The strike’s momentum begins to wane on Monday, February 17, with numbers down to about seven hundred, but strikers continue to obstruct streets and disrupt classes. Some shout down Professor George Mosse as he attempts to lecture on European cultural history, but Mosse takes a historian’s view of the incident and is nonplussed. Late in the day, the Black People’s Alliance, WSA, and Third World Liberation Front issue a statement calling on students to return to class and engage their professors and classmates on the underlying issues.[i]
On Tuesday, BPA leader Willie Edwards tells a small rally of about 150 that the strike is officially suspended. Over the seven weekdays of the strike, attendance in classes on and around Bascom Hill has been off by about 10 percent, while the western campus generally had full attendance. That afternoon, about half the guardsmen are sent home, with the rest to follow on Thursday.[ii]
In the predawn hours of Wednesday, February 19, arsonists strike the UW Afro-American Race Relations Center, 929 University Ave, setting nine separate fires, which heavily damage the main meeting place for the strike leaders.[iii]
Later that day, faculty vote at a special meeting, 524–518, against recommending that three black students expelled from Oshkosh be immediately admitted to the Madison campus.
On Monday, February 24, with neither fanfare nor wide public notice, the Board of Regents’ Finance Committee sells the university’s 3,300 shares of stock in Chase Manhattan Bank, as demanded last year by the Concerned Black People, University Community Action, and Wisconsin Student Association. The sale is not widely known until May.
That afternoon, Governor Warren Knowles tells a press conference that his fellow Republicans controlling the legislature should “not adopt legislation on the basis of prejudice or panic.” In the two weeks since the Black Strike started, Assembly Speaker Harold Froelich and others have introduced a raft of bills to punish protesters and cut state support for the university.[iv]
That night, Black poet and playwright LeRoi Jones says that night, kicks off the WSA Symposium “Juxtaposition: Progress and Despair” before a packed Union Theater. “Black studies must be controlled by black people, man, otherwise it’s just another exotic course in social hippery,” he says. “Unless you know where you come from, you will not know where you are going. That is why nationalists embrace black culture.”[v]
Also on Monday night, the Faculty Committee on Studies and Instructions in Race Relations, chaired by Professor William Thiede, which in November had endorsed an Afro-American concentration in the existing American Institutions degree, changes its collective mind and votes 7-4 to recommend a full degree-granting Department of Afro-American Studies. Nothing about the policy or process had changed, other than the strike.
But despite the groundbreaking implications of the recommendation, the Daily Cardinal is not impressed. Because students would not have any power in personnel decisions, and only limited authority on curriculum, the paper– which just three weeks earlier had called the strike’s goals “impossible” to meet — denounces the recommendation as an “utterly unacceptable [and] insulting compromise [that] recommends only token efforts and denies even a token student participation.”
After several days pass with little progress, the black leaders are frustrated at the lack of action on the Thiede Committee recommendation, as well as the faculty’s refusal to admit the Oshkosh students; they call for a resumption of the strike. In a forty-five-minute outburst on Thursday, February 27, about two hundred mostly white militants invade eight campus buildings, doing about $2,000 in damage and setting off a smoke bomb that drives right-wing state senator Gordon Roselip (R-Darlington) from the stage of a Social Sciences classroom. Chancellor Young calls these deeds “acts of desperation by a small group of militants who have lost most of their following.” At about the same time, the Republican State Senate gives final legislative approval to a joint special committee to investigate campus disturbances. Black Council leader Horace Hanson later denounces the property damage but says it is “not the place of the Black Council to impose sanctions upon those whose intense reaction to destructive oppression has been destruction.”[vi]
On March 3, by a vote of 540 to 414, the faculty rejects the minority report from the Thiede Committee for an interdisciplinary concentration, then adopts by voice vote the recommendation for an autonomous degree-granting Department of Afro-American Studies.
