Madison in the Sixties – the film the UW suppressed.
In the summer of 1960, local NAACP president Lloyd Barbee wanted to expose housing discrimination in the Madison rental market. So he proposed to the University of Wisconsin-Extension Bureau of Audio- Visual Instruction that instructor Stuart Hanisch produce a film to be called “To Find a Home.” Barbee and Hanisch explained to BAVI director Professor Fredrick A. White and Extension dean L. H. Adolfson that a group of Black and white actors posing as would- be renters would respond to apartment listings around Madison; Hanisch would use hidden microphones and a telephoto lens to capture any landlords telling the Black and white testers different stories about a unit’s availability. White and Adolfson approved the project, and in July 1961, the regents accepted $3,000 which Barbee raised towards the film’s $4,000 budget.
Hanisch started filming in September 1961, and over the next four months, he recorded at least thirteen incidents of landlords telling Black apartment seekers that units were no longer available when in fact they were. That is, lying to them. But when Hanisch screened a rough cut in January 1962, UW–Extension officials concluded the university could not “in good conscience” release the footage because it violated the privacy of those lying to Black apartment seekers. Hanisch and Barbee proposed blocking the faces and street addresses of those engaging in discrimination, but the administrators insisted Hanisch re- create the film using actors. Barbee and Hanisch asked to buy the film from the university to distribute themselves, but that bid was rejected as well.
Instead of complying, Hanisch writes an angry resignation letter and gives it to the Capital Times, which plays it on the front page on Monday, March 19. Hanisch, a member of the local NAACP’s executive committee, calls the university’s action “unpardonable,” and says he cannot “participate in the university’s perfidy.” He says he has “no alternative that honors my own self-respect except to tender my resignation.”
UW president Conrad Elvehjem, who in 1931 publicly supported a restrictive covenant barring Blacks from living or owning property in his Nakoma neighborhood, responds that he has a “moral and ethical problem” with the candid camerawork because “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.”
Bureau director White, who signed the purchase order for the hidden microphones, says the Bureau had only agreed to shoot the film using the candid technique, but not necessarily release it that way. The Daily Cardinal calls that “highly dubious,” part of the “very inconsistent administration explanations.” White also claims the film was of “inferior technical quality.”
Under editor-in-chief Jeff Greenfield, less than two months into his appointment as the Cardinal’s first-ever sophomore leader, the paper agrees the administration’s privacy concerns are legitimate – but only to a point. The young journalists strongly endorse the NAACP proposal to show the original film, but with identities and addresses covered up as a “reasonable resolution of this thorny conflict.” Staged reenactments, the Cardinal editorializes “would seriously detract from the impact of the film,” while retaining the documentary aspect “would graphically illustrate the need” for tough fair housing laws.
Barbee, by then president of the statewide NAACP, has the organization picket Extension offices with placards reading “UW Protects Bigots” and “Sifting, Winnowing and Film Burning” – three locations in Madison, plus Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine. Among those picketing the Extension offices – the wife of one Extension bureau chief, and the son of another.
On Wednesday, Harrington meets with NAACP officials at the YWCA at 122 State St. He 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 at the university” to have allowed the hidden microphones and cameras, he says. “Having made it, we do not feel we should carry it forward.”
The controversy splits traditional allies. The Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union board of directors— which includes attorney James E. Doyle, Unitarian Rev. Max Gaebler and Capital Times editor Miles McMillin— votes unanimously to support the administration and condemn hidden cameras and microphones as “an unwarranted invasion of privacy.” McMillin backs the board vote with an editorial on March 23, calling on the NAACP to “learn that the ends do not justify the means.” He also tweaks the university for its original agreement to approve the film as “another example of its lamentable insensitivity to such issues.” The new executive director of the national ACLU agrees with the Wisconsin chapter in supporting the university. But the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action agrees with the NAACP and calls for the film’s release, praising Hanisch for his “courage, honesty and integrity.”
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 the Harlem Civil Rights leader a certified 80-page transcript of the film, including of footage not included in the film’s rough cut.
Tuesday the 27th, the WSA Student Senate endorses the administration’s action, stating that the fight against racial discrimination “is not worth effronting the same spirit of fair play that is offended by discrimination.” The Senate also urges the university to continue investigating housing discrimination “by all methods which do not infringe on the civil liberties of individuals.”
That Friday night, the university hosts a young Baptist minister from Georgia for a speech entitled “The Future of Integration.” “Segregation is on its deathbed,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tells a capacity crowd at the Union Theater. A young Muslim minister takes a different tack three nights later. “We reject integration – period,” the Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X tells a Great Hall crowd.
The administration doesn’t budge, releasing only the transcript and directing Hanisch’s colleague Jackson Tiffany to re- create the undercover footage with actors.
The regents take no formal action, but individual members express their approval of how Elvehjem and Harrington handled the controversy.
Although Extension officials purportedly told Hanisch the film would be burned, it was not, but was locked away from public view for 59 years. It is not seen publicly until April 18, 2021, when the UW-Madison Public History Project, the University Archives, and PBS Wisconsin present the online event “Sifting and Winnowing and Film Burning: The Film UW Restricted”.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, film-viewing, vaccine-taking mask-wearing, hand-washing socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Carmine A. Thompson photo for The Capital Times, clipping courtesy UW Archives