Originally posted on May 10, 2022; updated on June 13, 2022.
Northwestern University awarded Equal Justice Society President Eva Paterson an honorary Doctor of Laws on June 13 during its 164th commencement ceremony. Sheila Bedi, clinical professor of law and director, Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic, Pritzker School of Law, presented the degree.
The citation, as read by Kathleen Hagerty, provost of the University: “For more than four decades, you have campaigned for civil rights with passion, courage, and tenacity. Your advocacy work is a model of teaching, research, and writing for all proponents of social change. A beacon for social, racial, and civic justice, you have fostered diversity, equity, and inclusion across the nation, bringing tremendous credit to your alma mater. We thank you for all you have done to better our society.”
Eva received her B.A. in political science from Northwestern and was elected the first African American student body president. The Buffett Institute for Global Affairs at Northwestern runs an Eva Jefferson Paterson Fellows Program that provides funding for undergraduate students working with the Deportation Research Clinic to document, analyze, and publicize government misconduct in deportation jails and proceedings.
Eva was just 20 years old when she first attracted national attention for her leadership during the Northwestern University student strike of 1970.
In May of that year, just days into her term as the university’s first African American student body president, Eva mounted a stirring defense of nonviolent anti-war protest in a speech to some five thousand students gathered in Deering Meadow.
While Eva validated students’ outrage against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the recent shootings of thirteen unarmed Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard, she also successfully discouraged a number of torch-wielding students from burning down the University’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps offices in Lunt Hall.
The student loyalty Eva wielded that day had been won over years of strategic political activism and good faith dialogue with students and administrators. Despite arriving to campus as a self-described patriotic conservative, she quickly came to oppose the Vietnam War after participating in teach-ins, conversing with her fellow students, and learning of Robert Kennedy’s plan to end the war.
In the spring of her freshman year, Eva also participated in the historically successful thirty-eight-hour Black Student Sit-In of May 1968, and just three months later, was teargassed during the Chicago Police Riot at the Democratic National Convention.
Eva was no mere overzealous convert. During her time at Northwestern, she showed a keen sense of political pragmatism that belied her age. As she told Jet author Theophilus Green in a July 1970 cover profile, Jefferson Paterson worried that some political demonstrations could serve merely to relieve the collective guilt of white students.
In contrast, she favored more strategic advocacy efforts that often extended outside the boundaries of campus, including promoting a program to provide childcare for poor families and fundraising for a student tour intended to counteract negative images of youth activism across the country.
And though she wasn’t afraid to adopt unpopular political positions (while running for president, she advocated for postponing Greek rush week), Eva made efforts to reach out to students who disagreed with her, even going as far as personally visiting every dormitory on campus during her presidential campaign.
Following the student strike in July of 1970, Eva became one of three students selected to debate then-Vice President Spiro Agnew on a September 26, 1970, broadcast of the David Frost Show.
During the debate, Eva once again advocated for nonviolent means of resistance, yet she also offered an explanation for why recent political events might have convinced some young activists that progress could only be made through violence. Her measured yet forceful responses often provoked voluminous applause from the studio audience, surprising the underprepared Vice President.
After graduating from Northwestern with a B.A. in political science in 1971, Jefferson Paterson went on to earn her J.D. from the U.C. Berkeley School of Law.