In February of 1969, Black students and their White allies at the University of Wisconsin Madison called a strike and blocked entrances to campus buildings to back up their demands. I agreed to be part of a panel June 16 on the Black Student Strike of 1969 at UW Madison. My fellow panelists Gerald Lenoir, Eric Smith and Minton Brooks all participated in the strike. My assignment is to discuss current racial issues and disparities in Madison. However, being on the panel led me to learn more about this event and the broader Black Campus Movement of which it was a part.
The strike followed a year of negotiations and organizing. Black students demanded a program to bring 500 more Black students to campus, formation of a Black Studies department, support for a Black cultural center and Black dorm floors, and the right to control the staffing and programming for services for Black students. These events took place four months after the October 1968 Dow protests and three months after Black protests and a sit-in and vandalism of the president’s office at the state university at Oshkosh At the time of the strike, Madison protesters also demanded amnesty for protesters and enrollment into UW Madison of the Black students who had been expelled for the Oshkosh protest. Black student protests were occurring at other predominantly-White campuses at the same time.
This Black Campus Movement was part of the larger shift to Black Power and the “Negro to Black” identity conversion that happened after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968. The Madison protest cycle began with a Black Revolution conference on February 8. After a week of protests including a call for boycotting classes, Black students and their White allies shifted to blocking the entrances to major campus buildings by linking their arms. Then the governor called in 900 National Guardsmen to patrol the campus, augmented by another 1000 two days later. The protesters were disciplined and peaceful, but some fights broke out when members of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom sought to break through the blockades. With the Guardsmen patrolling campus, the ranks of the protesters swelled from 1500 to 5000 or more and protests shifted to blocking traffic on the major streets near campus. News accounts describe the protests as largely festive in mood and bringing together people with many different agendas. In the wake of the protests. the UW Madison inaugurated an Afro-American Studies program, agreed to provide space for a Black student center, and reaffirmed its commitment to increasing Black enrollment.
There are several dimensions of this event that are interesting. One, of interest to those of us who study the dynamics of protest repression, is the way the escalation of potential repression by calling out the Guard actually increased the ranks of the protesters. One news account quotes protest leader John Felder as thanking the governor for the Guard, saying that each troop member added two protesters to the protest.
Another is a dive into the underlying issues. As I read the history of the event in a 2011 dissertation written by Cornelius K. Gilbert (now on the faculty of the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis), I was struck by the extent to which the same issues are still on the table. In the early 1960s, there were roughly 90 African American students on the UW Madison campus, fewer than there were African students (who were attracted by a major African Studies program). The percentage of campus students was under 1%, far below the 11% that African Americans are nationally even below the 2% Blacks were of the Wisconsin population. A program begun in 1966 had brought more Black students to the campus; the initial class size for the program was 24. Although White administrators and the ethos of the Civil Rights Movement stressed integration of Blacks into White schools, the shift to Black Power and Black nationalism after the death of Dr. King led Black students to call for Black-centric spaces and programming, demands that put them into conflict with White liberals who saw such demands as segregationist.
How do things compare today? A demand in 1969 was to increase Black enrollment by at least 500, which would imply a total Black enrollment of around 600. According to the UW Madison data digest, in fall 2017, the undergrad Black headcount was 631 (2.1%) down from 765 (2.5%) in 2008. (Excluding international students, the percent Black was 2.3% in 2017 and 2.75% in 2008). In the meantime, the percent Black in Wisconsin rose to 6.3% in 2010, up from 5.7% in 2000. Wisconsin’s Black population is younger on average than the White population, and the percent Black among children is 8.7%. While the 1969 demand seems to have been met, we do not seem to be making any significant progress beyond that. (The number in the UW Madison headcounts who say they are 2+ races has gone up from 224 (0.8%) in 2008 to 982 (3.3%) in 2017 so some of the decline may be shift to biracial identity, however the percentage “unknown” race has gone down, so maybe not. In the 2010 Census, 1.8% of Wisconsin claimed 2+ races, up from 1.2% in 2000.
There was a demand in 1969 to add at least 20 Black faculty to UW Madison. I am not sure how many Black faculty there were at that time. In the Fall of 2017 there were 53 Black faculty (2.5% of the total), up from 48 (2.1%) in 2008. (Again, there was a rise in people claiming 2+ races up from 0 to 23).
In the meantime, the population of the City of Madison has changed from less than 1% Black in 1960 to 7.3% Black in 2010. Madison and Dane County have extremely high racial disparities, as attested in the Race to Equity reports.
Black and other minority students on the UW Madison campus still face issues of marginalization and microaggressions. There are ethnic and indigenous studies programs, including an ongoing Afro-American Studies program, but these have been hard hit by budget cuts and are beleaguered. There are campus centers for minority students and programs to provide extra support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but these also have been hit by budget cuts.
In short, the University is not doing particularly well and the issues persist.
My panel, which will be Saturday June 16 11:15-12:45 in Union South is part the Radical Perspectives Teach-In (Isthmus news coverage) at Union South, a spin-off event of the June 14-19 “Madison Reunion” which is expected to bring 900 people to town for a 1960s retrospective, including free public concerts and cultural events and a three-day registration only conference at the Memorial Union on Madison in the 1960s with sessions on getting high; events of the 1960s; Harvey Goldberg, music, and many sessions about anti-war and civil rights and other protests. Freedom Rides, music, the Jewish experience, and much more. There is news coverage by the Isthmus on the background of this event.
Update 2/7/19: The University has just published a fancy web site with lots of information about the strike including the list of demands, oral histories, pictures, and much more.
- Cornelius K. Gilbert. Their Time & Their Legacy: African American Activism In The Black Campus Movement At The University Of Wisconsin-Madison And Its Enduring Impulse University of Wisconsin Dissertation 2011. Available through Proquest Dissertations.
- A short summary of events with the pictures I used in this post is posted in a blog advertising the book Madison in Focus: A City’s Story told Through Photography
- News articles retrieved from an archive of historical newspapers include:
- Chicago Tribune Sunday, February 16, 1969, Chicago, Illinois
- Madison Capital Times Monday, February 17, 1969, Madison, Wisconsin.
- Madison Capital Times Friday, February 14, 1969, Madison, Wisconsin.
- Madison Capital Times Saturday, February 8, 1969
- Historical Census figures retrieved from the Statistical Abstract of the US 1963 via Proquest
- Current UW Madison figures retrieved from the Data Digest