Madison in the sixties – the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Rev. King came to speak on “The Future of Integration” at the Union Theater on March 30, 1962, he was known largely as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and for his role in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. He would not write the Letter from Birmingham Jail until April 1963 and not speak of his dream at the March on Washington until that August. He was the leading figure in the civil rights movement, but he was not yet the global figure he would become.
There was a lot of local civil rights news just as King was coming. The very same page of the capital times edition announcing the speech also reported on the racist campaign that south side alder Babe Rohr was running for re-election, and how the UW was suppressing an undercover film showing landlords lying to Blacks about whether apartments were available.
Civil rights was such a pressing issue that three nights after King spoke at the union theater, the second-most important Black leader in the country, Malcolm X, spoke in the Union’s Great Hall. Their schedules were closer than their messages. Dr. King denounced segregation, specifically in the churches, and declared “Segregation is on its deathbed.” Malcolm X preached Black separatism.
When King spoke in the near-capacity Stock Pavilion on Nov. 23, 1965, he was recipient of the Nobel peace prize, and the civil rights movement had had two huge accomplishments in the last 16 months – passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts. That’s why the crowd more than doubled to 3,000, and there was now a charge – 75 cents a ticket to see a Nobel laureate in the cow palace.
The title of King’s speech was again “The Future of Integration,” but it wasn’t the same speech. King called for a massive program of public works, expanded public education, raising the minimum wage to $2 an hour, Blacks getting jobs in Southern law enforcement. He called for federal laws protecting civil rights workers, a federal standard for juries to fix the “racist system of justice in the south” He said Black voting was up thanks to the Voting Rights Act, but that increased federal enforcement was needed to deal with new southern laws trying to stymie Black voting.
November 23, 1965 was also election day for the Wisconsin Student Association. Among those elected to the Student Senate was the former treasurer of the campus chapter of the Friends of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an undergraduate from Highland Park Illinois named Paul Soglin.
Dr. King never returned to Madison, but the city remembered him on Friday April fifth, 1968, when thousands gathered to grieve atop Bascom Hill.
The morning after Dr. King’s assassination began with a sharp disagreement between Chancellor William Sewell and a score of Black student leaders over plans for a service that noon at Lincoln Terrace.
Sewell, who has already canceled the day’s classes, wants the students to speak during an official university program, an idea they emphatically reject. “A Black person was killed by a white person,” declares Sidney Glass, head of Concerned Black People, “and Black people must lead the memorial,” not just speak as part of the program. Things get tense, Sewell yields. He’ll make brief remarks, announce that he’s keeping several buildings open for students to gather in later, and then allow the black students to run the program.
As expected, the twenty-minute program is bitter and angry. Clara Meek, one of five students to speak, breaks into tears: “I have a dream, too,” she says to the crowd of about ten thousand, almost all white, “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.
Then a march; 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 an athletic championship or the end of a war.
Rows of black Madisonians 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. They sing two choruses of “We Shall Overcome,” then move, in large numbers, to the buildings that Sewell has kept open.
They stay there for hours, black and white, engaging in the most candid raps about race the campus had ever seen. Gazing on the packed auditorium in Social Sciences building later named in his honor, Sewell 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.
Saturday night, folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary open their concert at the Dane County Coliseum with a tribute to King and a haunting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In.”
Sunday afternoon is dark and windy as a crowd of three thousand gathers at the Capitol for the community’s 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 the silent march down State Street and out University Avenue to the First Congregational Church for a memorial service, attended by the Governor, mayor and other dignitaries. Equal Opportunities Commission chair Reverend James Wright speaks, Reverend Swan recites Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky preaches scripture, and Reverend Robert Borgwardt reads from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Reverend Richard Pritchard, the only Madison cleric to have spent time in the South for civil rights, is not invited to participate. A special offering for the SCLC collects over $1,000.
On Tuesday, Madison schools superintendent Douglas Ritchie keeps schools in session during King’s funeral. But he tells principals that pupils “must be well informed as to the significance of Dr. King’s life and informed concerning the issue of equality for all citizens.”
And those are the stories of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Madison in the sixties. For your award-winning, listener-supported WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Bettmann photo of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X via Google Images.