Madison in the Sixties – August 1968 The Incident at Breese Stevens Field
It’s hot and humid on Saturday night August third, cloudy and without much of a breeze. About four hundred teens are at Breese Stevens Field, the old ballpark on East Washington Avenue. They’re there for the weekly a teen dance put on by Marco Productions; fifty to seventy- five Blacks from downtown and the south side, the rest whites from the east and far east. Most everyone came to dance and hang out; some came to make trouble. Some have been drinking.
By 10:30 there are fights all around, for all sorts of reasons, some racial, some not.
Five off- duty police officers break up the fights, but make no arrests inside the stadium. But when a mixed- race group turns on a cop and threatens him, Sergeant James Morgan ends the dance early at 11 p.m.
Some fights move to Patterson Street, but most of the crowd heads for home.
David Crary, son of the Far east side alderman, and three buddies – all of whom had earlier gotten into it with Blacks — are in a car with the engine on and lights off. The car suddenly lurches forward through a group in the street; the driver slams on the brakes but hits Willie James, of 1735 Baird St., breaking his ankle.
In a flash, three or four Black teens are atop the car, and another half dozen or so alongside, smashing windows and denting the body. Police make no arrests but focus on dispersing the crowd, then taking James to the hospital.
The white kids scatter, but scores of Black youths take to East Washington Avenue, where someone breaks a window at Ridge Madison Motors. Some are disrupting traffic as they head to the Square to catch a bus. A young Black male is said to shout, “Let’s burn white city down.” Four officers on foot follow closely behind, and four squad cars cruise at walking speed alongside them.
A cop tells them to quiet down; a Black youth curses and gets arrested for using obscene language. When he resists, an adult and three juveniles try to interfere and are also arrested, all for disorderly conduct. Charges against the adult will later be dismissed; the juveniles are never charged.
Around midnight, a caravan of cars filled with white youths descends on the south side. As they cruise the streets hollering racial epithets, the Blacks erect makeshift barricades; the east siders have to smash through them to get back home.
Over the next few hours, the word gets around the Black community that the police used racial epithets and arrested only Blacks, letting whites go free. EOC director Rev. James Wright, fearing tensions are so high that a full- scale riot could erupt, convenes an extraordinary public hearing in the city council chambers that afternoon after church.
It’s a chaotic session, dominated by charges of police racism, which Wright seems to support. “There does appear to be a double standard” regarding arrests, he says afterward. The commission commends Wright for acting with alacrity, but the rest of Madison’s political and law enforcement community is not happy with the emergency public hearing or the ad hoc committee Wright appoints to investigate further. Police inspector Herman Thomas denies any double standard and says any racial trouble in Madison is caused by “agitators from outside.” And Thomas says he’ll as the Park Commission to stop the dances. Stuart Becker, president of the Police and Fire Commission, calls on Wright to “cease and desist from further ventilating your complaints through the news media, which can only lead to heated racial tensions in the community.”
A group of eighteen prominent Black professionals— including state equal rights division chief Clifton Lee, Madison Sun editor/publisher Lawrence Saunders, attorney Percy L. Julian Jr., the Madison Redevelopment Authority’s Merritt Norvell, assistant UW football coach L. H. Ritcherson, and Dr. N. O. Calloway— responds by charging that racism is prevalent in the Madison Police Department. “In the execution of racial justice,” they write the EOC, “Madison is in many instances as negligent as those notorious southern cities which have made a tradition of ignoring the rights and needs of the black citizen. This thinly disguised contempt for the comparative value of a black life has made a mockery of the phrase ‘equal protection under the law.’” Noting that Madison still has no black officers, the group warns about the “growing anger in the black community” over police/community relations.
The police heatedly deny any racial bias or improper actions, citing the heroism of Sergeant Gerald Thorstensen in April when he saved a Black teen from a mob of thirty whites kicking and hitting him, during which Thorstensen himself was also punched and kicked.
Mayor Festge admits things are bad. “There has been a severe disruption, if not a complete breakdown in communications between the so- called establishment and Madison’s minority community,” he says. He promises a full and complete investigation.
“It is not news there is bigotry in the Madison police department,” the Capital Times editorializes on August 15. “The racial bigotry that exists in the department was bound to get this community in trouble sooner or later. It is a good thing for the whole community that the racism in the department has come to a head and we can get the ugly thing out on the table and look at it.”
On August 20, the council spends over an hour interrogating, criticizing, and sometimes defending Wright over the emergency hearing and his plans for an ad hoc committee investigation. “I feel you stirred up a lot of turmoil in this city,” says David Crary’s aldermanic father James, whom Festge did not reappoint to the EOC in April. Ald. Harold “Babe” Rohr, who led the fight against th9e Equal Opportunities Ordinance in 1963, lectures Wright, “You have failed to accomplish the duties entrusted upon you.”
Mayor Festge counsels the commission to go along with whatever plan the council adopts, lest the aldermen think that the EOC “was acting like a defiant child.”
Two nights later, the council is more supportive, voting 18–1, to allow the EOC to conduct the inquiry into “alleged racial tension” to “determine if such tension exists, its causes and its effects on the welfare of the city.” The only dissenting vote comes from north side Ald. Ralph Hornbeck, a former policeman.
But the council doesn’t fully trust the commission, and explicitly blocks it from determining whether there were any violations of the Equal Opportunities Ordinance or police department rules and regulations.
The commission gets to work.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the sixties. For your award-winning, listener-supported WORT News team, I’m Stu Levitan.999
Steve Apps photo for the Wisconsin State Journal.