Madison in the Sixties – 1967 – Civil Rights
1967 is the worst year yet for race relations in Madison. The summer sizzles with what the Equal Opportunities Commission calls “tension- filled incidents with racial overtones.” More than a dozen racial conflicts all over town, including “numerous hostile confrontations” resulting in fights between white and black students near East High, with “conflict and hostility spread[ing] to Blacks at Central High, “evidence of white apprehension and hostility” when a Black family moves to the Monroe Street area, and “vandalism to homes and cars of Black families” living around Odana Road. In Sherman Village, a white woman pickets the new home of a Black family.
Hoping to gain some understanding and tamp down tensions between Black Madison and the all-white police department, the EOC holds a series of public hearings in neighborhoods with large minority populations. It gets an earful
About 150 east side residents, about twenty of them Black, attend an intense hearing at Marquette School on August 2. They tell commissioners and Mayor Otto Festge about alleged race- based police brutality, daily indignities, and other conditions of being Black in Madison.
The discrimination is made tangible, Army Staff Sgt. Richard Cunningham says, by the bad housing, bad lighting and bad sewers of South Madison.
A white woman with a black husband tells the commission, “there is trouble here and you don’t see it. You have to be a Negro to know,” Mrs. Art Thomas says. “You don’t know the problems in trying to find a decent place to live, because you can’t rent an apartment,”.
Speaking through tears, she gives the commission a warning. “The young kids growing up in Madison won’t take this,” she says. “They won’t accept what the older people, who have come here from the South, have accepted. When a race riot starts here, it will be the young people who start it. “
Police Inspector Herman Thomas denies an allegation of police brutality, and calls the neighborhood resident who made the claim “derelict as a citizen” in not filing a complaint. Mayor Festge rejects calls for a civilian review board of police actions, saying that’s already a function of the Police and Fire Commission.
The next night, a comparable crowd tells similar stories at Lincoln School on the south side. History graduate student and former WSA Senator Paul Soglin, who works with South Madison youth, says the city has failed to provide recreational facilities for the neighborhood, or even a water fountain at Penn Park.
Sometime on August 3, the police department takes an important step toward someday hiring its first nonwhite officer— for the first time, it adds the statement “An Equal Opportunity Employer” to its job advertisement running that week in the daily newspapers.
The statement was not included when the ad was placed but added as a “correction” after the department’s all- white roster came under fire at the August 2 public hearing.
On the fourth, inspector Thomas and the six policemen who patrol the South Madison and Williamson Street areas assure the commission they have never hassled or hurt any black residents. South Madison patrolman Gerald Eastman says he’s “amazed at the small number of incidents and the ease with which we get along with the Negroes.”
Everyone downplays the possibility of violence.
But just days later, someone throws a Molotov cocktail on the sidewalk at 4405 Tokay Blvd – the home of black South African scholar, Professor A. C. Jordan. In late September, another firebomb, much closer to the house. And a swastika burned into the yard.
Jordon, whose son Pallo left the United States earlier this year under threat of deportation due his political activism, says his west side neighbors have been very friendly, and he’s sure it’s none of them.
In mid- December, the commission reviews the hearings and the state of race relations in Madison in a disturbing thirteen- page report. It’s not easy reading.
“RACIAL DISCRIMINATION UNDENIABLY EXISTS”
“Hostility and distrust of police. Police brutality was cited. Specific incidents revealed that although there were some incidents of actual excessive force, the major portion of the incidents were again of a subtle sort— inconsideration, racial slurs, excessive pick- ups, singling out, lack of an active policy of hiring minority group members which would overcome a past reputation for discrimination, and general denial of the respect for the dignity of the Negro citizen. There is real fear of harassment and retaliation.
A serious lack of rapport exists between Madison minority group members and the police. Rapport between the citizens— particularly the poor and minority group members— and police must be established. Active recruitment and hiring of Negroes and other minority group members on the police force should be done to dispel the attitudes created by past actions of the Madison Police Department. Intensive and extensive training and education for officers at all levels in minority problems, the sensitive role of the police, the prevention and control of racial incidents must be instituted. Efforts must be made by the Police Department to ensure the unbiased treatment of all citizens regardless of race, creed, color or economic status”
There is some good news – the city, which in 1963 adopted the first open housing law in the state, once again has the best, as the council expands the Equal Opportunities Ordinance to cover single-family homes and owner-occupied four-plex apartment buildings. Because those last-minute exemptions were added when the historic ordinance was adopted, it covered only 40 % of the housing units in the city. Until late September, when the Council votes 16-6 to remove those exemptions, effective immediately.
But EOC chair Reverend James C. Wright, who began the grassroots campaign to expand the ordinance in March, isn’t there for its successful conclusion. Working on his remarks the night before the vote, he suddenly falls ill, and is rushed to the hospital, where he remains for more than a month. He’s even too ill to attend a farewell service in his honor at his Mt. Zion Baptist Church in early November, as he resigns from the commission to attend seminary in Illinois. Commission vice chair Mary Louise Symon becomes acting chair on Wright’s departure.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, mask-wearing, hand-washing, socially distant WORT News team, I’m Stu Levitan.