Madison in the Sixties – 1968. Racial tensions, late November.
On Saturday the 16th, university police arrest a Black nonstudent, Terrence Calneck, in the Rathskeller after he gets into a shouting match and threatens an elderly female worker whom he says used a racial epithet when he complained about the portion of ice cream she served and refused to pay for it. The arrest gets physical, as four officers wrestle with Calneck and handcuff him. He’s charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and battery; the Wisconsin Student Association pays half of Calneck’s $500 bail.[i]
November 19—Students protesting Calneck’s arrest stage a noisy eight-hour picket and boycott of the Rathskeller. Although the picketers don’t physically obstruct business, protesters with drums and bullhorn create such a ruckus that Union director Ted Crabb closes the Rat’s serving lines over dinner, cutting the day’s revenue by two-thirds. Over the next few days, Students for a Democratic Society and the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union run a “liberation food service” across the hall, providing free sandwiches, chili, and more “food without the bitter salts of racial epithets.” Students demand Calneck’s freedom, student control of a police-free Union, and the opening of the Union to nonstudents.[ii] The free food ends by order of the University Health Sanitarian, the boycott doesn’t survive the Thanksgiving break. There are no incidents or arrests, and no satisfaction on the part of the protesters after their action.[iii]
On the 25th and 26th, the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week —Black students stage a series of brief disruptions during the afternoon and evening in support of their demands to double the current Black student population of five hundred, put Black students on admissions committees, and paying Black students to attend a summer program for basic skills in writing and math. They’re also supporting 91 Black students recently expelled from Oshkosh State University. They interrupt classes in several buildings, put pepper in the library’s ventilation system and chant “Oshkosh Hey” while moving books around, hamper traffic on State Street, and turn in false fire alarms. The action is organized by the “Wapenduzi Weusi”—Swahili, more or less, for “Black revolutionary”—a closed and confidential Black leadership group formed to frustrate police surveillance and infiltration.[iv] Campus police chief Ralph Hanson says the disruptions do not rise to the level of acts prohibited by the rules the regents recently enacted.[v]
Meanwhile, racial tensions are exploding at Camp Randall, deepening the woes of a winless football team.
On November 20, Black track star Ray Arrington, student member of the Athletic Board, meets privately with the board to convey a series of grievances that Black football players hold, including a lack of rapport with coaches, the need for academic counseling for athletes, and the status of athletes whose eligibility ends before they receive their degrees.[vi]
And there’s a very personal matter — Coach John Coatta’s mandate to Black players that they not date white women. Insulted, the Black players ignore that directive with impunity, leading to resentment from white players and coaches. White players also get most, though not all, of the easy jobs with the trucking company owned by Coatta’s father-in-law, former mayor Henry Reynolds; more Black players work on the line at Oscar Mayer.[vii]
The Black players are also upset that quarterback Lew Ritcherson, son of the team’s only Black coach, was benched in favor of a white player. And they want several assistant coaches fired, or at least “reviewed.”
The Athletic Board chair, Professor Frederick Haberman, says the board takes the concerns seriously and promises “honorable, peaceful and fruitful negotiations” after Thanksgiving break.[viii]
In late November, eighteen of the 26 Black players boycott the team banquet at the Field House. “This is just a football thing,” one boycotter says, “not a general protest against the University administration.”[ix]
The next day, white linebacker Ken Criter, the team’s MVP, says racial tension is “definitely part” of the reason the Badgers have lost their last fifteen games, with an 0–19–1 record in the two years since Coach Milt Bruhn was forced out and Coatta hired. Another white defensive player, Tom McCauley, says, “There are guys who should have been kicked off the team” but “were not because they are Black. They are the ones who discriminated against us.”[x]
On December 3, athletic director Ivan Williamson and the Athletic Board hold a lengthy closed-door session with the Black players, whose complaints are more about disrespect than overt racial discrimination.[xi] And the next day, about forty white players—almost all the whites on the team—meet with the Athletic Board to share their perspective. They agree with some of the Black players’ concerns but are “strongly supportive” of the coaching staff.[xii]
Double-barreled bad news is delivered on Thursday the fifth at a special joint meeting of the regents and the Athletic Board. First, news of the $250,000 deficit the winless football team has caused the Athletic Department. Then comes the stunning race-based resignation by popular assistant coach Gene Felker, star end for the 1951 Big Ten champion Badgers, in protest of the administration’s “policies of handling the student unrest on this campus as well as the handling of the Football situation.”
