Madison, February 27 1969 – an hour of destruction brings the UW Black Studies Strike to a close.
Through ten days of campus obstruction and disruption, strikers had been careful to avoid vandalism. And it looked like they had won their major objective, with a committee vote recommending the UW establish a Black Studies Department.
But when several days pass with no action by the full faculty on the recommendation, black leaders grow frustrated and call for renewed action.
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.” 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.”[i]
On March 3, by a vote of 540 to 414, the faculty endorses the Committee’s recommendation for an autonomous Department of Afro-American Studies. The proposal still needs approval from the regents and the Coordinating Committee on Higher Education, but the target date for implementation is July 1970.[ii] 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.[iii]
Because it achieved its primary goal the Black Studies Strike was the most successful political protest of the sixties. But the disruption and obstruction which helped the protesters win, caused the university itself to lose again with the conservative republicans who controlled both houses of the legislature. Even as the protests were underway in mid-February, they created a Joint Committee to Study Disruptions, which in October issued a very hostile report denouncing UW administrators and endorsing a bill to shut down the campus security office and force the UW to contract with the Madison Police Department instead. Among its findings:
- “Certain members of the faculty have used their position in the classroom as a podium to indoctrinate their students with their personal political views and convictions or have failed to meet their classes while participating in ‘strikes.’ This is wrong and is not in keeping with their professional positions. Such individuals should be subject to discipline. They have not been.”
- “The university administration failed almost totally to anticipate the situations that developed. As a result, when they did develop, they responded inadequately. For the money the state is paying these administrators, the state should receive some foresight.”
- “The administration acts in times of crisis much like an ostrich—burying its head in the sand—waiting for the crisis to solve itself. The administration has displayed an incompetence to handle these matters properly.”
- “The discipline procedures of the university are inadequate. The university has floundered through a maze of inadequate and less than competent disciplinary procedures. . . . The university must assume a responsibility for the conduct of its students on or off campus when such conduct demonstrates a danger or threat to the university community. University discipline is appropriate and necessary for certain conduct of students which affects the university community or the community in which the university is located.”[iv]
On December 1, the faculty unanimously accepts the detailed plans from the College of Letters and Science to establish a Department of Afro-American Studies, with authority to grant BA and BS degrees in the new Afro-American Studies major. Proponents hope the regents and Coordinating Council for Higher Education give final approval for the department to start in the first fall of the new decade.[v]
[i] Greenberg, “Blacks Organize To Resume Strike At Noon Today,” DC, February 27, 1969; Richard W. Jaeger, “Protesters Leave a Destructive Path,” SJ, February 28, 1969; Franklin Berkowitz, “Strikers Interrupt Roselip Appearance,” DC, February 28, 1969; Selk, Legislative Probe of Campuses Set,” SJ, 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.
[ii] University of Wisconsin (Madison Campus) Faculty Document 260, March 3, 1969, University Archives; Wener, “Faculty Endorses Black Studies Dept.,” DC, March 4, 1969.
[iii] Pfefferkorn, “UW Black Studies Unit Viewed as a ‘First Step’,” SJ, March 5, 1969.
[iv] Report of the Joint Committee to Study Disruptions at the University of Wisconsin,” October 14, 1969.
[v] Leo Burt, “Black Studies Major Includes Three Areas,” DC, December 2, 1969.