Madison, February 27, 1960 – the civil rights movement moves to the Capitol Square
The sit-ins challenging segregation at the lunch counters of national chain stores in the deep South began in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. Before the month is over, the campaign prompts Madison’s first political demonstration of the decade— about a hundred students from two separate groups picketing two chains on the Capitol Square, part of a nationwide sympathy strike for desegregation.
The action targeting the F. W. Woolworth Company, 2 W. Mifflin St., is led by former Wisconsin Student Association (WSA) president Gary Weissman, National Student Association delegate Judy Cowan, and several members and leaders of the UW Socialist Club, including chair Franklynn Peterson and Fred Underhill; Saul Landau, editor of Studies on the Left, opposes the action but participates when it is held. About 100 students picket the store in shifts until it closes at 5 pm.
One man, who said he came from Georgia, took extreme exception to the demonstration. “If you tried this where I come from,” he told the picketers, “you’d all be hanged.”
Police are on hand, but both picketers and hecklers remain orderly, and the store conducts business as usual.
Woolworth’s store manager D.A. Moulton says he is neither aware nor responsible for how the chain’s southern stores do business. “We have always served colored people here,” he says, “no Woolworth store in Wisconsin has any type of segregation whatever.”
Unfortunately, there’s a smaller group of picketers, led by art student Richard Wands, already at Woolworth’s when the larger political group arrives at 11 AM. This small group, which has been distributing leaflets accusing store patrons of a “limp and smirking hypocrisy” by shopping there, moves across the Square to the W. T. Grant store, 21 S. Pinckney St., but their public relations damage to the cause has already been done. Wands defends his leaflet, saying “you either believe in equality or you don’t.”
Odell Taliaferro, president of the Madison NAACP, tries to stop the picketing even as it’s happening on Saturday, February 27. “I appreciate the interest of these young people,” he says afterward, “but on behalf of our many friends of human rights, I regret my inability to avert this action.” Taliaferro, UW 1934 and a longtime chemistry laboratory assistant there, wishes they had focused on local job discrimination instead. Taliafero later says he did not think picketing was “a fair method,” and that it might have caused the civil rights movement to lose public support. And UW Law Professor William Gorham Rice expresses sympathy with the Southern store managers forced to follow local segregation laws. “I don’t think it is right to bring pressure here to force Southern stores to break the law,” he says.
Madison NAACP later endorses Taliaferro’s statement but also commends the picketers for “a gesture of support which will lighten the spirit of free men everywhere.” Marshall Colston, vice chair of the mayor’s commission on human rights, who had been a student at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University, where the student sit- ins started, disagrees with Taliaferro and endorses the picketing. “There are people who ought to know better who are indifferent,” Colston says.
The Capital Times agrees with Taliafero, editorializing that the students were “damaging the cause they seek to support be their rash conduct.”
Coincidentally, Taliafero is the host on Monday, February 29, of a reception the NAACP held for Muriel Humphrey, wife of presidential hopeful Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.
That weekend, 81 lunch counter activists are arrested in Nashville, prompting a nationwide protest organized by the National Student Association, scheduled for Thursday. The Peterson- Weissman group of leftists, which also includes leaders from the campus NAACP, Young Democrats, and Inter- Fraternity Council, decides to join the NSA demonstration by marching up State Street to the Capitol.
Both UW president Conrad Elvehjem and dean of students LeRoy Luberg publicly oppose the idea when it’s announced on Tuesday. “We teach our students to look into the facts and get the information and not to put on demonstrations,” says Elvehjem. A famed biochemist who isolated the vitamin niacin, Elvehjem in 1931 signed a petition which successfully added a deed restriction to all the lots in his west side neighborhood of Nakoma preventing “any person of the Ethiopian race” from ever living or owning property there.
The civil rights group agrees to stay on the sidewalk but says they’re still going to the Capitol— unless the WSA Senate endorses a Library Mall rally instead.
History professor George Mosse thinks the march would be a teaching moment. “Whatever good it will do for the cause,” he says, “I’m sure it will be good for the students.”
The Senate holds an intense two- hour debate in Great Hall on Wednesday afternoon, about eighty students watching attentively. Former WSA vice president William Steiger — chair of the national Young Republicans and son of the president of the UW Board of Regents, argues forcefully for the march; WSA treasurer Ed Garvey, worried that a march would be unfairly tainted by association with the chain store picketing of a few days earlier, supports a rally instead. By a vote of 19–10, the Senate refuses to endorse the march; organizers are disappointed but proceed with plans for the rally.
Steiger would later serve almost twelve years as a moderate Republican member of Congress from Oshkosh before his untimely death of a heart attack at age 40 in 1978; Garvey would later serve as president of the WSA and the NSA, executive director of the National Football League Player’s Association, and Wisconsin Deputy Attorney General and become the firebrand progressive but unsuccessful Democratic nominee for Governor and the U.S. Senate.
This time, Taliaferro endorses the more aggressive action: “It is unfortunate that the democratic rights of our students to demonstrate in a quiet, orderly fashion have been limited,” he says. Governor Gaylord Nelson (US Senator, D- Wisconsin, 1963–1981) sends a strong endorsement to the rally, while Elvehjem’s milder statement, read by Underhill, draws some boos for the gratuitous comment that “there is some inconsistency in a stand which favors taking organized marching out of the ROTC and proposing a disorganized march through the city— regardless of the importance of the cause.” The next week, the regents make a point of praising Elvehjem for his handling of the matter.
In December, Taliaferro is reelected president of the Madison NAACP over Colston, 35–20.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Photo by Arthur M. Vinje, courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Archives. WHI-Image ID 104780