That was Lawrence: Black History and Lawrence (Part 2)

Two weeks ago, this column examined the experiences of Africans and African-Americans during Lawrence’s first century. However, this history seems to be marked by a lack of documentation and an extremely low number of black students.

The unnamed black man in last week’s column had the verbal support of his classmates, but did not sit with them at chapel services. He was admitted to the preparatory program by the faculty, but then likely given money to leave Appleton. An alumnus wrote a letter about him, but forgot his name.

By 1964, the picture had changed. The post-World War II years saw the rise of civil rights activism and younger Americans challenged older generations’ deliberate or tacit discrimination against African-Americans. This certainly was the case at Lawrence.

The Feb. 28, 1964 issue of The Lawrentian noted that the Student Executive Council—LUCC’s precursor—approved sponsorship of an “April Civil Rights Week.” The motion was introduced by the SEC President and the 2012 Commencement speaker, Anton R. Valukas ’65, who hoped to have Appleton’s assistance in sponsoring the week.

Although the motion passed, the article notes that several representatives “stressed the idea that the college students should not impose upon the Appleton community.” These representatives argued that “most Lawrence students are transients [and] cannot fully understand the problems facing Appleton residents in regard to the civil rights issue.”

The editorial board of this publication supported the measure whole-heartedly the following week, stating that the Civil Rights Week was “a perfect opportunity for students and community to become informed on a national and necessarily local problem, by meeting informed leaders, engaging in discussion, and acting upon their resolutions.”

The itinerary was announced on Apr. 3 and included speakers such as then-civil rights activist and now-Congressman John Lewis, a discussion on urban housing, a “Fast for Freedom” in the dining hall so that meal money could be donated to a civil rights movement and a fundraising drive for the United Negro College Fund.

Valukas stated, “the Civil Rights Week is not simply for entertainment but rather is a kick-off for Lawrence students interested in civil rights.”

That week also saw the visit of six black students from Tougaloo College in Mississippi, one of whom, Calvin Brown, was quoted as saying:

“I think there are two alternatives to our problem. And when I say our problem, I mean as a nation. Number one, change. Let the Negro make his contribution to the American society. I don’t care whether you hate me or hate the Negro or how you feel about us. Or destroy, and when I say destroy, I mean take away life of all Negros in America…”

“… I realize that I am a bit extreme here, but I cannot visualize or see my kids that I hope to have in the future coming up in the society asking the same questions that I asked about colored and white signs or not allowed to enjoy the simple recreation facilities like bowling and attending the zoos and parks.”

The Lawrentian also noted in that issue the filibuster of what would become the Civil Rights Act 1964.

Mary Duncan ’66 argued in an Apr. 17 letter to the editor that “the town of Appleton seems to feel that civil rights is not an issue affecting them,” citing an editorial in The Appleton-Post Crescent describing the Civil Rights bill as a solution to a discrimination problem exclusive to southern municipalities.

The Editorial Board noted that community support for the Civil Rights Week was mixed, with six “prominent citizens” from Appleton, Neenah, Menasha, Kaukauna, and Kimberly submitting a letter in support of the events and one anonymous letter addressing the SEC as “Dear Scatter Brains” and “part of the lunatic fringe.”

During the week’s convocation, NAACP leader Charles Evers reacted to the opinion of some community members that “there is no civil rights problem in Appleton” by comparing the state to Mississippi and asking the question “what would Wisconsin be like if it were 46 per cent Negro?”

Evers argued “All we want is an equal opportunity. If Negroes do come to Appleton, open your doors to them… we’re no different.”

On Apr. 21 1964, a panel chaired by Lawrence professor Harold Schneider discussed how racial discrimination affected the Appleton community. Post-Crescent publisher Victor Minahan argued: “the fact that Appleton does not have any Negros is precisely the problem.”

The panel, consisting of three civil rights activists and three community members, concurred on the need for the Fox Valley to participate in the national debate and that the dearth of African-Americans in the area could be attributed to racial prejudice, not just the absence of jobs.

However, as the discussion progressed to how quickly change should be enacted, the two groups differed more sharply. Minahan expressed his concern that civil rights leaders were too activist and “overly fond of crisis.”

The closing question is most telling.

“What could be done to achieve civil rights in Appleton?”

The Reverend William Watkins, a Chicago pastor and open-housing advocate, replied “Go out and act.”

Mrs. George C. Munroe, President of the Appleton School Board, responded:

“Although they feel students should know a cross section of Americans, Appleton citizens don’t want to expose their children to an explosive situation.”

The Lawrentian editorial board concluded of Apr. 24: “Civil Rights Week achieved its purpose. It provided members of the Lawrence community, townspeople and civil rights activist alike with two days of stimulating discussion.”

The next part of this article will examine how Lawrentians turned thought into action on this topic.

 

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