Madison in the sixties – the second week of February, 1969 – the Black Studies Strike.
Sparked by the UW conference entitled The Black Revolution: To What Ends, the burgeoning Black Power movement on campus crystallizes around the so-called 13 Demands, which the Black People’s Alliance releases February 7 in a noon rally on Library Mall. At the top of their list — a full degree-granting department of Black Studies.
The weekend of February 8-9 Black activists reach out to whites to explain their demands, generating what police chief Ralph Hanson calls an “amazing” amount of public support, even from the usually apolitical South East dorms.
But not from the Daily Cardinal. It calls their demands for student control “impossible” to meet, and says the Black students “know that they are demanding that an institution destroy itself.”
Saturday afternoon, Willie Edwards of the BPA tells a large Great Hall crowd that “the only power we have is to disrupt,” and if the thirteen demands are not met, “This university will not function.”
Then about six hundred students march on the Fieldhouse to disrupt the Badger basketball game with Ohio State. “Two, four, six, eight, organize and smash the state,” they chant. A contingent of about 150 helmeted police with riot sticks and tear gas arrives barely five minutes before the crowd.
If they hadn’t, Chancellor Edwin Young tells the regents the following Friday, “there would have been a great deal of violence between spectators and disrupters.” As it is, there are scuffles at Fieldhouse gates, and Governor Knowles’s Rambler sedan is vandalized. Four students—one Black, three white—are arrested for disorderly conduct and battery to a police officer; most of the eleven thousand basketball fans inside are unaware of the disturbance.
Young issues a statement highlighting the university’s recent initiatives – three new courses, a Law School seminar, and another Black staff member for the Student Affairs office. He warns that any student who obstructs classes or other university activities is subject to arrest and suspension or expulsion. “Intentional disruption of classes cannot and will not be tolerated,” he declares
The Student Senate not only tolerates it, but votes to support the strike and provide bail money. And the WSA administration issues a report calling the university “a racist institution [whose] only response has been manipulation, avoidance and co-optation.”
The week of February 10 starts peacefully with about 1,500 students picketing, but not obstructing, major classroom buildings. Classes continue, with strikers entering some classrooms and asking for permission to address the students. Chancellor Young calls for “reasoned cooperation,” and says “No one who talks about shutting down the University can convince me that the welfare and advancement of Black people is his foremost concern.”
Monday night, about a thousand rally on the Mall then climb the hill to Bascom Hall, just outside Young’s office. “Burn, baby, burn,” they shout as an effigy of the university administration burns in Abraham Lincoln’s lap. Then they march to the Capitol, filling nearly three city blocks.
Late Tuesday morning, strike leaders tell a packed Union Theater rally of a new tactic—a “non-penetrable” picket line, people standing in the schoolhouse doors to block anyone from getting in. And when the police come, to make like steam and vaporize.
With members of the local chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society providing hundreds of white bodies to anchor the lines, that’s what they do. A few fistfights break out between students blockading buildings and those wanting to enter, but the lines hold, and hundreds are turned away. Protesters have effectively seized control of several university buildings, when close to two hundred city and county officers sweep up the hill. The disrupters depart.
Hundreds also occupy Bascom Hall hallways for hours. After clearing them out, police form a line in front of the building where a crowd of about two thousand showers them with abusive shouts, and some snowballs when they later retreat.
Wednesday morning, an overflow crowd of 1,500 at a Union Theater rally cheers as Black leaders urge them to close down the university. Afterward, hit-and-run strikes escalate, as strikers block and occupy more buildings for more than three hours. There are several minor injuries, most coming when some of the two hundred anti-strike “Hayakawas”—honoring that hard-lined president of SF State and including members of the Sigma Epsilon Phi fraternity, Young Americans for Freedom, and some football players—battle blockaders on the line. Three buses are vandalized on their campus routes, and traffic is so badly disrupted that the Madison Bus Company shuts down campus bus service for two hours. Police make several arrests.
Protesters are running local law enforcement so ragged that Mayor Otto Festge and the university leadership ask Governor Knowles to call out the Wisconsin National Guard. The first battalion of nine hundred arrive—in jeeps with machine guns attached— Wednesday night.
The Guardsmen prove a mixed blessing. They keep campus buildings open and accessible, but also trigger a defensive reaction among students, and strike participation grows sharply. That afternoon, close to seven thousand strikers – 20% of the total enrollment — take to the streets under tight direction by Black marshals, blocking University Avenue four times in two hours. Police club some students, fire a couple of tear gas cannisters into crowds to clear intersections, and make ten arrests, but there are no major confrontations. Governor Knowles activates another 1,200 guardsmen.
Thursday night, flaming torches illuminate the nine thousand or so students — more than 20% of the student body –marching from the library mall to the Square and back.
Friday is Valentine’s Day, and things calm down a bit. There’s token picketing of academic buildings and targeted obstruction of University Avenue. The Guard is withdrawn from the central campus, but not deactivated. A noon march to the Capitol and back disrupts traffic, but is again disciplined and peaceful, as is another torchlit march of about a thousand that night.
Saturday, about two-thirds of the 2,000 faculty sign a petition supporting the university administration “in its refusal to surrender to mob pressure and lawless force.”
The strike starts weakly its second week, numbers down to about seven hundred, with some ongoing obstruction and disruption. Late afternoon, leaders call on students to return to class. About half the guardsmen are sent home, the rest on Thursday. Edwards officially ends the strike on Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Over the seven weekdays of the strike, attendance in classrooms on Bascom Hill was down about 10 percent; while the western campus was largely unaffected.
Now the campus, city and entire state wait to see how the faculty, administration and regents will respond.
For your award-winning, picket line-honoring, mask-wearing, hand-washing socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Photo by Carmine A. Thompson, courtesy Capital Newspapers