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1964: When civil rights were controversial in Madison
The issue bitterly divided the city 50 years ago
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Credit:Rob Dobi Illustrations

Fifty years ago this summer, the national fight for civil rights echoed locally, dominating Madison's political and cultural agenda with martyrs, legends and a new homegrown black star.

"The national and local issues came and went on the same tide," recalls Jim Sykes, then the program director for the now defunct university YMCA. A civil rights activist, Sykes recalls Madison as "a very divided community."

In 1964, pastors protested and picketed. High school students disrupted the state Assembly. University students were jailed throughout the South. A former Badger was murdered and left in a Mississippi mud bank.

It wasn't demographics that drove the debate, however, especially on campus. A head count that spring showed fewer than 100 blacks at the university, with more from Nigeria (22) than Wisconsin (21).

UW grad student Vicki Gabriner was part of the brigade of northern college students who went to Mississippi for the voter registration drive known as Freedom Summer. In 1967, two of the defining photographs of the police riot at the Dow Chemical protest in the Commerce Building would be of Gabriner in whiteface as "Miss Sifting and Winnowing."

"The work that was being offered to us, the movement for social justice for black people, was so compelling that I was able to take that fear, which was not a little bit, and put it to the side because I knew this was something with which I wanted to be involved," she said at a recent Wisconsin Historical Society forum on its new Freedom Summer Collection.

Discussions over race relations and inequality dominated the discourse in Madison. "You could not not follow the news," Sykes says. "Every day some element of civil rights was taking place. It was everywhere."

Against equal opportunities

The year got off to a hopeful start, with the organizational meeting in January of the Equal Opportunities Commission, empowered to enforce the city's controversial new ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing. After long and sharp debate, the ordinance had been narrowly adopted the previous December, with Mayor Henry Reynolds casting the tie-breaking vote in favor.

Four years before Vietnam would pit radicals against right-wingers, civil rights bitterly divided city government.

Veteran south-side alder Harold E. "Babe" Rohr was the longtime business agent for the Painters and Allied Trades Union and head of the Building Trades Council. At a time when industrial unions generally supported civil rights, the more conservative construction trades, such as Rohr's, often did not. Rohr went to extraordinary lengths to prove that, especially during the spring election of 1964.

Controlling his union's political endorsements and its contributions and campaign workers, Rohr was "the most powerful member of the council," recalls Mayor Paul Soglin, whose first term as alder, 1968-1970, was Rohr's last. Rohr didn't control a majority, Soglin says, "but he controlled more votes than anyone else."

Leading the anti-EOC fight on the council, Rohr had come within one vote of killing the civil rights measure. His defeat did not mean his surrender.

State law requires cities to confirm the slate of partisan poll watchers submitted by the local political parties. But when the new chair of the county Democratic Party named an integrated slate, and said that blacks had not been treated well by the prior poll workers, Rohr called him racist and blocked confirmation of his appointees. One of the names he blocked was Rev. James Wright, a charter member of the Equal Opportunities Commission and its future director.

Rohr also went after a group of pro-EOC clergy as "nothing more than a pressure group," a term he also applied to the League of Women Voters.

Although he was not even a paid-up member of the Democratic Party, Rohr submitted his own slate of party poll workers -- an all-white group -- which the council confirmed. It was only when City Attorney Edwin Conrad advised that such action was illegal that the council confirmed its first two black election officials.

Rohr's opponent in 1964, Clifford Roberts, campaigned explicitly on Rohr's opposition to the equal opportunities measure. Rohr flung the issue back, publishing a campaign flyer attacking Roberts as a "self-avowed member" of the NAACP who "has taken part in NAACP 'sit-in' demonstrations."

Role of Madison labor

Rohr knew his district and won handily. He soon had a new foil to frustrate -- fresh-faced west-side liberal lawyer Robert L. "Toby" Reynolds, who picked a civil rights fight even before he was elected.

Despite being in a tight primary race to succeed Ald. Ethel Brown -- who served 13 years and was the first woman elected to the council -- Reynolds, no relation to Mayor Henry Reynolds, in February formally repudiated the endorsement of the AFL-CIO's Committee on Public Education because of its opposition to the equal opportunities ordinance.

Given the support of national labor groups for the pending civil rights bill in Congress, Reynolds said, "I cannot understand the position of Madison labor" on the local ordinance.

Rohr managed to get the Madison Federation of Labor to kill a resolution endorsing the equality ordinance. And he vowed that he would oppose any measures Reynolds, if elected, introduced to the council.

