Madison in the sixties: 1962, when the civil rights the movement is a major factor on campus and in city politics.
Banning Biased Bequests
The year is not yet a week old when the regents of the university of Wisconsin vote, 5–3, to make the UW the first Big Ten school to adopt a policy banning gifts or grants based on bias – just eight months after the regents accepted a $100,000 bequest to aid “worthy and needy Gentile Protestant students.” The policy bans gifts with “discriminatory restrictions based upon race, color or creed” but not national origin; university vice president Fred Harvey Harrington explains that as the campus with the seventh- largest foreign student body in the United States, the university needsmkj to allow for grants for international students.
Regent Harold A. Konnak mockingly moves to add a ban on bias based on sex, which he withdraws after regent A. Matt Werner calls the amendment “ridiculous” and “frivolous.” UW President Conrad Elvehjem says donors have the right to support any group they wish, but that “such support should not be given through the State of Wisconsin or the University, but given directly” to individuals or outside organizations. The only other Big Ten school with such a policy is the University of Illinois, where the rule is set by statute.
In late February, Attorney Lloyd Barbee, president of the state NAACP, releases the draft of a tough human rights ordinance for the city’s consideration. The measure would set a maximum fine of $200 or thirty days in jail for discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, ancestry, or national origin, and apply to housing, employment, and public accommodations. The proposal, which also creates a nine- member city commission with a fulltime director, is referred to the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights (MCHR), which Barbee chairs. Eight weeks later, when Barbee’s term expires, Mayor Henry Reynolds declines to reappoint him. At the behest of national NAACP leaders, Barbee soon moves to Milwaukee, to take on segregation in the public schools. The commission takes no action on the draft ordinance.
Candid Cameras Curtailed
In March, an instructor with the UW–Extension’s Bureau of Audio- Visual Instruction, sparks a statewide controversy by publicly resigning to protest the university’s suppression of his undercover film “To Find a Home,” which shows thirteen incidents of housing discrimination in Madison.
Instructor Stuart Hanisch and NAACP president Barbee had explained the candid filming techniques to Extension officials in 1960. After Barbee raised $3,000 of the film’s $4,000 budget, extension officials provided the final $1,000 and approved the plan.
But when Hanisch screens a rough cut in January 1962, the same officials conclude the university cannot “in good conscience” release the footage because it violates the privacy of those lying to black apartment seekers. Hanisch and Barbee propose blocking the faces and street addresses of those engaging in discrimination, but the administrators insist Hanisch re- create the film using actors.
Hanisch, soon to be elected to the city NAACP board of directors, writes an angry resignation letter instead and gives it to the Capital Times for Monday’s front page, March 19. Tuesday morning, the state NAACP starts picketing the Extension offices, first on the Madison campus, then around the state, their placards reading “UW Protects Bigots” and “Sifting, Winnowing and Film Burning.”66
UW president Elvehjem, who in 1931 publicly endorsed a restrictive covenant barring “any person of the Ethiopian race” from living or owning property in his suburban subdivision, says he has a “moral and ethical problem” with the candid camerawork and releases a statement: “The use of hidden cameras and microphones to force individuals to testify against themselves has overtones of the police state and violates a basic freedom our constitution guarantees.”67
On Wednesday, university vice president Harrington meets with Hanisch, Barbee, and other NAACP officials at the YWCA, trying to clear the air. Harrington agrees that Hanisch and Barbee were open about using candid footage but says that information didn’t get to central administration. “We made a mistake” to have allowed the hidden microphones and cameras, he says. “Having made it, we do not feel we should carry it forward.”68
On Sunday, US Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D- NY), chair of the House Labor and Education Committee, demands a copy of the film, threatening a subpoena if it is not provided. Elvehjem refuses, sending instead a certified typewritten transcript of the film, including transcribed footage not included in the film’s rough cut.69
The WSA Student Senate endorses the administration’s action a few days later, stating that the fight against racial discrimination “is not worth effronting the same spirit of fair play that is offended by discrimination.”70
The controversy splits traditional allies. The Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union board of directors— which includes prominent Democratic attorney and future federal judge James E. Doyle, UW law professors William Gorham Rice and Abner Brodie, the Reverends Max Gaebler and Alfred Wilson Swan, and Capital Times editor Miles McMillin— votes unanimously to condemn hidden cameras and microphones as “an unwarranted invasion of privacy” and supports the administration; McMillin backs his board vote with an editorial on March 23, calling on the NAACP to “learn that the ends do not justify the means.”
The liberal group Americans for Democratic Action disagrees, siding with the NAACP and calling for the film’s release.71
The administration doesn’t budge, releasing only the eighty- page transcript and directing Hanisch’s colleague Jackson Tiffany, to re- create the undercover footage with actors. The original film is locked away, but not destroyed as many seem to think.
The regents take no formal action, but individual members express their approval of how Elvehjem and Harrington handled the controversy.
