Madison in the Sixties. Civil Rights, 1968 – part 2
It was in 1959 that the fighter then known as Cassius Clay lost the Pan American Games championship at the UW Field House. In 1967, now known as Muhammad Ali he refused induction in the armed forces, was stripped of his title, sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion.
Now, on April 26, Ali is headlining the International Students against War, Racism and the Draft program at the Stock Pavilion. But he only wants to talk about one of those things. “I’m not promoting anything anti- draft, and I’m not here to talk about the war,” he says. “I’m here on behalf of the honorable Elijah Muhammad” to present “The Black Muslim’s Solution to Racism.”
At first, Ali dominates the stage, just as he did the ring. The crowd chuckles when he says he doesn’t have “the complexion or the connection” to talk about his conviction while it was under appeal. And they roar when he sets forth what he calls the Black Muslim economic program: “We don’t want no pie in the sky when we die,” the poetic pugilist says. “We want something sound on the ground while we’re still around.”
But Ali’s call for “complete separation” between blacks and whites doesn’t go over as well. The largely white student crowd grumbles when he calls integration “hypocritical” and hiss, even boo, when he declares “intermarriage and race mixing should be prohibited.”
A Madison police officer, on an undercover special assignment, is not impressed. “Much of Ali’s speech was repetitious and not particularly revealing,” he reports in a confidential filing filled with misspellings— even including botched versions of the names Muhammad Ali and Cassius Clay. He continues: “Many times Ali was hissed by the audience and in fielding questions, he often showed a very infantile mentality. I’m certain that a large number were there only to hear the great boxer, not the Muslim preacher. This because I recognized a number of students who I know to be non- radical.”
And White and Black Make Big Red Blue
Late November is a tense time for race relations on campus.
Students protesting the arrest of a non-student black disrupt the Rathskellar for three days, followed by two more days of disruptions around campus by students protesting the lack of immediate action on their t6-point plan for racial equity.
That’s just when racial tensions explode at Camp Randall, deepening the woes of a winless football team.
On November 20, Ray Arrington, a black track star and member of the Athletic Board, meets privately with the board to convey a series of grievances that black football players hold. He tells the board the players feel a lack of rapport with coaches, need academic counseling, and are concerned about their status if their eligibility ends before they receive their degrees.
One of their grievances is very personal – Coach John Coatta’s mandate to black players that they not date white women. The black players ignore that directive with impunity, leading to reciprocal resentment from white players and coaches. White players also get most, though not all, of the easy jobs with the trucking company owned by Coatta’s father- in- law, former mayor Henry Reynolds; more black players work on the line at Oscar Mayer.
The black players are also upset that quarterback Lew Ritcherson, son of the team’s only black coach, was benched in favor of a white player. And they want several assistant coaches fired, or at least “reviewed.”
The Athletic Board chair, Professor Frederick Haberman, says the board takes the concerns seriously and promises “honorable, peaceful and fruitful negotiations” after Thanksgiving break.
Two days before the break, eighteen black players boycott the team banquet at the Field House; four freshmen attend, and four others are excused. “This is just a football thing,” one boycotter says, “not a general protest against the University administration.”
The next day, white linebacker Ken Criter, the team’s MVP, says racial tension is “definitely part” of the reason the Badgers have lost their last fifteen games, with an 0–19–1 record in the two years since Coach Milt Bruhn was forced out and Coatta hired. Another white defensive player, Tom McCauley, says, “There are guys who should have been kicked off the team” but “were not because they are black. They are the ones who discriminated against us.”
On December 3, athletic director Ivan Williamson and the Athletic Board hold a lengthy closed- door session with the black players, whose complaints are largely about disrespect rather than overt racial discrimination.
The next day, about forty white players— almost all the whites on the team— meet with the Athletic Board to share their perspective. They agree with some of the black players’ concerns but are “strongly supportive” of the coaching staff.
Double- barreled bad news is delivered on Thursday the fifth at a special joint meeting of the regents and the Athletic Board. First, news is shared of the quarter-million-dollar deficit the winless football team has caused the Athletic Department. Then comes the stunning race-related resignation by popular assistant coach Gene Felker, star end for the 1951 Big Ten champion Badgers, to protest the administration’s “policies of handling the student unrest on this campus as well as the handling of the Football situation.” The onetime Green Bay Packer blasts the “frightened administrators who will not take a firm stand but would rather try to appease the minority groups on this campus,” and says that Black players “committed treason against the coaching staff [and] the ring leaders must be fired”
“White coaches have not had an equal opportunity at this institution to succeed,”Felker charges in a lengthy statement to the boards, reminding them that black assistant coach Les Ritcherson has a five- year employment agreement from President Harrington, while Coatta has a three- year contract and all his other assistants have only one- year guarantees.
On December 6, the regents call Coatta in and pledge their “complete cooperation” in helping him return the Badgers to being “competitive in Big 10 football.” He’s got one year left on his contract to do so.
And just as that’s going on, Mrs. Ruth B Doyle, who created the special program of financial and tutorial assistance in 1965, and has nurtured it since, loses her job because the Black People’s Alliance insists a white person not run the program.