The Black Student Strike at the University of Wisconsin – Madison began 50 years ago today. This is a history of that strike and surrounding events, excerpted from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press’s new book, Madison in the Sixties, by Stuart D. Levitan.
The climactic protest of the decade is sparked by a symposium, as the weeklong conference “The Black Revolution: To What Ends?” leads to ten days of disruption, an hour of destruction, and the creation of the Black Studies Department.
“The Black Revolution: To What Ends?” featuring twenty-one nationally renowned guest speakers and forty-three faculty, staff, and students, runs February 3–8. Produced by Union Forum Committee chairs Margery Tabankin and Neil Weisfeld for $8,861, the conference attracts 16,500 attendees and crystallizes the incipient black student revolution at the university. Chancellor Young later learns that he helped underwrite the conference, through a $2,500 contribution his office made to the Afro-American Race Relations Center, which turned it over to the conference.
Among the speakers is sociology professor Nathan Hare, acting chairman of the embryonic and groundbreaking Department of Black Studies at San Francisco State University, active in the bitter three-month-old Black Student Union strike that led to its creation there. On Wednesday, February 5, he tells a standing-room-only Great Hall crowd that “the White university establishment” is destroying black society and culture and that “we may have to cut off the ears of a few college deans.” At a panel that night, he tells students they must “do whatever needs to be done [to get the university to] meet your demands.” Afterward, Hare meets with Willie Edwards of the Black People’s Alliance and other black student leaders and puts black activism at the UW into context with the hard-line crackdown that new SF State president S. I. Hayakawa has begun. “We are on the front lines at SF State and getting our asses kicked,” he tells them. “You are on a radical campus and have a responsibility to your brothers and sisters to take action.” Edwards and the others embrace Hare’s challenge and start planning a Wisconsin black strike, led by the Wapenduzi Weusi.
A little before noon on Friday, February 7, about ten black students, led by Edwards, present a list of thirteen demands to Vice Chancellor Chandler Young for delivery to Chancellor Edwin Young. They demand, among other things, an “autonomous black studies department controlled and organized by black students and faculty” with a black chairman “approved by black students and faculty”; that “black students have veto power in hiring and firing all administrators and teachers involved in anything relating” to the new black studies department; at least five hundred additional black students be admitted to the university by fall; black student control over the Black Cultural Center; amnesty for all strike participants; and admission of any expelled Oshkosh student to UW–Madison.
That afternoon, as the Reverend Andrew Young, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prepares to speak at the conference on “Where Do We Go From Here?” about three hundred students sweep up Bascom Hill from the noon rally to disrupt classes in seven university buildings. Members of the group, about three-quarters of whom are white, briefly take over numerous classrooms to read and explain the demands; some professors and students are intimidated, but there are no serious incidents or arrests. Swelling to about five hundred, the group marches down to Library Mall banging trash cans and chanting, “On strike, shut it down!” for a rally where black leaders again explain the demands. Then it’s back up the hill for another round of classroom disruptions, including Professor Harvey Goldberg’s History 474 lecture, followed by a mass meeting of about more than a thousand in the Union Theater, where a black speaker calls for “complete disruption, and if that doesn’t work, complete destruction” of the university.
Speaking to an overflow crowd of about thirteen hundred in the Great Hall that evening, the Reverend Jesse Jackson says the thirteen demands “should be followed to the letter. Until I see white America go through the psychological exercise of freeing herself of superior delusions, she can’t relate to me. And that’s why there is a black revolt here tonight, and why wise white people and black people will support it.” Jackson also attacks the UW for purportedly supporting white supremacy, particularly Germanic.
Later, and throughout the weekend, black students who had previously been marginalized make a concerted and successful effort to reach out to white students in social settings, explaining their demands, person to person, point by point. It works; UW police chief Hanson is impressed by “the very large number of people from our dormitory areas who participated actively, people who never carried a sign before in their lives. This was perhaps the amazing part of the whole demonstration,” he testifies before the Joint Committee in late March. Hanson is also impressed at how successful strike leaders have been: “They created a lot of fuss here and focused a lot of attention on 13 demands.” Not all the persuasion is gentle; there are reports of coercive phone calls and some physical intimidation. Some white students also worry about being called racist if they don’t support the strike.
On Saturday, a Daily Cardinal editorial calls the group’s demands for student control over a new department, the cultural center, and other university actions “impossible” to meet, and says the black students “know that they are demanding that an institution destroy itself.”
Saturday afternoon, Willie Edwards tells a large Great Hall crowd during a lengthy rally that “the only power we have is to disrupt,” and if the thirteen demands are not met, “This university will not function.” After the rally, at about 2:30 p.m., approximately six hundred students, chanting “Two, four, six, eight, organize and smash the state” march on the Field House to disrupt the Badger basketball game with Ohio State. Alerted by agents at the rally, the university calls in city police; a contingent of about 150 helmeted police with riot sticks and tear gas arrives barely five minutes before the protesters.
“If they had not arrived at the Field House when they did,” Chancellor Young tells the regents the following Friday, “six hundred persons would have poured into that basketball game and there would have been a great deal of violence between spectators and disrupters.” As it is, there are scuffles at various Field House gates, and Governor Knowles’s black Rambler is vandalized. Four students—one black, three white—are arrested for disorderly conduct and battery to a police officer; most of the eleven thousand basketball fans inside are unaware of the disturbance. Edwards and about two dozen blacks have tickets and are inside, but their only disruption is giving the black power salute during the national anthem, and some synchronized seat switching. They leave after halftime to scattered applause and miss the Badgers’ upset victory over the Buckeyes.
That night, Chancellor Young issues a statement highlighting the university’s initiatives, including “efforts to” recruit minority and faculty, adding one more black staff member to the Student Affairs office, creating the task force to administer the Special Program, and seeking further funding. Young touts “recent changes” in the university’s academic program: the first three-credit “Afro-American Culture and Intellectual Tradition” course in the new Afro-American concentration in the American Institutions program, with a series of guest lecturers; a “black literature course taught by a black professor” in the English department; a black history course in the history department; a law school seminar on law and minority groups; a senior course in Contemporary Trends that “has turned to the urban crisis,” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s creative writing course, which he does not note is only for this semester. “It would be a tragedy if anything were allowed to cloud this progress and threaten the future,” he says, warning that anyone who obstructs classes or other university activities is subject to arrest for unlawful assembly; students who do so may also get suspended or expelled. “While peaceful picketing and legal protest must and will be protected on this campus,” Young declares, “intentional disruption of classes cannot and will not be tolerated.”
Coming tomorrow: clashes between students and condemnation from the capitol.