Madison in the sixties – the Black Studies Strike, part 2
The Black People’s Alliance started the strike for a Black Studies department on a Friday, giving them all weekend for rallies and actions.
Saturday afternoon February 8, BPA leader Willie Edwards tells a large Great Hall crowd during a lengthy rally that “the only power we have is to disrupt,” and if the thirteen demands are not met, “This university will not function.”[i] After the rally approximately six hundred students, many chanting “Two, four, six, eight, organize and smash the state” march on the Field House to disrupt the Badger basketball game with Ohio State. Alerted by agents at the rally, the university calls in city police; a contingent of about 150 helmeted police with riot sticks and tear gas arrives barely five minutes before the protesters.
“If they had not arrived at the Field House when they did,” Chancellor Young tells the regents the following Friday, “six hundred persons would have poured into that basketball game and there would have been a great deal of violence between spectators and disrupters.” As it is, there are scuffles at various Field House gates, and Governor Knowles’s black Rambler is vandalized. Four students—one black, three white—are arrested for disorderly conduct and battery to a police officer; most of the eleven thousand basketball fans inside are unaware of the disturbance. Edwards and about two dozen blacks have tickets and are inside, but their only disruption is giving the black power salute during the national anthem, and some synchronized seat switching. They leave after halftime to scattered applause and miss sophomore guard Clarence Sherrod leading the Badgers to an upset victory over the Buckeyes.[ii]
That night, Chancellor Young issues a statement highlighting the university’s initiatives, including “efforts to” recruit minority and faculty, adding one more black staff member to the Student Affairs office, and seeking further funding. Young touts “recent changes” in the university’s academic program: the first three-credit “Afro-American Culture and Intellectual Tradition” course in the new Afro-American concentration in the American Institutions program, with a series of guest lecturers; a “black literature course taught by a black professor” in the English department; a black history course in the history department; a law school seminar on law and minority groups; and Gwendolyn Brooks’s creative writing course, which he does not note is only for this semester. “It would be a tragedy if anything were allowed to cloud this progress and threaten the future,” he says, and warns that anyone obstructing classes or other university activities is subject to arrest for unlawful assembly; students who do so may also get suspended or expelled. “While peaceful picketing and legal protest must and will be protected on this campus,” Young declares, “intentional disruption of classes cannot and will not be tolerated.”[iii]
The WSA Student Senate votes on Sunday to support the strike, provide bail money for arrestees, and condemn “indiscriminate violence.”[iv] The WSA releases a report by WSA president David Goldfarb and Black Revolution conference organizer Margery Tabankin calling the university “a racist institution [whose] only response has been manipulation, avoidance and co-optation.” The WSA report concludes with a call for “all students to mobilize in a united front to strike against the racism endemic in this institution.”[v] Libby Edwards tells about 150 students at the Green Lantern Eating Cooperative that “disruption will take place but the tactics must remain secret.”[vi]
The week of February 10 starts peacefully with about fifteen hundred picketing, but not obstructing, major classroom buildings. Classes continue, with strikers entering some classrooms and asking for permission to address the students. Chancellor Young issues another statement, calling for “an atmosphere of reasoned cooperation and mutual concern. No one who talks about shutting down the University can convince me that the welfare and advancement of black people is his foremost concern.”[vii]
At night, a thousand rally on the mall, then climb the hill to Bascom Hall; amid shouts of “Burn, baby, burn,” demonstrators burn an effigy of university administrators in Abraham Lincoln’s lap. Then they march to the Capitol, filling nearly three city blocks, their number augmented by many high school students.[viii]
After a Tuesday morning mall rally for a thousand, an uptick in intensity—a few hundred protesters walk through buildings chanting, “On strike, shut it down!” They don’t attract any adherents and leave when police arrive.[ix]
But a few hours later, around the same time the state Senate is unanimously adopting a resolution denouncing the “wanton destruction, illegal activity and disruption of our universities by revolutionaries and their supporters,” black leaders tell the thousand or so at a Union Theater rally of the new tactic—a “non-penetrable” picket line, people standing in the schoolhouse doors of the College of Letters and Sciences to block anyone from getting in. And when police come, to make like steam and vaporize. And they do; some form the first “affinity groups,” linking up and linking arms. Some fistfights break out between students blockading buildings and those attempting to enter, but the lines generally hold, and hundreds leave or are turned away.
