50th Anniversary of Project 500 Coming Up, Should Be Celebrated

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In 1963, President John F. Kennedy called on the nation to take action to eradicate the interrelated and interconnected social problems of African-American citizens in the United States. The country was in a crisis. Many, but not all, post-secondary schools devoted considerable time and resources to answering the President’s call by, for example, forming general and faculty committees, holding conferences, developing new policies and procedures, and hiring new staff.

In 1966, several universities launched initiatives for “disadvantaged” students, including The City University of New York, University of Wisconsin, University of California, and Southern Illinois University. The following year, similar programs were undertaken at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

Many of these programs had started up as early as 1963. Yet, the academy’s deliberately slow way of doing business resulted in actual launch dates years later. The University of Illinois was among the first to launch its initiative to recruit and enroll the “disadvantaged” student. University of Illinois President David Dodds Henry observed in 1963, “I believe that we must take more positive steps to overcome the disabilities that stem from decades of inequality in our society… as we build ramps for our physically disabled students without violating our standards, I believe that we must offset some of the disabilities arising from racial and social inequality by building psychological and special assistance ramps for young people who need them.” President Henry framed the University’s call to action in the light of that of President Kennedy and the mission of the public Land-Grant University to create a “people’s school.” He created the All-University Committee on Human Relations and Equal Opportunity. He appointed new administrative and academic staff.

At the same time, the Governor of Illinois issued an executive order, the Code of Fair Practice. Faculty member Harry Tiebout and student leader Bill “Squirt” Smith were fighting racial discrimination locally in and around the Urbana campus. External stakeholder actions supported the actions of internal constituencies.

On April 4, 1968, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The United States experienced widespread violence and political protest. It was pandemonium! The ferment at the University of Illinois was unbecoming. This was not a panty-raid riot. Demands for more Black students, staff, faculty, and programs from competing stakeholders and constituencies flooded President Henry’s office, and the office of the first Chancellor of the University of Illinois system, J.W. Peltason. In 1961, Professor Peltason had already written and published the seminal work 58 Lonely Men: Southern Federal Judges and School Desegregation. Appointed Chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana campus on September 1, 1967, he had been in that office approximately eight months when Reverend King was killed.

At the same time, there was great tension within, between, and among stakeholders and internal constituencies. Eventually, Chancellor Peltason met with Black Student Association (BSA) executive members and Champaign-Urbana Black leaders, some of who were UIUC students. BSA President Dan Dixon observed, “Chancellor Peltason opened the meeting with a question―What do you want? I turned to fellow student leader Boyd Jarrell, who said we want 500 additional students beginning of the fall semester approximately five months away. Chancellor Peltason gave his approval.”

On May 2, 1968, Chancellor Peltason announced the Special Educational Opportunities Program, popularly known as “Project 500.” He stated: “Specifically, every effort is being made to increase enrollment in the Special Education Opportunity Program from the previously planned 189 to at least 500 students at the Urbana campus for the 1968 Fall semester.” On the same day, he wrote to BSA President Dan Dixon: “The draft report circulated by the ad hoc special education committee contains targets for enrollment of Black students, which, in my opinion, must be increased in order for the University to demonstrate its concern for the crisis which now confronts the nation.”

On October 18, 1968, Chancellor Peltason distributed a document entitled The Special Education Opportunities Program (SEOP), at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that outlined:

“General Nature and Purpose:

“The Special Educational Opportunities Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, commonly referred to as “Project 500,” is one of several experimental programs at universities across the country designed to offer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds―those whose class/cultural characteristic and financial need placed them in a disadvantage in competition with the majority of students―an opportunity to continue their formal education beyond high school. A parallel program exists at the Chicago Circle.

“Through SEOP the University is attempting to do several important things. Among them are

  1. To provide educational opportunity for students who might not otherwise be able to receive it or even to consider undertaking a college-level program.
  2. To increase the numbers of minority group students on the Urbana campus.
  3. To develop educational practices and policies both academic and administrative that will assist and support such students and which might benefit other students generally.
  4. To provide and disseminate to legitimate and responsible educational institutions and agencies information to increase their ability to deal with educational and sociological problems that affect students so identified.
  5. To provide for the students in the SEOP the vital cultural and social experience of meeting and living and learning with and from students from cultures different from their own.”

In the technical sense, “Project 500” was not a program, but rather one initiative of several that used existing services, and external resources. The University of Illinois launched other major initiatives during this transformative period in civil rights. The first was the Equal Opportunity Law Program (EOLP), and on the Chicago campus the Educational Assistance Program (EAP), and the Medical Opportunity Program (MOP). The work by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, President David Dodds Henry, and staff assistance William K. Williams, Joseph Smith, Lucius Barker and Clarence Shelly, to name a few, is important to telling this story.

The impetus to solve the national social problem came from President Kennedy. But the Urbana campus initiatives were not out of step with the national crisis. Undoubtedly, the aftermath of MLK’s assassination, coupled with the advocacy of the UIUC BSA, partnering with Champaign-Urbana Black leaders including Steve Jackson, Al Mitchell, Lawrence “Beno” Williams, Bill “Squirt” Smith and John Lee Johnson, to name a few, were the catalysts that motivated Chancellor Peltason to create and enlarge “Project 500.”

In the final analysis, “Project 500” was Chancellor Peltason’s initiative. It will be 50 years old in 2018. The University of Illinois should commemorate and celebrate one of higher education’s finest examples of how the “People’s School” served the public good.

About Terry Townsend

Terry Townsend participated in Project 500. He is a former Champaign County Housing Authority commissioner, and a long-time community activist.

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