Project 500 Participants Ask Tribune For Apology and Call For A New Report

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Forty years ago, in
1968, Project 500
brought a large number
of African American
students to this
campus for the first
time. While this was a
welcome response to demands that had
been make upon the university by campus
and community activists after the
assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., it did not begin smoothly. Some of
the students did not have living accommodations
ready for them, some did
not have their financial aid packages
ready, and some found difficulty getting
into courses.
The frustrated students initially congregated
on the Illini Union patio. When
it began to rain, they moved inside the Union. They
demanded to see Chancellor Jack Peltason and, when the
building closed and he had not appeared, they refused to
leave the Union. They were ordered to leave, and when
they did not the police came in with bat-sized clubs and
arrested the students for “mob action.” The male students
were taken to the stadium, and then to jail. The female students
were loaded into a truck and told that they were
going to be transported to their housing. Instead, they were
taken directly to jail.
On the week-end of November 7th and 8th of this
year, there was a 40th anniversary reunion of people who
had been recruited in Project 500. One of the events was
a press conference, called by local activist Terry
Townsend, to demand an apology from the Chicago Tribune
for inflaming passions against the students in its
articles at the time. The paper had contended that the
students were rioters who had cost the taxpayers over
$50,000 in damages by their destruction of Union property.
It ran a cartoon that portrayed the students as a dog
that was biting the hand of the taxpayers who were feeding
them so generously. Terry Townsend reported that
the actual cost of any damage to the building was
$3,812.19, and that most of that consisted of labor costs
to clean up. It also was reported that at least one instance
of damage was caused by a union employee who threw a
chair at one of the students that missed the student but
broke a window.
While many of the people who attended the reunion
obviously had fond memories of their time at the University,
they also carried scars from how they were initially
treated. There seemed to be a consensus among those
attending the press conference that there was a need for
some of the former students to draft a report on what actually
happened so that the Tribune’s reporting does not stand
as an unchallenged historical record of what really happened
on September 9, 1968 in the Illini Union.

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