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The Black Student Strike of 1969

Fifty years ago, black students at UW–Madison, propelled by longstanding grievances and fresh flash points, called for a campus-wide student strike until administrators agreed to 13 demands. Joined by thousands of white allies, they held rallies to educate the community about racial inequities, boycotted classes, marched to the state Capitol, took over lecture halls and blocked building entrances. The latter actions spurred the governor to activate the Wisconsin National Guard. The protest, surging and ebbing over roughly two weeks in February 1969, was among the largest in the university’s history. Dubbed the Black Student Strike, it would forever alter the campus. Here, in their own words, participants recount why the strike was needed, what they did, and how it changed the university and their lives.


Chaotic scuffle between protestors, UW police.

The Black Student Strike played out amid a burgeoning Black Power Movement and in the raw aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination the previous spring. Massive protests over racism and the Vietnam War roiled campuses across the country, including UW–Madison, where a demonstration against Dow Chemical in October 1967 marked the first use of tear gas on campus.

Starting in 1966, black students began organizing by educating themselves, bringing in speakers and advocating for changes with the university administration. By February 1969, black students were frustrated over what they considered meager progress on race-related campus goals, and they were outraged that 94 black students at the University of Wisconsin campus in Oshkosh recently had been expelled following a protest there. A week-long conference at UW–Madison on "The Black Revolution: To What Ends?" further emboldened students.

Liberty Rashad

Liberty Rashad Leader of the campus Black People’s Alliance and a strike organizer

We had a lot of issues we wanted to deal with. The fact that there was an African Studies Department but nothing about "African America," so to speak, was quite distressful. So we immediately targeted that as a big issue we wanted to tackle. And secondly, we wanted to increase the number of African-American students — students of color in general — on campus, because it was just outrageous that you have this huge university with this teensy-weensy minority that’s not even a drop in the bucket.

Donna M. Jones

Donna M. Jones Strike organizer and spokeswoman

The university kept saying it had almost 1,000 black students, but no one believed that. We determined that many of those students were from Africa. There were not nearly as many African-American students. So we definitely wanted more black students and more black faculty members. (The university did not publicly report enrollment data by race at the time, only by country of origin.)

Hazel Symonette

Hazel Symonette Graduate student and strike participant

What I remember as a triggering factor was the Five Year Program. The director was a white woman. The person was nice and had done good work to even get the program started, but it needed something different. So there was a lot of turbulence around that. (The program was an early effort to recruit African-American students.)

John Felder

John Felder Strike organizer and spokesman

We were also aware that, after Martin Luther King had died, we were part of a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement. We wanted to do our part in our location to advance the cause.

Gerald Lenoir

Gerald Lenoir Strike participant

Black students, including me, were going through what one sociologist dubbed "the Negro-to-Black transformation." We were cementing a new identity that was in formation when we arrived here, and we were fighting to be recognized as full human beings worthy of recognition in all of our dimensions.

On Feb. 7, 1969, black students presented 13 "non-negotiable" demands to the administration, including the creation of a Black Studies Department, the admission of at least 500 black students for the fall semester of 1969, and the immediate enrollment of any expelled Oshkosh students who wanted to attend UW–Madison.

Reporters, TV cameras, and photographers crowd around the UW Chancellor Edwin Young as he addresses the press from a narrow hallway. Photo by John Wolf
enlarge The official typed document listing the 13 demands presented to UW Administration. Photo: UW Archives

Liberty Rashad: (The administration) had been promising and they’d been reneging on their promises. There was just a whole lot of back and forth, back and forth, until we got to the point that we said, "OK, these are our demands now." And what we did to back up the demands is, "If you’re not going to meet them, we’re going to organize a strike."

John Felder: There was such resistance, such a refusal to do anything, that we thought that it was necessary for us to go on strike.

Liberty Rashad: We were pushing it to the limit to get what we wanted, and that was sort of our last resort.

The official typed document listing the 13 demands presented to UW Administration. Photo: UW Archives

In a four-page response, UW–Madison Chancellor Edwin Young said the university had been "challenged to do more to give black people adequate weapons with which to fight their way out of misery and poverty" and that "this is a kind of challenge we gladly accept." He contended progress was being made, pointing to courses in Afro-American studies, a seminar on black history offered the prior two semesters, and a black literature course established by the English Department. The student protesters deemed the measures inadequate.

