Madison in the Sixties. Civil rights, 1965
In November, two great civil rights leaders come to campus.
John Lewis, the 25-year-old national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speaks twice on the second — a noon rally on the Union steps, and an evening address in Great Hall.
“Racism is embedded in the heart of this country, and laws and the signing of bills cannot remove the scars and stains of segregation,” he tells the evening crowd of about 400. “It will take people to remove these lasting wounds.”
Lewis has suffered lasting wounds since 1961, when he was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders organized by the Congress of Racial Equality to travel from Washington to New Orleans by Trailways and Greyhound buses. Trying to pressure the federal government to enforce the supreme court decision declaring segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional, Lewis was twice beaten severely, and left unconscious and bloody.
Four years later, this past March 7, he was kneeling to pray when he suffered a fractured skull at the hands and batons of Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the march from Selma to Montgomery.
The youngest person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis tells the students, “We are a long way from the end of our fight. For a long time there has been order in the South, but we have had a false order and a negative peace at the expense of the Negro people. We now have a mandate to disturb this order which is not order at all.”
The Alabama native explains the difference between northern and southern racism.
“In the south,” he says, “discrimination is clear and not all that subtle. You can see the signs and the demonstrations call attention to them. Negroes know they have been denied equal education and the right to vote. In the north, you have the complex and complicated problems of segregated schools and housing but there is no symbol to rally around. Civil rights people in the North are faced with the problem of making the problems visible, making people aware of the problems, and arousing the attention of the people.”
A staunch believer in non-violence, Lewis also explains how the domestic movement applies to foreign policy.
“These people have undertaken the philosophy of non-violence as a way of life, and are against murder or violence anyplace,” he says, “whether it occurs in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam or the Congo.”
Lewis salutes the Friends of SNCC, which has a chapter at the UW, as “the backbone of SNCC outside the South,” adding that such local chapters contribute more than $450,000 of SNCC’s annual million-dollar budget. Among those present for both talks, former treasurer of the UW Friends of SNCC, Paul Soglin.
The crowd gives Lewis a standing ovation before moving in large part up Langdon Street to the Hillel building for a freedom hootenanny. Lewis is also guest of honor at a reception the next night hosted by the World Affairs Center.
On the 23rd, the standing ovation from a near- capacity Stock Pavilion crowd is for Lewis’s mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 35-year-old leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace.
Although his hour-long address to about twenty- six hundred rapt listeners bears the same title as the speech he gave here in 1962– the future of integration– it differs markedly in substance, as King calls for a massive program of public works, expanded public education, and an increase in the minimum wage to $2 an hour.
“The Negro in 1965 has more dignity but he is still far from free, an impoverished alien in an affluent society,” he says. “There is widespread economic deprivation of the Negro both in North and South. No section of the country can boast of clean hands.”
“A piece of freedom is not enough for us as human beings,” he continues. “A piece of liberty no longer suffices. Freedom is one thing. It is indivisible. You have it all or you are not free.”
King praises the recent voting rights act, but warns its purposes were being defeated by “intimidation, harassment, firings and eviction” and lax enforcement by the federal government.
Calling for Blacks to be employed throughout Southern law enforcement, King says “The whole structure of Southern justice is contaminated with racism and needs drastic revamping.” The only desegregated facility, he says, “is the electric chair.”
The Baptist preacher closes with his oft-expressed hope for that day he can say “we are free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
And a new young local civil rights leader is emerging. In February, La Follette High School senior Eugene Parks, president of the Madison Youth Council, concludes the First Baptist Church’s eighteenth annual Youth Series with a talk entitled “The Courage to Be a Real Leader.”
And these dateline items for the Movement
March 14— Republican governor Warren Knowles and close to a thousand supporters of civil rights mass at the State Street steps of the State Capitol for a Sunday- morning prayer vigil for the Madison groups heading to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. The emotional highlight is the eulogy by First Unitarian Society’s Reverend Max Gaebler for the Reverend James Reeb of Boston, who died Thursday after being attacked by segregationists in Selma. Things get so dangerous, the three busloads of 114 students, organized by FSNCC, are diverted to Washington; a chartered flight of two dozen clergy, doctors with medical supplies and law students is delayed a day by snow, but gets to Montgomery for the last two days of the march.
November 18— More than four thousand residence hall students give up their Thursday dinner the week before Thanksgiving, raising over $3,500 in this year’s Fast for Freedom fund- raiser for the Mississippi Poor People’s Corporation and the National Student Association.
And a head count of black students conducted by special assistant to the faculty Ruth B. Doyle identifies eighty undergraduates and thirty- eight graduate students among the UW’s 24,201 students. Doyle notes that most UW students arrive and leave having never met or talked with a Black student, and calls for aggressive recruitment and financial assistance to bring more black students to Madison, and for white students to work, travel and go to schools in Black areas.
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.