Martin and Malcolm
The two most important black leaders in America come to campus in the spring of 1962, only a few days apart. But their schedule is closer than their messages. On Friday, March 30, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers the second annual Jonas Rosenfield lecture before a very supportive capacity crowd at the Union Theater on “The Future of Integration.” “Segregation is on its death- bed,” the Baptist preacher declares, “and the only problem is how expensive the nation will make its funeral.”74 On Monday, April 2, Malcolm X takes a different tack, calling for racial separation in a Great Hall address on “Black Nationalism in America.” “We reject integration— period,” the Black Muslim leader declares. “We’ve outgrown it.”75
White Editor, Black Power
And Malcolm’s visit to Madison shows that the overwhelmingly white New Left has a profound impact on emerging black political consciousness thanks to the brilliant history grad student Marty Sklar, one of the founders and editors of the journal Studies on the Left. In late 1961, Sklar edited an unsolicited hundred- page submission from a black former Communist Party functionary and would be playwright named Harold Cruse, arguing that black nationalism and not integration was the prevailing black position, into a powerful thirty- page essay, “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro- American.” The Cruse essay becomes the centerpiece of the Studies spring 1962 issue on “The New Radicalism and the Afro- American” and sparks a new debate among young black intellectuals. It becomes a proximate cause for Huey Newton and others at UC–Berkeley to form the Afro- American Association, which would later beget the Revolutionary Action Movement, which helped beget the Black Panther Party. The publication is so important that when Malcolm X comes to Madison in April, he breaks his own rules about not visiting a white person’s residence and spends two hours after one of his speeches in deep discussion with a mainly white group at Sklar’s small house on W. Dayton St. After a lengthy colloquy with Fred Ciporen on the relative significance of race and class in the Cuban revolution, Malcolm embraces Ciporen and says, “Freddy, if it was up to me, you could have an X.”
Also that spring, race and racism dominate the campaign by alderman Harold E. “Babe” Rohr for a fourth term representing the blue-collar Fourteenth Ward.
Rohr, the powerful business agent for the Painter’s Union and vice-chair of the building and trades council, calls the NAACP a “malicious force” and his challenger Jan Marfyak its “hand-picked candidate.” Marfyak, an administrative assistant with the department of motor vehicles, says he is not a member of the association, disagrees with some of its tactics, and has never even met NAACP president Odell Taliaferro.
At a joint appearance at the elementary school with the city’s highest percentage of non-white pupils, Rohr says Blacks hurt themselves backing bills like the NAACP’s proposed human rights ordinance. He denies being prejudiced, declaring “some of my best friends are Negroes.”58
Then someone starts sending anonymous postcards to ward voters claiming Marfyak lives in a trailer, doesn’t pay taxes, and is himself Black. Although none of this is true, Rohr refuses to disavow the lies; “I had nothing to do with this,” he insists.59
At another campaign forum in late March, someone asks Rohr point- blank: “Do you think that Mr. Marfyak is a Negro?” When Rohr won’t answer, Marfyak shoots to his feet. “In the sense of fair play, Mr. Rohr, will you tell me to my face that I am not a Negro?” He won’t. “I’m not going to state whether you are or are not a Negro,” Rohr replies.60
Both papers endorse Marfyak with blistering editorials. “Rohr seeks to whip up race hate and fear to divert attention from the real issues,” the liberal Capital Times declares. The conservative Wisconsin State Journal denounces Rohr’s “racist line” and his “plans to fan the flames of prejudice rather than work for solutions.”61
In the campaign’s waning days, Rohr puts out a piece of literature with an old photo of popular state senator Horace Wilkie (D- Madison) shaking his hand, much to Wilkie’s displeasure. “I deplore the injection of the race issue into this year’s campaign by Rohr’s supporters, and I emphatically disagree with Rohr’s refusal to disavow such action,” Wilkie says, explicitly stating he’s not supporting Rohr’s reelection.62
But Fourteenth Ward voters do, reelecting Rohr with almost 55% of the heavy turnout.
Despite its disappointment over the election, the State Journal still pushes politics over protest. “We can do without the marchers,” it editorializes on April 27. “The picketing act has always had an element of phoniness in any nation where everyone has the vote. The recent trend has not only made it tiresome but a bit frightening. It has no legitimate place in a free society where we govern ourselves by the ballot box and not street agitation. Let ’em write to their congressman.”64
In June, the Madison Community Chest stops paying the $150 membership dues for its executive director to belong to the exclusive Madison Club due to widespread concerns about the club’s alleged antisemitism. The club, which has no Jewish, Black or female members, denies any discrimination.
In September, U.S. Army Captain James Gregory took a year’s leave from the Oklahoma Army Reserve to study at the University of Wisconsin on a grant from the American Cancer Society. But a month after classes start, the 28-year-old was still without a place for his house trailer – apparently because he is Black. Several sites seemed promising, but as soon as proprietors saw him, all apparent vacancies disappeared – forcing him to bust his budget by staying at a downtown hotel with his wife and four small children. When news of Gregory’s plight becomes public, Mrs. Arnold Jackson, wife of the director of the Jackson Clinic, offers him a spot on the large family property overlooking the UW Arboretum. It’s an appealing offer – the heavily landscaped 10-acre property and home are designed by Jackson family friend Frank Lloyd Wright. But because of the narrow road and sharp curve approaching the site, Gregory keeps looking, even checking out a trailer court 30 miles from campus. Finally, on October 9, G.A. Rothfuss, a meteorologist with the Madison Weather Bureau, rents Gregory a site just north of town. “I felt so sorry for those lovely kids cooped up in a hotel room,” Mrs. Rothfuss tells the Capital Times. “I don’t care what color a person’s skin is if he is a nice person,” she adds. “These people needed help and I’m glad we could help them.”
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your listener-sponsored WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Bettmann photo via Getty Images