sits on the spot of the old Bursar’s Office.

But as Jefferson Paterson learned, change does not always come easily.

“We student activists were spoiled — we thought social change would come about quickly because in this case it only took from Friday to Sunday, ” she said. “(The Bursar’s Office protest) skewed our vision as to how difficult social change really is, because we were able to transform a university in 48 hours — it’s harder to transform a society.”

Jefferson Paterson’s commitment to civil rights continued after graduation. She now works in the San Francisco area at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, where she serves as the executive director. Jefferson Paterson also recently started an organization called the Equal Justice Society, where she plans to oppose the conservative slant of the federal judiciary.

In all her endeavors, Jefferson Paterson has remembered the lessons she learned at NU. Although ASG’s civil rights program is named for her, Jefferson Paterson said she did not play a large role in the fight at NU.

“What’s original about this program is that I was not a leader in the Black Power movement — I just got educated at Northwestern,” she said. “I’m active in the struggle for black rights now, but I really learned that at NU.”