It was in early August that The Incident at Breese Stevens Field – a night of fights at a teen dance ending in the arrest of blacks but no whites — worsened the city’s racial tension so much that Rev James C Wright, executive director of the Equal Opportunities Commission, held an extraordinary ad hoc public hearing so the city didn’t explode in violence. The city council wasn’t happy with Wright’s initiative, but grudgingly authorized the full commission to hold hearings into what happened that night, and the broader issue of relations between the police and Black Madison.
By the end of the year, the EOC conducts seventeen days of hearings into the incident and its aftermath, seven in closed session, taking sworn testimony from fifty- six witnesses. In an unprecedented act by a city commission, the EOC issues subpoenas to seven witnesses, including David Crary, the son of east side Ald. James Crary; he was in a car with other white teens when it hit a black youth, breaking his ankle.
Two days before the hearings begin in mid-September, police chief Wilbur Emery releases the results of his own investigation, clearing all officers of any wrongdoing. The reason officers followed groups of blacks and not whites after the dance, he says, is because they “apparently left in fairly large groups and their attitude appeared to indicate trouble afoot, whereas the officers report that the white youths dispersed without creating any problem.” And he denies that any officer used his flashlight or baton, an assertion challenged by Central High School junior Callie Franklin, who later testifies under oath she was hit by a flashlight as she was beating on a white girl inside the car that hit and injured Willie James.
Emery goes on the offensive as the leadoff witness at the first hearing on September 17. Relations between black youths and police have worsened since the incident, he says, “because of the blowing up of this incident. I think there has been more damage in the last six weeks, as far as black- police relations are concerned, than in the past few years.” Emery alludes to outside “black agitators” who have come here to cause trouble, but refuses the EOC’s request for more information.
Merritt Norvell, community services director for the Madison Redevelopment Authority, disagrees. The tensions are the same, he tells the EOC two nights later, it’s just that “black people are now letting their feelings be known.” The greatest problem in race relations, Norvell says, is that “the majority of our citizens do not believe that racial bigotry and discrimination exist in Madison. Breese Stevens is not the real problem – it is a symptom of a much greater problem.”
James L. Greene, a Black man who said he passed all the necessary tests to become a Madison police officer in 1955, but that then-police chief Bruce Weatherby told him “you don’t want to work for me,” agrees. “Some of the Madison policeman’s knowledge is very lacking, and the tension is high” he says, “I don’t think the white community realizes this. There’s a lot of tension.” Greene, who later joined the Milwaukee Fire Department, suggests the Madison police hire both Black officers and a Black administrator.
Willie James, testifying in a cast and on crutches, tells the commission there were “fights going on all around” at the dance, most – but not all – with racial overtones. He also says that in breaking up fights, police only grabbed and restrained blacks.
Some witnesses claim that blacks started fights when whites rejected their requests for money; others testify that whites started fights to stop interracial dancing. “We knew there would be trouble,” Crary tells the commissioners, because many teens had been drinking. “The blacks and whites just don’t get along too good,” says one white student from La Follette.
Trouble even spills over into the hearing itself, as a scuffle breaks out one night between black and white youths waiting to testify.
One officer testifies that there should have been many arrests, of both white and black youths, but there weren’t enough police on the scene — only five officers on duty at the dance attended by about 500 teens.
Dr. N.O. Calloway, the prominent Black physician and nationally known research chemist, tells the commission problems run deep. “Negro youth have been damaged, and are distrustful and frightened,” he says, adding that prejudice “is a device of whites, not of Negroes. We did not create it, it’s part of the white community. This is a disease of America.”
It doesn’t appear everyone wants to find a cure. The president of the Madison Professional Policemen’s Association, patrolman John T. Randall, declines the EOC’s invitation to testify; that’s when friends of the force start attacking the EOC as being anti-police, and making abusive phone calls to commissioners.
Campus-area Ald. George Jacobs says it’s “shocking” that police would refuse to testify or insist on the city providing them with a free attorney before they would appear. “That’s as bad or worse a reflection on the police than the allegations of racism.
Ald. Thomas Kassabaum, credit manager at Manchester’s department store, takes things a step further, introducing an ordinance to abolish the EOC in retaliation for what he calls “the public chastisement of the police” during the hearings. “I don’t see where this commission has made one iota of progress. I haven’t seen one bit of good come from it. All they serve to do is alienate the public from the police department.” Kassabaum represents the 7th ward on the east side – the last ward in to the city to be integrated after adoption of the fair housing code in 1963.
But when an overflow crowd comes to the council meeting on November 12 to support the commission, Kassabaum moves to reject his own proposal; the only alderman voting to support the proposal to kill the EOC is a former member of the commission, Ald. Crary, whose son was in the car that hit Willie James outside Breese Stevens field on August 3.
Four more hearings are scheduled for January, with the EOC’s final report expected in late February, 1969.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, mask-wearing, hand-washing, socially distant WORT News team, I’m Stu Levitan.