It’s important to remember that the student strike was the culmination of three years of efforts – many meetings, agreements made and broken, a relentless faith in the protest process. It got to the point where we felt that the only power we had left was the power to disrupt. We held the university to the standard they committed to – equality – and told them basically, "Put up or shut up."

Wahid Rashad Wahid Rashad Strike organizer and a leader of the campus
Black People’s Alliance

Strike leaders called for a boycott of classes starting Feb. 10, 1969. On the first day, as many as 3,000 students demonstrated in front of 10 campus buildings, emphasizing the boycott of classes and nonviolent confrontation.

Students stand arm in arm blocking entrances to university buildings in support of the strike. Photo by John Wolf
Geraldine Hines

Geraldine Hines, a first-year law student and strike participant: I can remember being at the Law School and sitting on the steps and making it known that I was part of it and that I was striking. One of the assistant deans came by and said to me that it was disgraceful and that I should not be doing that and that it was unbecoming.

They changed to more disruptive tactics the next day, blocking building entrances and bursting into lecture halls to halt classes.

Richard Spritz

Richard Spritz First-year student and strike participant

(UW–Madison Police Chief) Ralph Hanson would come out with a bullhorn, yelling, "Aaaah! Aaaah! Disperse! Don’t block the buildings!" And people would be yelling, "On strike! Shut it down!" And there would be police with riot gear on.

John Kaminski

John Kaminski Student

Our political science class was occupied by 10 to 15 young black men who demanded that we stop the lecture and discuss "democracy" and the need for an African-American Studies Department. When Professor William Young put the issue to a vote, the entire class voted that he should continue lecturing, whereupon several of the black males literally picked Professor Young up and carried him out of the classroom.

enlarge African American female students rally in front of Bascom Hall, one holds a sign reading: Reinstate Oshkosh Blacks. Photo by John Wolf

Striking students presented administrators with 13 demands, including the immediate enrollment of any expelled Oshkosh students who wished to attend UW–Madison. Ninety-four students at Wisconsin State College Oshkosh were arrested and expelled following a November 1968 protest that came to be known as Black Thursday. Photo by John Wolf

enlarge A long line of local and regional law enforcement line up in front of Bascom Hall, armed with batons and helmet gear. Photo: UW Archives

As the strike went on, the law enforcement presence on campus grew, with hundreds of local and regional police officers working alongside more than 2,000 National Guardsmen. Photo: UW Archives

African American female students rally in front of Bascom Hall, one holds a sign reading: Reinstate Oshkosh Blacks. Photo by John Wolf
As the strike went on, the law enforcement presence on campus grew, with hundreds of local and regional police officers working alongside more than 2,000 National Guardsmen. Photo: UW Archives
David Marcou

David Marcou Student

Our calculus professor was a tiny man physically, with a quick wit and generally winning style. But he didn't know what to do when Harvey Clay ascended the lecture stage and tossed a very large metal desk like kindling off the stage. I learned a lot from that incident. Black students did have legitimate grievances and needed to do something to gain positive attention and action.

Harvey Clay

Harvey Clay First-year student, football player and a leading protester

I grabbed the desk and tossed it in rage. I just thought at the time that we weren’t respected. I was completely ticked off and felt that at least we should be respected and be able to voice our opinion. I had been beaten by the police for no reason. Some people would say, "Why wouldn’t you remain calm?" Calm for what?

A handcuffed Harvey Clay holds a bandage to his forehead while standing next to a shorter white policeman. Photo: UW Archives

Clay was one of at least two dozen protesters, both black and white, arrested by campus and area police during the strike, sustaining a head wound in the process. Clay says he was trying to protect female protesters from being knocked over by rampaging male students who opposed the strike.

Harvey Clay: I was probably the biggest, most visible sight there, so I became a target. I was blindsided when one of about 13 or 14 police officers cracked my head open with a riot stick. I still have the scars.

Gerald Lenoir: I remember being bum-rushed by the Madison police as they came through swinging billy clubs. I remember them pushing me aside and brutally beating Harvey to the ground.

On Feb. 12, after the UW police chief said the disruptions were more than 350 police officers could handle, Gov. Warren Knowles activated 900 Wisconsin National Guard troops. Commenting to the press, he called the protesters "a radical element," adding, "the educational process must be able to move forward (and) the lives and safety of students and faculty and the property of the university must be protected." The guardsmen, many of them UW–Madison students, arrived the next morning.

