How Project 500 shaped diversity on campus

By Paolo Cisneros

A three-part series examining the issue of race on campus during the 40th anniversary of Project 500.

Clarence Shelley first arrived at the University on a quiet day in July with the intention of changing the institution forever. Forty years later, he can’t help but smile when he recalls the naivete of it all.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series examining the issue of race on campus during the 40th anniversary of Project 500, a program that brought 500 black students to the University in 1968.

Clarence Shelley first arrived at the University on a quiet day in July with the intention of changing the institution forever.

Forty years later, he can’t help but smile when he recalls the naivete of it all.


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Student, director recall historic event

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Project 500 in 1968

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Shelley was contracted by the University in the summer of 1968 to direct the Special Educational Opportunities Program. The initiative aimed to bring more than 500 low-income black students to the University in an effort to increase racial diversity during a period when the United States found itself bitterly divided over issues like the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

With time, the program, which became commonly known as Project 500, laid the groundwork for racial integration and the cultural resources that exist on campus today.

“It was a very uncomfortable time,” Shelley said. “We were asking the University of Illinois to see itself as a social change agent.”

Today, Shelley serves as the special assistant to the chancellor. Inside his office above the Illini Union Bookstore, a portrait of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X overlook his desk. His involvement in Project 500 remains one of the defining moments of his career.

Call to action

The race riots of 1967 signaled a violent shift in the national movement for civil rights.

The Kerner Commission Report, a statement released by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, claimed, “Our nation is moving towards two societies – one white, one black – separate and unequal.”

In Champaign, local civil rights leaders responded to the report with disdain.

“All the Kerner Report amounts to is a national declaration that there is bigotry,” Champaign activist John Lee Johnson said in a 1968 interview with The Daily Illini. “The total community doesn’t give a damn.”

Johnson went on to say that race riots in Champaign were highly probable because of the segregation that existed within the community.

The tension escalated on March 7, 1968, when the University’s Interfraternity Council admitted to segregation within its rush system. Less than a month later, the stress on society became even more clear when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

The following months saw a great deal of debate about the role of race on campus, most of which was led by the small but highly active Black Students Association.

Finally, in May of 1968, then-Chancellor Jack W. Peltason announced the formation of Project 500.

Soon after, Shelley was hired as its director. To this day, he credits Peltason as being a man who was ahead of his time.

“I think he took a leap of faith more than anything else,” Shelley said. “He had a very strong social conscience.”

A team of student recruiters, which Shelley said was largely unprepared, spent the summer of 1968 traveling the country in search of students who, under normal circumstances, would not have been able to attend the University.

The bulk of students the team enrolled came from Chicago and East St. Louis, Ill., but others came from as far away as New York City and Philadelphia.

A week before classes were scheduled to begin, about 580 black students converged on campus in what was soon to become a social experiment that would forever change the face of the University.

Welcome to campus

Nathaniel Banks, a native of Champaign, was one of the local students who enrolled in Project 500.

“This campus was a lot different in 1968,” he said. “It was very homogenous, mostly affluent white students from northern Illinois, so there was a degree of hostility in that time.”

During the 1967-68 academic year, only about 50 black students were enrolled at the University.

Some of those students told Shelley that is was possible to spend months on campus and never see another black face.

In an effort to build a sense of community among the recent arrivals, as well as administer placement tests and other administrative protocol, Shelley organized for all the new students to spend the week before classes in the Illinois Street Residence Hall.

The attempt to prepare them for their new lives – and to prepare the rest of campus for their arrival – was hectic and ultimately insufficient, Shelley said.

“How do you prepare a university for a different kind of student?” he asked.

Shelley described the atmosphere on campus that week as disdainful toward the new black students.

There was a feeling among other students that the new arrivals did not deserve to be there.

Banks agreed that the atmosphere was antagonistic, but said organized resistance to the program was very rarely an issue.

“There didn’t need to be an organized group because the entire environment was hostile,” he said.

One night, as he was walking down Green Street, Banks was shot in the head with a pellet gun. Such incidents, he said, were far from isolated.

The day before classes began, the students were moved out of ISR and into other residence halls on campus. The majority went to dorms in the complex now known as the Six-Pack in addition to Barton Hall and Lundgren Hall.

It was then that a sense of dissatisfaction with the University began to develop among the black students.

Some were assigned to temporary housing in the residence hall lounges, and others felt they had been misled as to how much financial aid they were set to receive.

In an effort to resolve their grievances, more than 250 black students met on the south patio of the Illini Union on the night of Sept. 9, hoping to speak with Chancellor Peltason.

What was to come would set the stage for the rest of their collective experience on campus.

Peltason would never attend the meeting because he was told by fellow administrators that doing so would be unsafe, Shelley said.

When rain started to fall, the students moved inside to the south lounge of the Union, where they waited for a meeting that would never take place.

At midnight, the Union closed and when students refused to leave, local police departments arrived on the scene and arrested 252 individuals.

Most were detained overnight in jails in Champaign and Urbana, but others were held in Memorial Stadium because of a lack of available cells.

“It was a mess,” Shelley said.

Soon after, Chicago news media depicted the incident in a very negative light.

A Chicago Tribune article reported that $50,000 in damage had been done to the Union during over the course of the night when, in actuality, only about $3,500 in damage occurred after someone took a knife to paintings of past University presidents.

Patricia McKinney-Lewis was among those arrested. She said she was shocked after seeing the incident classified a “riot” by the Tribune.

“There was no riot,” she said. “I saw none of that.”

Despite such testimony, pressure from multiple sources was on the University to cancel funding to the program and expel all black students. Peltason, though, stood firmly behind the project.

“He was quite a man,” Shelley said.

Legal charges against the students were eventually dropped after protests by student groups, and testimony from an unidentified source suggested the damage to the Union was committed by a private citizen and not a student affiliated with Project 500.

Despite the ordeal, both Shelley and Banks believe it had a bonding effect for the students.

“They caught so much hell, they felt close to each other,” Shelley said.

Forty years of progress

Back in his office, Shelley spoke slowly and deliberately as he recalled the summer of 1968. He said he is amazed by the progress the University has made in promoting racial equality during the past 40 years.

“Now, our (black) students don’t find being here such a big deal because they have been reared and prepared to come here,” he said.

“They don’t have the same feeling of isolation that they had in those days.”

Still, he believes he failed in his attempt to refocus the goals of higher education.

“People don’t come to universities, for the most part, to be social change agents,” he said. “They come here to live the life of the mind, to reflect in tranquility, to think deep thoughts and write long papers that nobody reads.”

He said his belief that he could change the university system was naive and immature.

Nevertheless, he sees progress being made in other areas.

Today’s black graduates often take for granted the education they’ve received, he said.

“They have, in many ways, taken on the institutional arrogance that is a part of the culture here,” he said.

“They have no doubt that our graduates are superior to people who end up at Western and ISU and Carbondale.”

He paused in thought and leaned back in his chair.

“That’s progress I guess,” he said.

Melissa Silverberg contributed to this report