Rohr also fought -- and beat -- Reynolds on a personal level. Three times the moderate Mayor Reynolds appointed the progressive Ald. Reynolds to the embattled Madison Redevelopment Authority; three times Rohr and the council refused to confirm their colleague. It was an unprecedented, and never repeated, snub.

Reynolds served two terms on the council before losing to arch-conservative Bill Dyke in the mayoral election of 1969, and later to liberal Joe Sensenbrenner in 1983. Rohr retired from the council in 1970 and was succeeded by the city's second African American alderman, Ed Hill. Rohr's anti-EOC colleague Ellsworth Swenson was ousted in 1968 by radical grad student Paul Soglin, who in 1973 would unseat Mayor Dyke and in 1989 do the same to Mayor Sensenbrenner.

Pickets and protests

Two other elections that April also revolved around the civil rights struggle, one with national implications. Alabama Gov. George Wallace jumped into the Wisconsin presidential primary explicitly to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson over the pending civil rights bill before Congress. Far surpassing expectations (and relying heavily on crossover Republican votes), Wallace scored a stunning 34% of the votes statewide against Wisconsin Gov. John Reynolds, including a surprising 25% in Madison.

And thanks to civil rights and perceived wrongs, the April election almost brought an end to urban renewal in Madison. A citywide and binding referendum to abolish the Madison Redevelopment Authority, widely viewed as heartless in the way it bought and bulldozed the ethnic neighborhoods of the old Triangle, failed by only 367 votes out of 36,725 cast.

Amid the antagonism and campaign charges, a happy note: La Follette High School student Eugene Parks won a $50 savings bond and a medal when he took first place in an American Legion oratorical contest with a 10-minute original speech on the U.S. Constitution. Parks' promise was evident, says Sykes, who worked with him closely on anti-racism projects at the University Y. In 1969, at age 21, Parks would become the first African American elected to the Madison Common Council.

For another black student, that spring brought bad news. Dion Diamond, 22, a recent transfer to the UW from Howard University, lost a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision. Diamond had challenged a disorderly conduct conviction he received in Louisiana for urging a boycott of classes at Southern University in Baton Rouge after administrators punished students for civil rights activism. He promptly surrendered, served his two-month sentence, and returned to Madison to resume his activism and advocacy.

At the height of the spring election season, civil rights activists started a provocative new direct action, bringing to Madison the Congress of Racial Equality's national campaign to pressure the Sears & Roebuck Company to hire blacks.

For two weeks in late March and early April, teams ranging in size from 35 to 100 from the local CORE office sat-in, picketed and even sang in the aisles at the Sears store at 1101 E. Washington Ave. The state chapter of the NAACP endorsed the action, but its local affiliate did not.

The company soon announced it had hired two black workers, both part-time. CORE continued the demonstrations and called for a boycott. By mid-April, Sears said it had hired three black full-time employees and was up to four part-timers. Dissatisfied with the number of hires, and Sears' refusal to identify itself as an "equal opportunity employer," CORE filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission, which held hearings but never issued a formal finding.

CORE engaged in another confrontation later that month, with 30 college and high school students disrupting the state Assembly by bringing unauthorized civil rights signs into the gallery. After guards brusquely confiscated the placards, the group stood with linked arms and sang "We Shall Overcome" as the Assembly recessed. They marched out singing, and there were no arrests.

Chanting "Jim Crow must go," about 30 placard-bearing CORE volunteers also picketed Gov. Wallace at a Rotary Club luncheon at the Lorraine Hotel.

Fraternities and discrimination

At times Madison was a microcosm of the national debate between integration and separatism.

With the civil rights bill stuck in the Senate, this was a friendly stop for its proponents. In late April, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a close associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King, roused a Capitol Square crowd of about 500 with his call for "freedom now!" and adoption of the bill.

Among the entertainment that sunny day was future Grammy nominee Tracy Nelson, a UW freshman from Shorewood Hills.

A few days later, a smaller campus crowd at the Young Socialist Alliance meeting heard a tape recording of a speech Malcolm X had given in New York. It was a militant message of black nationalism.

In early May, a civil rights crisis landed squarely on Langdon Street, as the faculty voted to require all fraternities and sororities to certify by 1968 that their charters did not discriminate "for reasons of race, color, creed or national origin." The Greek community would eventually agree to that, but balked at the added requirement to certify by 1972 that members of their national organization did not informally restrict their choice of members for discriminatory reasons.

