Before he was a movie critic, Roger Ebert was a student journalist. He wrote for the University of Illinois Daily Illini as an undergraduate, serving as the paper’s editor in his senior year.
Ebert also served a term as president of the United States Student Press Association, a national association of student newspaper editors affiliated with the National Student Association that supported campus media and advocated for student press freedom. As president of the USSPA, Ebert was invited to the White House reception at which the above photograph was taken.
March 18 update | Hello, Roger Ebert twitter-followers! To answer Roger’s questions, I found the above photo, I found it in the US National Student Association archives in Madison, Wisconsin, and I discovered it in the course of researching my dissertation on the Association. I’m heading off to teach right now, but I’ll post more details later. In the meantime, feel free to poke around. (If you want an update when I post more, you can follow me on Twitter at @studentactivism.)
March 19 update | I can’t seem to put my hands on the original of the photo right now, but it comes from a USNSA newsletter of some kind, probably the NSA News. The National Student Association was a generally liberal confederation of student governments that served as one of the incubators of sixties radicalism — many of the early leaders of Students for a Democratic Society met each other at NSA conferences, for instance, and NSA gave crucial early funding and support to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (Until 1967 NSA itself received gobs of secret cash from the CIA, which made extensive and varied use of its international operations.)
One thing I love about the photo is how perfectly it situates Roger in the history of student organizing. It, like Ebert’s work as an advocate for student press freedoms, is emphatically of the sixties — what with him being flanked by LBJ’s wife and daughter and all. But its buttoned-up, stilted formality isn’t remotely of The Sixties. That Sixties, the Sixties of popular myth, lasted maybe four or five years, but it grew out of an earlier, murkier era — the era of Mad Men and the Free Speech Movement and Freedom Summer, an era in which a student activist who clambered up onto a police car to make a speech would take his shoes off first, to avoid doing any damage. It’s a historical moment that I’m fascinated by and more than a little smitten with, and it’s a moment that this photo captures beautifully.
Oh, yeah — I do have one more piece of trivia about Roger and the NSA. As he himself wrote in a blog post a couple of months ago, it was at the Association’s 1964 summer Congress, just five months after this photo was taken, that Roger Ebert “experienced the joy of intercourse with a female undergraduate for the first time.”
Go read that post, by the way. It’s a lovely one.