Black players “committed treason against the coaching staff [and] the ring leaders must be fired,” Felker says in a lengthy statement to the boards. The onetime Green Bay Packer also blasts the “frightened administrators who will not take a firm stand but would rather try to appease the minority groups on this campus.”
“White coaches have not had an equal opportunity at this institution to succeed,” Felker charges, noting that Black assistant coach Les Ritcherson has a five-year employment agreement from President Harrington, while Coatta has a three-year contract and all his other assistants have only one-year guarantees.[xiii]
On December 6, the regents call in Coatta and pledge their “complete cooperation” in helping him return the Badgers to being “competitive in Big 10 football.” He’s got one year left on his contract to do so.[xiv]
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, presidential transitioning, mask-wearing, hand-washing socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
[i] “Black Nonstudent Arrested in Rathskeller Altercation,” DC, November 19, 1968.
[ii] Steven Reiner, “Food Boycott Closes Union Rath,” DC, November 20, 1968; Allen Swerdlowe, “Students Boycott; Union Takes Loss,” DC, November 21, 1968.
[iii] “Boycott Continues at UW Union; Food Sales Down,” CT, November 21, 1968; R. Lovelace, “Food Service Discontinued in Union; Rath, Cafeteria Take Third Day Loss,” DC, November 22, 1968; Ted Crabb email, October 31, 2017.
[iv] Gene Wells, “Black s Stop Classes, Traffic,” DC, November 26, 1968; Gilbert, “Their Time & Their Legacy, 122–124.
[v] Ron Legro, “Black Students Confuse Library,” DC, November 27, 1968; Gribble, “UW Permits Black s to Make Up Exams,” WSJ, November 27, 1968.
[vi] Glenn Miller, “UW to Hear Black Grievances,” WSJ, November 28, 1968.
[vii] Patricia Rogenberg Facebook message[to author?], October 22, 2017; David Maraniss interview[with author?], August 2017.
[viii] Miller, “UW to Hear Black Grievances,” WSJ, November 28, 1968.
[ix] “Football Problems Alone Led to Boycott of Banquet,” CT, November 27, 1968; Tom Butler, “Boycott Is Directed at Coaches,” WSJ, November 28, 1968.
[x] Bob Greene, “Race Problem Hurt Badger Grid Team,” CT, November 27, 1968.
[xi] Barry Tempkin, “Black Gridders Speak to Board,” DC, December 4, 1968; Tempkin, “Board Discloses Grid Complaints,” DC, December 5, 1968.
[xii] Miller, “Coatta, Whites Defend Coaches,” WSJ, December 5, 1968.
[xiii] “Felker Resigns as U.W. Football Aide,” WSJ, December 6, 1968; Pommer, “5-Year Pledge to Ritcherson Told,” CT, December 6, 1968; “Felker Levels Blast,” DC, December 7, 1968; Steve Klein and Barry Temkin, “Felker Resignation Adds Fuel to Fire,” DC, December 7, 1968.
[xiv] BOR minutes, December 6, 1968; Miller, “Coatta Stays, Regents Pledge Aide,” WSJ, December 7, 1968; Pommer, Coatta Will Stay; Aides in Jeopardy,” CT, December 7, 1968; Pommer, “UW Athletics Cash Crisis Is Told Regents,” CT, December 6, 1968.