The proposal still needs approval from the regents and the Coordinating Committee on Higher Education (CCHE), but the target date for implementation is July 1970.[vii] Black Council representative John Felder calls the move “a first step,” and says black activists “are going to maintain the pressure” for their other twelve demands.
But their pressure only changes so much; on March 14, the regents vote unanimously to refuse early admission to the ninety black students suspended from the State University at Oshkosh.[viii]
On April 17, Chancellor Young names political science professor M. Crawford Young (no relation) as the chairman of the Black Studies Steering Committee, which will detail specifics for submission to the regents and CCHE for creation of the Afro-American Studies department. Professor Young, who is white, is a specialist in African affairs and was the National Student Association overseas representative concentrating on African students in the late fifties, when the NSA was being secretly funder by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Black Council chairman Harris assails Chancellor Young for “the racist audacity to appoint a white chairman and white majority” to the Steering Committee and urges all black students “to totally reject any participation” on the committee, which they do.[ix] Professor Young remains as chair until the end of the summer, when he steps down, as he had planned, to assume the chairmanship of the political science department.[x]
In September, Chancellor Young appoints a black man, Nolan E. Penn, associate professor of student counseling, as the new chairman of the steering committee. [xi]
On December 1, the faculty unanimously accepts the detailed plans from the College of Letters and Sciences to establish a Department of Afro-American Studies, to grant BA and BS degrees in the new Afro-American Studies major. The regents approve on January 16, 1970, the state Coordinating Committee for Higher Education follows suit, and the department offers its first class that fall – all because of the Black Studies Strike of February 1969 – Madison’s most successful political protest of the era.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, strike-honoring, mask-wearing, hand-washing socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
[i] Donald Janson, “U. of Wisconsin Campus Quiet; Governor Lunches with Guard,” New York Times, February 17, 1969; Wener, “End of Disruption Urged by Blacks as Strike Fades,” DC, February 18, 1969; George L. Mosse, interviewed by Laura Smail, 1982, OH #0227, digital audio file, University Archives and Records Management Services, Madison, Wisconsin.
[ii] Ron Legro, “Strike Called Off until Thurs.,” DC, February 19, 1969; Gribble, “Strike Halt Calms UW Campus,” WSJ, February 19, 1969; Ralph Hanson testimony, Joint Committee, March 28, 1969.
[iii] Dieckmann, “Arson Blamed in UW Blaze,” WSJ, February 20; Peter Greenberg, “Arson Destroys Race Center,” DC, February 20, 1969.
[iv] Selk, “Keep Cool, Knowles Urges Critics of UW,” WSJ, February 25, 1969.
[v] Gay Leslie, “UW Blacks Told to Acquire Skills,” WSJ, February 25, 1969.
[vi] Greenberg, “Blacks Organize to Resume Strike at Noon Today,” DC, February 27, 1969; Richard W. Jaeger, “Protesters Leave a Destructive Path,” WSJ, February 28, 1969; Franklin Berkowitz, “Strikers Interrupt Roselip Appearance,” DC, February 28, 1969; Selk, “Legislative Probe of Campuses Set,” WSJ, February 28, 1969; Whitney Gould, “Campus Is Quiet; Rally Fizzles Out,” CT, February 28, 1969; Gould, “‘Like Theater of Absurd,’” CT, February 28, 1969; “Black Council Hits Damage to Property,” CT, March 4, 1969.
[vii] University of Wisconsin (Madison Campus) Faculty Document 260, March 3, 1969, University Archives; Wener, “Faculty Endorses Black Studies Dept.,” DC, March 4, 1969.
[viii] BOR minutes, March 14, 1969.
[ix] Horace T. Harris, “Black Studies?” DC, April 24, 1969.
[x] “Black Studies Committee to Get New Chairman Soon,” WSJ, August 7, 1969.
[xi] Leo Burt, “Prof. Nolan Penn Appointed Chairman of Afro Studies,” DC, September 17, 1969.