Madison, February 1969 – The Black Studies Strike, part 1
The most successful UW protest of the decade may have been sparked by a symposium the first week of February, 1969, as the weeklong conference “The Black Revolution: To What Ends?” crystallizes the growing Black power movement on campus and leads to ten days of disruption, an hour of destruction and the creation of the Department of Afro-American Studies.
The story starts in May 1968, when Chancellor William Sewell responds to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by creating a special committee to address race relations on the campus and in America. At the time, the university’s Black studies curriculum consisted of just three courses, and the Black People’s Alliance was demanding additional courses and some programs.
But in November, the committee went beyond what the BPA was demanding, proposing new courses in Afro-American studies in January, expanding that to a full Afro-American Studies concentration towards a BA in American Institutions by fall. The committee, named after its chair Prof. William Thiede, calls it “essential both morally and academically” for the university to start a Black studies program as soon as possible.
A concentration in A-Aa studies was more than what the students had asked for, but not enough for one of the professors at the Black Revolution Symposium.
Produced by Union Forum Committee chairs Margery Tabankin and Neil Weisfeld for $8,861, the conference attracts 16,500 attendees to hear twenty-one nationally renowned guest speakers and forty-three faculty, staff, students and local activists – among them city council candidate Eugene Parks, associate editor of the Black -oriented Madison Sun newspaper, People Against Racism organizer Frank Emspak, university administrator and former football star Merritt Norvell, Unitarian minister Max Gaebler, and attorney-Alder Milo Flaten.
At the “Racism in Madison,” panel, Madison Sun publisher Lawrence Saunders says that Madison itself is “hiding behind a cloak of liberalism.” Parks denounces the University for not divesting itself of stock it holds in the Chase Manhattan Bank, which helped financially prop up the apartheid government in South Africa. “Chase Manhattan is making money off the backs of Black s in Africa,” Parks says, demanding the University “repudiate such connections.” A week later, the regents sell their 33 hundred shares of Chase stock but make no public announcement.
Organizers don’t ignore cultural and historical aspects. The Memorial Union’s Main Gallery hosts a collection of paintings, sculptures and prints by a dozen Black artists. And across Langdon Street, there’s a Black History Exhibition at the State Historical Society, featuring African artifacts, photographs of the slave trade and a narrative of the Black experience in Wisconsin. There are screenings of the film “Black Power” and a documentary about the life of Huey P. Newton, daily showings of the movie “Dutchman,” based on the play be LeRoi Jones, and a reception/discussion with Pulitzer Prize poet Gwendolyn Brooks, this semester’s Rennebohm Professor of Creative Writing
And among the speakers is sociology professor Nathan Hare, acting chairman of the embryonic Department of Black Studies at San Francisco State University, and a leader in the bitter three-month-old Black strike that led to its creation.
On Wednesday, February 5, he tells a standing-room-only Great Hall crowd that “the White university establishment” is destroying Black society and culture and that “we may have to cut off the ears of a few college deans.” At a panel that night, he tells students they must “do whatever needs to be done [to get the university to] meet your demands.”
Afterward, Hare meets with Willie Edwards of the Black People’s Alliance and other Black student leaders and puts Black activism at the UW into context with the hard-line crackdown that new SF State president S. I. Hayakawa has begun. “We are on the front lines at SF State and getting our asses kicked,” he tells them. “You are on a radical campus and have a responsibility to your brothers and sisters to take action.” Edwards and the others embrace Hare’s challenge and start planning a Wisconsin Black strike, led by the Wapenduzi Weusi.—Swahili, more or less, for “Black agitator.”[i]
Late morning on Friday, February 7, Edwards and a group of Black students present a list of thirteen demands to Vice Chancellor Chandler Young for delivery to Chancellor Edwin Young. At a noon rally on Library Mall, they relate the demands, including an “autonomous Black studies department controlled and organized by Black students and faculty” with a Black chairman “approved by Black students and faculty”; that “Black students have veto power in hiring and firing all administrators and teachers involved in anything relating” to the new Black studies department; at least five hundred additional Black students be admitted to the university by fall; Black student control over the Black Cultural Center; amnesty for all strike participants; and admission of any expelled Oshkosh student to UW–Madison.[ii]
That afternoon, as the Reverend Andrew Young, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prepares to speak at the conference on “Where Do We Go From Here?” about three hundred students sweep up Bascom Hill and disrupt classes in seven university buildings. Members of the group, about three-quarters of whom are white, briefly take over numerous classrooms to read and explain the demands; some professors and students are intimidated, but there are no serious incidents or arrests. Swelling to about five hundred, the group marches down to Library Mall for another rally, banging trash cans and chanting, “On strike, shut it down!” Then it’s back up the hill for another round of classroom disruptions, including Professor Harvey Goldberg’s History 474 lecture, followed by a mass meeting of more than a thousand in the Union Theater. That’s where one Black speaker calls for “complete disruption, and if that doesn’t work, complete destruction” of the university.[iii]
Speaking to an overflow conference crowd of about thirteen hundred in the Great Hall that evening, the Reverend Jesse Jackson says the thirteen demands “should be followed to the letter.’
All weekend, Blacks reach out to whites to explain their demands, generating what UW police chief Ralph Hanson calls an “amazing” amount of public support, even from the usually apolitical Southeast dorms.
But not from the Daily Cardinal. It calls the group’s demands for student control “impossible” to meet and says the Black students “know that they are demanding that an institution destroy itself.”
Saturday afternoon, Edwards tells a large Great Hall crowd that “the only power we have is to disrupt,” and if the thirteen demands are not met, “This university will not function.”
And that’s this week’s MITS. For your award-winning, listener-supported WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Black campus leaders, including football player Henry Clay (left, in sunglasses and beret) and Bernard Forrester (right, with bullhorn), explain the thirteen demands at the start of the Black Strike at the noon rally on Library Mall, February 7. UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN–MADISON ARCHIVES IMAGE S00407, PHOTO BY GARY SCHULZ
[i] Gribble, “Black s Meeting Averts Threat to Block Exits,” WSJ, February 6, 1969; Whitney Gould, “Educational System Called Irrelevant to Black Needs,” CT, February 6, 1969; Gilbert, “Their Time & Their Legacy,” 122–123; Rosen OH #1383; Rosen email, October 26, 2017; Schachner OH #1384.
[ii] Pommer, “UW Black Students Serve 13 Demands,” CT, February 7, 1969; Editorial, “Revolution, and Then …,” DC, February 8, 1969; “We Demand,” Connections 3, no. 7 (February 25–March 11, 1969), 1; Young OH #0117.
[iii] Gary Rettgen, “Black s’ Strike Call Disrupts U. Classes,” CT, February 8, 1969; George Mitchell, “Group at UW Disrupts Classes to Aid Black s,” WSJ, February 8, 1969; “Black s Demand Reform, Students Stop Classes,” DC, February 8, 1969; “The Strike Begins,” Connections 3, no. 6 (February 5–20, 1969), supplement.