The Black Student Strike at the University of Wisconsin – Madison began 50 years ago today. This is the second part of 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. Part 1 is available here and part 2 is available here.
On Saturday, February 14, 1969, a petition supporting the university administration “in its refusal to surrender to mob pressure and lawless force, in its determination to continue normal educational activities, in its efforts to deal with problems, including those involving the disadvantaged members of society, through rational methods” is signed by 1,372 of the 2,050 faculty members. The campus is quiet; the biggest excitement is at the Camp Randall Memorial Building, where two thousand fans cheer the Wisconsin track team to victory over Michigan State; Coach Charles “Rut” Walker takes no action against the eight black trackmen who boycott the meet.
The strike’s momentum begins to wane on Monday, February 17, with numbers down to about seven hundred, but strikers continue to obstruct streets and disrupt classes. Some shout down Professor George Mosse as he attempts to lecture on European cultural history, but Mosse takes a historian’s view of the incident and is nonplussed. Late in the day, the Black People’s Alliance, WSA, and Third World Liberation Front issue a statement calling on students to return to class and engage their professors and classmates on the underlying issues.
By Tuesday, BPA leader Willie Edwards tells a small rally of about 150 that the strike is officially suspended, pending Wednesday’s special faculty meeting called to consider their demands. “The support we got all last week began to dwindle,” he explains. Over the fourteen days of the strike, attendance has been off by about 10 percent; some classes were shut down and some were reduced to half, while the western campus generally had full attendance. That afternoon, about half the guardsmen are sent home, with the rest to follow on Thursday.
In the predawn hours of Wednesday, February 19, arsonists set nine separate fires, which heavily damage the UW Afro-American Race Relations Center, 929 University Ave. The center, on the third floor of an old apartment building, which is also used by the speech department and Institute for Research on Poverty, has been the main meeting place for the strike leaders.
Later that day, faculty vote at a special meeting, 524–518, against recommending that three black students expelled from Oshkosh be immediately admitted to the Madison campus. Harrington also announces that Dr. Samuel Proctor, dean for special projects, “has been called east on an assignment of national import that cannot yet be announced” and is leaving the university.
On Monday, February 24, with neither fanfare nor wide public notice, the Board of Regents’ Finance Committee sells the university’s 3,300 shares of stock in Chase Manhattan Bank, as demanded last year by the Concerned Black People, University Community Action, and Wisconsin Student Association. The sale is not widely known until May, when announcement of the action causes cancellation of an African Students Union rally to demand that the regents do what they’ve already done.
Monday afternoon, Governor Warren Knowles tells a press conference that his fellow Republicans controlling the legislature should “not adopt legislation on the basis of prejudice or panic.” In the two weeks since the Black Strike started, Assembly Speaker Harold Froelich and others have introduced a raft of bills to punish protesters and cut state support for the university.
“Black studies must be controlled by black people, man, otherwise it’s just another exotic course in social hippery,” poet and playwright LeRoi Jones says that night, kicking off the WSA Symposium “Juxtaposition: Progress and Despair” before a packed Union Theater. “Unless you know where you come from, you will not know where you are going. That is why nationalists embrace black culture.”
Also on Monday night, the Faculty Committee on Studies and Instructions in Race Relations, chaired by Professor William Thiede, recommends establishment of a Black Studies Department, the primary demand of the strike. But because students would not have equal authority with faculty in establishing curriculum, making appointments, and granting tenure, the Daily Cardinal denounces the report as an “utterly unacceptable [and] insulting compromise [that] recommends only token efforts and denies even a token student participation.”
After several days pass with little progress, the black leaders are frustrated at the lack of action on the Thiede Committee recommendation, as well as the faculty’s refusal to admit the Oshkosh students; they call for a resumption of the strike. In a forty-five-minute outburst on Thursday, February 27, about two hundred mostly white militants invade eight campus buildings, doing about $2,000 in damage and setting off a smoke bomb that drives right-wing state senator Gordon Roselip (R-Darlington) from the stage of a Social Sciences classroom. Chancellor Young calls these deeds “acts of desperation by a small group of militants who have lost most of their following.” At about the same time, the State Senate gives final legislative approval to a joint special committee, its members overwhelmingly Republican, to investigate campus disturbances. Black Council leader Horace Hanson later denounces the property damage but says it is “not the place of the Black Council to impose sanctions upon those whose intense reaction to destructive oppression has been destruction.”
On March 3, by a vote of 540–414, the faculty endorses the Thiede Committee’s recommendation for an autonomous Department of Afro-American Studies within the College of Letters and Science. The proposal still needs approval from the regents and the Coordinating Committee on Higher Education (CCHE), but the target date for implementation is July 1970. Black Council representative John Felder calls the move “a first step,” and says black activists “are going to maintain the pressure” for their other twelve demands.
But their pressure only changes so much; on March 14, the regents vote unanimously to refuse early admission to the ninety black students suspended from the State University at Oshkosh.
On April 17, Chancellor Young names political science professor M. Crawford Young (no relation) as the chairman of the Black Studies Steering Committee, which will detail specifics for submission to the regents and CCHE for creation of the Afro-American Studies department. Professor Young, who is white, is a specialist in African affairs and was the National Student Association overseas representative concentrating on African students in the late fifties.
Black Council chairman Harris assails Chancellor Young for “the racist audacity to appoint a white chairman and white majority” to the Steering Committee and urges all black students “to totally reject any participation” on the committee, which they do. Professor Young remains as chair until the end of the summer, when he steps down, as he had planned, to assume the chairmanship of the political science department.
In September, Chancellor Young appoints a black man, Nolan E. Penn, associate professor of student counseling, as the new chairman of the steering committee. The program sends out 1,400 applications to high school seniors; 285 are returned properly completed, and 210 are accepted, about evenly split between Wisconsin residents and nonresidents.
The Joint Committee to Study Disruptions issues its report on October 14; it denounces UW administrators and calls for enactment of a series of pending bills, including one requiring the UW to contract with the Madison Police Department for police coverage on campus. Among its findings:
- Certain members of the faculty have used their position in the classroom as a podium to indoctrinate their students with their personal political views and convictions or have failed to meet their classes while participating in ‘strikes.’ This is wrong and is not in keeping with their professional positions. Such individuals should be subject to discipline. They have not been.”
- “The university administration failed almost totally to anticipate the situations that developed. As a result, when they did develop, they responded inadequately. For the money the state is paying these administrators, the state should receive some foresight.”
- “The administration acts in times of crisis much like an ostrich—burying its head in the sand—waiting for the crisis to solve itself. The administration has displayed an incompetence to handle these matters properly.”
- “The discipline procedures of the university are inadequate. The university has floundered through a maze of inadequate and less than competent disciplinary procedures. . . . The university must assume a responsibility for the conduct of its students on or off campus when such conduct demonstrates a danger or threat to the university community. University discipline is appropriate and necessary for certain conduct of students which affects the university community or the community in which the university is located.”
On December 1, the faculty unanimously accept the detailed plans from the College of Letters and Science to establish a Department of Afro-American Studies that would grant BA and BS degrees in the new Afro-American Studies major. Proponents hope the regents and Coordinating Council for Higher Education give final approval for the department to start by next fall.