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 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.
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. 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.
Unfortunately, there’s a smaller group of picketers, led by an art student, already at Woolworth’s when the larger political group arrives. 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.
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, who in 1931 supported banning African-Americans from living in his neighborhood of Nakoma. The 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.”
In an intense two- hour Senate debate in Great Hall before about eighty students on Wednesday afternoon, former WSA vice president William Steiger — chair of the national Young Republicans and son of the president of the UW Board of Regents, and future member of Congress from Oshkosh— argues forcefully for the march; WSA treasurer Ed Garvey, future Democratic nominee for Governor and U.S. Senate, 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.
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.