Three fraternities, including Phi Gamma Delta -- which would be suspended for a blackface party in 1987 -- even refused to respond to membership questions from the faculty Human Rights Committee.

"Racial discrimination in the fraternity-sorority world" was "the most polarizing topic" on campus, recalls author and broadcast journalist Jeff Greenfield, who championed racial equality as Daily Cardinal editor from 1962 to 1964. During the lengthy debate over the rules, the Inter-Fraternity Council led a massive silent protest march up Bascom Hill, made an attempt to take over the paper, and even called Greenfield personally with "a death threat or two."

Freedom Summer

In the summer of '64, martyrdom came to the Madison campus.

Andrew Goodman had been a UW freshman in 1961, living at 202 N. Park St. He withdrew for health reasons after a semester and enrolled in Queens College in his native New York, where his friends included musician Paul Simon.

"Militancy never ran strongly in Andy's blood," his childhood friend and UW roommate, David Wolf, wrote in the Daily Cardinal in late June. "He had a special kind of sensitivity, however. A sort of compassion for the underdog. He never liked to see people pushed. If he was never militant, he was always intense."

Freedom Summer -- a coordinated voter registration drive in deeply segregated Mississippi -- was the most intense thing happening in 1964. Goodman and fellow New Yorker Mickey Schwerner volunteered.

"Freedom Summer was the culmination of an ongoing effort to essentially get the federal government off its duff," movement veteran Bob Gabriner recalled at the Wisconsin Historical Society panel, "which it did by inviting large numbers of students from the North to participate with poor black people in the South."

Most of the students were white, and a disproportionate percentage Jewish. Of the 15 or so volunteers from the UW, many were also graduate students in the history department, here to study with such inspirational professors as Harvey Goldberg, George Mosse and William Appleman Williams.

Speaking at the April Historical Society symposium, Bob Gabriner, who is divorced from Vicki Gabriner, said the effort "ultimately moved the agenda" and led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Success came at a terrible price. On June 21, Goodman, Schwerner and Mississippi native James Chaney were abducted and murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were found in an earthen dam outside Meridian 44 days later.

A Capitol rally of about 150 the weekend after the abduction demanded federal protection for southern civil rights workers, and the Friends of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (FSNCC) continued its active outreach and fundraising on campus. But an FSNCC fundraising drive on the Capitol Square in early August brought angry racial epithets and a disappointing collection.

Near the end of the year, about 6,000 students, nearly a quarter of the student body, joined the National Student Association's "Thanksgiving Fast for Freedom." By putting their money where their mouths could have been, the students sent about $5,000 not spent on dinner to Mississippi to buy food for poor whites and blacks.

Dylan comes to town

The battle for civil rights also heavily influenced the city's cultural calendar, especially on campus.

A national 30-day tour raising money for Freedom Summer and SNCC brought comedian and activist Dick Gregory to Music Hall in early May, along with the SNCC-sponsored Freedom Singers. In September, Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison read from his novel-in-progress, which he said was "all autobiographical" but "not an account of my own life."

The section he read -- about an old black man who loses his religious faith when he finds worms have been eating his coffin -- was among the 300 pages destroyed by a fire in 1967. To cap the year, human rights activist Harry Belafonte graced the Homecoming concert, electrifying a Field House crowd of 9,000 with a three-hour concert that also featured blues legends Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

At the Orpheum, Latin singing star Trini Lopez brought Pete Seeger to the masses with his hit single, "If I Had a Hammer," while the Kingston Trio, New Christy Minstrels and Clancy Brothers all held their own hootenannies. And in November, Mr. "Blowin' in the Wind" himself, Bob Dylan, presented what the Cardinal called "A cry against social evil" at a not-sold-out Orpheum show.


Civil rights archives in Madison

The Wisconsin Historical Society has one of the largest archives of civil rights documents in the country, especially Freedom Summer material. Key documents from these archives are included in a new book from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, Risking Everything: A Freedom Summer Reader. It includes the story of how the Historical Society supported the travels of a few UW-Madison students, who ventured into the Deep South during the civil rights struggle to collect and preserve documents related to the movement. Michael Edmonds, deputy director of the Historical Society's library-archives, edited the book and will make two local appearances this summer to talk about it: July 9 at Middleton Public Library, 7 p.m.; and Aug. 20 at Verona Public Library, noon.

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