Madison in the sixties – that tragic April of 1968
Friday the fifth. Once again, thousands gather to grieve atop Bascom Hill, just as they did in 1963 for the state’s official memorial for President Kennedy. But this time the mourning is different.
The morning after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis starts with a heated disagreement between Chancellor William Sewell and a group of about twenty Black student leaders over competing plans for a service that noon at Lincoln Terrace.
Sewell, who has already canceled that afternoon’s classes, wants the students to speak as part of the official university program, an idea they emphatically shout down. “A Black person was killed by a white person,” declares Sidney Glass, head of Concerned Black People, “and Black people must lead the memorial,” not just speak as part of the program. Things get tense, Sewell yields. He agrees to make introductory remarks, announce that he’s keeping several buildings open for students to gather in later, and then allow the black students to run the program.
The program itself is full of bitterness and anger. Clara Meek, one of five students to speak during the twenty-minute program, breaks into tears: “I have a dream, too,” she says to the crowd of about ten thousand, almost all white, “that one day every darn one of you is going to pay.” Kenneth Irwin says, “There is no other course the black people can take” but to riot.
Also unlike during President Kennedy’s memorial service, there’s a march; at an estimated fifteen thousand, fully filling six blocks of State Street, it’s the largest demonstration in Madison’s history to date, other than to celebrate an athletic championship or the end of a war.
Rows of black Madisonians up front link arms and alternate between freedom songs and militant chants—“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” interspersed with “Black Power!”
They march around the Capitol and up Wisconsin Avenue, heading down Langdon Street to the foot of Science Hall, where they sing two choruses of “We Shall Overcome,” then move, in large numbers, to the buildings that Sewell has kept open.
Once there, they stay for hours, black and white, engaging in the most candid conversation about race the campus has ever seen. Observing the packed auditorium in Social Sciences, Sewell thinks it’s the capstone to “the greatest day for education that had ever hit the campus.”
The regents aren’t so impressed; they pass a rule requiring permission of the president and the regents’ executive committee to declare a campus holiday.
Saturday night, folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary open their concert at the Dane County Coliseum with a tribute to King and a haunting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “When The Ship Comes In.”
Sunday afternoon is dark and windy as a crowd of three thousand gathers at the Capitol for the community’s program, highlighted by stinging comments from Concerned Black People’s Ardinette Tucker. She condemns “the Madison community which still believes there are no race problems here. I will break some windows to make you care.”
Then four white men—Reverend Alfred Swan, Professor Maurice Zeitlin, businessman Jack von Metterheim, and Father Joseph Hammer —lead the silent march down State Street and out University Avenue to the First Congregational Church for a memorial service, attended by Governor and Mrs. Warren Knowles, Mayor Otto Festge, and other dignitaries. Equal Opportunities Commission chair Reverend James Wright speaks, Reverend Swan recites Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky preaches scripture, and Reverend Robert Borgwardt reads from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Reverend Richard Pritchard, the only Madison cleric to have spent time in the South for civil rights, is not invited to participate. A special offering for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference collects over $1,000.
On Tuesday, Madison schools superintendent Douglas Ritchie keeps schools in session during King’s funeral. But he tells principals that pupils “must be well informed as to the significance of Dr. King’s life and informed concerning the issue of equality for all citizens.”
Thursday night, the city council finally agrees to the long-standing request from the Equal Opportunities Commission for a paid executive director and votes, 19–2, to create and fund the $10,000 position. Mayor Otto Festge says it’s “a matter of the highest priority,” as “the events of the past week have lent a special sense of urgency” to the issue. The only alderman to speak in opposition is a member of the EOC, Ald. James Crary, a Dane County deputy sheriff. “I don’t think we have a serious [racial] problem in Madison,” Crary says, “but within five years, with a director, we will have one.” When Crary’s term on the commission expires two weeks later, Festge does not reappoint him.47 As expected, Festge on May 18 names as the EOC’s first executive director its chair, Reverend James C. Wright, forty-two. A native South Carolinian, Wright holds a BS degree in psychology from UW, formerly served as associate pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, 2019 Fisher St., and operated a nearby barbershop. This spring, he has also been attending the Urban Training Center at the University of Chicago, focusing on police- community relations.
And there’s a death this week in the university’s own family, as Regents president Kenneth L. Greenquist, fifty- eight, UW Law class of 1936, dies of cancer the day after King’smurder. An eloquent and forceful advocate for the university during difficult days, he is not quite six years into his nine- year term. A former two- term state senator from the Progressive Party, Navy lieutenant with World War II combat experience in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and past state commander of the American Legion, the Racine attorney was ideally suited to defend the university against conservative attacks. He fought the Legion itself in the mid- 1950s when it denounced the university for allowing left- wing speakers, and pushed back against more recent Republican criticism of the Daily Cardinal and student protesters. His death, and the end that month of fellow liberal Arthur DeBardeleben’s nine- year term, leaves only two Democrats on the board, enabling the seven appointees of GOP governor Warren Knowles to effect what DeBardeleben blasts as a “partisan takeover” of its leadership that will “harm the university.”
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, listener-supported WORT News team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, WHi Image ID 138230