Groups in the hundreds have effectively seized control of several university buildings, when close to two hundred city and county officers sweep up the hill. The students blocking building entrances withdraw at their approach. But several hundred are already occupying Bascom Hall hallways, which they continue to do until police clear and close the building about 4:15 p.m. After that, police form a line in front of the building and endure abusive shouts from a mob of two thousand, many of whom pelt them with snowballs as they later retreat.[x]
Wednesday morning, an overflow crowd of fifteen hundred at a Union Theater rally cheer as black leaders urge them to close down the university. Afterward, hit-and-run strikes by strikers escalate; they block and occupy more buildings for more than three hours, even briefly blocking Van Hise, which houses Harrington’s office. There are several minor injuries, most coming when some of the two hundred antistrike “Hayakawas”—named after the strikebreaking president of SF State and including members of the Young Americans for Freedom, Sigma Epsilon Phi fraternity, and some football players—battle blockaders on the line. Three buses are vandalized on their campus routes, and traffic is so badly disrupted that the Madison Bus Company shuts down campus bus service for two hours. Police make several arrests, including of the only football player supporting the strike, Black freshman Harvey Clay, who later loses his scholarship and goes home to Texas.[xi]
With city and county law enforcement unable to maintain this pace or scope of response, Mayor Festge and the university leadership ask Governor Knowles to call out the Wisconsin National Guard, which he does a little after three that afternoon. The first battalion of nine hundred guardsmen begin arriving—in jeeps with machine guns permanently attached—around 9:30, two nights before the weekend.
That that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, listener supported WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Rich Faverty photo, courtesy Capital Newspapers
[i] “Black Threatens Shutdown of UW,” WSJ, February 9, 1969.
[ii] Frank Aukofer, “UW Students Storm Game; 4 Arrested,” Milwaukee Journal, February 9, 1969; BOR minutes, February 14, 1969; Ralph Hanson testimony, Joint Committee, March 28, 1969.
[iii] Statement by Madison Campus Chancellor Edwin Young,” February 8, 1969, Edwin Young papers, University Archives.
[iv] Joan Rimalover and Monica Deignan, “WSA Student Senate Passes Resolution Supporting Strike,” DC, February 11, 1969.
[v] Margery Tabankin and David Goldfarb, “A History of Participation by Black Students in the University Structure,” Edwin Young papers, University Archives; Monica Deignan, “Strike Climaxes History of Black Demands,” DC, February 14, 1969.
[vi] “Class Disruption, Boycott Set to Support UW Blacks,” WSJ, February 10, 1969; “The Panthers of Wrath Are Wiser Than the Hourses[Is Hourses the correct word here?] No – should be Horses of Instruction,” Connections 3, no. 7 (February 21–March 16, 1969), 9.
[vii]Pommer, “1,000 Picket UW Peaceably,” CT, February 10, 1969.
[viii] Mike Gondek and Len Fleische, “Students Strike Class, March,” DC, February 11, 1969; George Mitchell, “Peaceful Pickets Tell Blacks’ Story,” WSJ, February 11, 1969; Robert Pfefferkorn, “Group Again Marches and Plans a New Rally,” WSJ, February 11, 1969; Wilbur Emery testimony, Joint Committee, March 28, 1969.
[ix] Pommer, “Police on Campus, but Leave Quickly,” CT, February 11, 1969; Dave Zweifel, “Solons Vow U Budget Cut,” CT, February 11, 1969.
[x] Pommer, “Police on Campus, But Leave Quickly,” CT, February 11, 1969; Emery testimony, Joint Committee, March 28, 1969; “History of the Movement in Madison, Part V: Black Strike,” TakeOver 5, no. 1 (January 8–22, 1975), 8–9; Roger A. Gribble, “Police Halt Grab of U.W. Buildings,” WSJ, February 12, 1969; George Mitchell, “UW Blacks Seek White Protest Allies,” WSJ, February 12, 1969; “Police Shut Bascom while 1200 Picket,” DC, February 12, 1969.
[xi] Pommer, “Hit-Run Blockades Are Begun at U.W.,” CT, February 12, 1969; Pommer, “Three More Student Strikers Arrested,” CT, February 13, 1969; Emery testimony, Joint Committee, March 28, 1969; “Bus Firms Halts Campus Service,” WSJ, February 13, 1969; Gribble, “Hit-Run at UW Foil Police,” WSJ, February 13, 1969; George Mitchell, “Rival Emotions Spur UW Fights,” WSJ, February 13, 1969.