Madison in the Sixties. Civil Rights, 1968 – The Death of Dr. King
Friday, April 5 As they did in November, 1963, thousands gather to grieve atop Bascom Hill. But this time the mourning is different. The morning after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. starts with a heated disagreement between Chancellor William Sewell and a group of about twenty black students over their dueling plans for a service that noon at Lincoln Terrace.
Sewell, who has already canceled that afternoon’s classes, wants the students to speak as part of the official university program, an idea they emphatically shout down. “Black people must lead the memorial,” not just speak as part of the program, declares Sidney Glass, head of the student organization Concerned Black People. Things get tense; Sewell yields. He agrees to make introductory remarks, then turn it over to the Black students.
A crowd of about 10,000, somber and silent, almost all white, hears a bitter and angry program. Clara Meek, one of five students to speak during the twenty- minute program, breaks into tears: “I have a dream, too,” she says, “that one day every darn one of you is going to pay.” Kenneth Irwin says, “There is no other course the black people can take” but to riot.
Also unlike during President Kennedy’s memorial, there’s a march; now an estimated fifteen thousand, fully filling six blocks of State Street, it’s the largest demonstration in Madison’s history to date, other than to celebrate a Big Ten championship or the end of a war.
Rows of black Madisonians up front link arms and alternate between freedom songs and militant chants— “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” interspersed with “Black power!”
They march around the Capitol and up Wisconsin Avenue, heading down Langdon Street to the foot of Science Hall, where they sing two choruses of “We Shall Overcome,” and depart.
Sunday afternoon is dark and windy as a crowd of three thousand gathers at the Capitol for a program highlighted by stinging comments from Concerned Black People’s Ardinette Tucker. She condemns “the Madison community which still believes there are no race problems here. I will break some windows to make you care.”
Then four white men— Reverend Alfred Swan, Professor Maurice Zeitlin, businessman Jack von Metterheim, and Father Joseph Hammer— lead a silent march down State Street and out University Avenue to the First Congregational Church for an ecumenical memorial service. Reverend Swan recites Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky shares scripture, Reverend Robert Borgwardt reads from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” and former Equal Opportunities Commission chair Rev. James C. Wright delivers a short, hopeful sermon. Reverend Richard Pritchard, the only Madison cleric to have actually spent time in the South for civil rights, is not invited to participate. A special offering for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference collects over $1,000. Meanwhile, the Black community holds a separate service at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
Neither the public nor Catholic schools close for King’s funeral on Tuesday, but the university does. And Chancellor Sewell provides large lecture rooms to Concerned Black People and the Wisconsin Student Association to present A day of Workshops on Black music and literature, and African and Afro-American history and two evenings of movies and recordings of Malcolm X.
The interracial workshops prompt the most candid conversation about race the campus has ever seen. Sewell, observing the packed auditorium in Social Sciences, thinks it’s the capstone to “the greatest day for education that had ever hit the campus.”
The regents aren’t so impressed; they pass a rule requiring permission of the president and the regents’ executive committee to declare a campus holiday.
The board is more supportive of a financial initiative begun by a group of 15 student organizations to fund a Memorial Scholarship for minority students in King’s name. University President Fred Harvey Harrington quickly endorses the effort, which starts with a $400 pledge from the Lakeshore Halls Association. In May, the regents formally create Martin Luther King Scholarship Fund, supported by money transferred from the student-generated WSA Scholarship Fund, which Harrington says the university will match.
But in November, Vice chancellor Robert H. Altwell informs Chancellor Edwin Young that Harrington has “completely reneged on his promise to provide funds to match the student’s contribution” to the King Scholarship Fund. “We have yet to [prove] to ourselves and certainly to the black students that we are committed,” Atwell writes in a private memo, warning that unless and until such proof is provided, “We can expect major political confrontations, and even violence.”65
And there’s an immediate change in city government after the assassination – the Equal Opportunities Commission finally gets paid professional staff. Ever since the commission was created in December 1963, the city has provided only clerical support, with the volunteer chair – currently activist and faculty wife Mary Louise Symon, formerly Rev. Wright and Prof. John McGrath — responsible for planning and executing a program. The Commission had tried and failed twice since 1965 to get a paid executive director. It tried again this March, only to have the resolution referred. Then came Memphis. “the events of the past week have lent a special sense of urgency” to creating the position, Mayor Otto Festge says, telling the council “this is a matter of the highest priority.”
On April 11 – one week after the assassination — the Council finally agrees, voting 19-2 to create the position and fund its $10,000 salary. The only alderman to speak in opposition is a member of the EOC, Far east side Ald. James Crary, a Dane County deputy sheriff. “I don’t think we have a serious [racial] problem in Madison,” he says, “but within five years, with a director, we will.” When Crary’s term on the commission expires two weeks later, Festge does not reappoint him.
As expected, the mayor in May names as the EOC’s first executive director its former chair, Reverend Wright, who has been studying at the Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois since late 1967. Wright, 42 holds a BS degree in psychology from UW, and formerly served as associate pastor at Mt. Zion; he cuts short his seminary studies to return to Madison.
And that’s this weeks’ Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, mask-wearing, hand-washing, socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan
Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Archives. WHi-138230