Black and white image of National Guardsmen armed with bayonets marching down University Avenue in February of 1969. Photo by John Wolf

Guardsmen with bayonets fixed to the muzzles of their rifles march down University Avenue. Photo by John Wolf

Frank Emspak

Frank Emspak Member of the steering committee of The United Front, a group of white students who supported the strike

Think about this: You have somebody who is a student yesterday, who may or may not be a racist, who doesn’t like what’s necessarily going on, standing there with a loaded rifle as you’re walking by.

Liberty Rashad

The adrenaline was very high. What we knew was that we had to run circles around them, and that’s what we did. That was our strategy, to keep moving. We had people here, there and everywhere, and we’d be over here creating a disturbance, and they were running trying to keep up with it. I remember they had helicopters circling all over town. We were nonviolent and we stuck to that, but they used tear gas, they used pepper spray, and they used their batons.

National Guardsmen lined up outdoors and point their bayonets toward protesting students, one of them standing directly in front of them taking a picture. Photo by John Wolf
Chaos on campus with National Guardsmen wearing gas masks dispersing tear gas into a crowd of protestors on campus. Photo by John Wolf
Guardsmen in foreground and in the distance as tear gas is dispersed on campus. Photo by John Wolf
Medic with medical red and white armband assisting an injured male protestor on the ground outdoors. Photo by John Wolf
Minton Brooks

Minton Brooks Strike participant

Activating the National Guard was the last thing they should’ve done, because then it really became magnified tremendously, and huge numbers of people would come out.

On the evening of Feb. 13, an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 people – the largest crowd of the strike – marched without incident to the Capitol.

Indeed, white students, many of them learning about racism for the first time, had become important allies.

Minton Brooks

My perspective was that of a relatively clueless, white, upper-middle-class guy, of which there were many at UW. I went to Van Hise Hall and blocked the doors there and was confronted by really nasty objections from students just wanting to get to class. The strike had a big impact on me because it was the first time I put my body on the line, blocking doors and dealing with screaming students.

enlarge White students became important allies during the Black Student Strike, swelling the ranks of protesters to many thousands at times. Photo: UW Archives

White students became important allies during the Black Student Strike, swelling the ranks of protesters to many thousands at times. Photo: UW Archives

enlarge Occasional scuffles broke out as demonstrators and counterprotesters clashed. Some students did not agree with the demands of the strikers; others were upset that their education was being disrupted. Photo by John Wolf

Occasional scuffles broke out as demonstrators and counterprotesters clashed. Some students did not agree with the demands of the strikers; others were upset that their education was being disrupted. Photo by John Wolf

White allies became important allies during the Black Student Strike, swelling the ranks of protesters to many thousands at times. Photo: UW Archives
Occasional scuffles broke out as demonstrators and counter-protesters clashed. Some students did not agree with the demands of the strikers; others were upset that their education was being disrupted. Photo by John Wolf

Richard Spritz

By complete chance, my assigned roommate as a freshman in Witte Hall was a black student from the far south side of Chicago. We became firm friends, as I did with his best friend, a high-school classmate. I think they felt completely marginalized. It was a university of mostly white people that was mostly speaking to white people and white people’s goals and aspirations.

Dolores Emspak

Dolores Emspak Graduate student

(The racism) was not only prevalent but very out front. I can remember going around trying to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for their drive for voter registration. People in the dorms who had probably never even spoken with a black person in their whole life would say to me, "We don’t think they should be allowed to vote." Nobody made any effort to even hide how they felt.

Kathy Schneider Michaelis

Kathy Schneider Michaelis Strike participant

On the night that thousands of us marched around the Capitol Square, my parents in small town Wisconsin actually picked me out of the crowd. I’m only 5 feet 2 inches, but I was recognizable by the huge brown-and-white scarf my mom had made me. Their reaction was not positive.

Donna M. Jones

The participation of white allies was very valuable. The anti-Vietnam War protests and the black student protests really supported each other, because at the time it was well known that poorer men were being drafted for the war and black men were disproportionately dying on the frontlines. So when they marched, we supported them. And when we marched, they supported us.

Maury Cotter

Maury Cotter White student who, together with a black student on her dorm floor, landed a meeting with the UW System president

We thought if the two of us went, we would represent the issue from multiple perspectives. We had no idea the university had a chancellor, so we went to the president of the System. We were naïve enough to be so bold to ask, and they likely thought we had more influence than we did.

Upon arrival, Cotter and her friend were greeted by the president. When it became apparent that they were not representing an official group, a vice president continued the conversation with them.

Maury Cotter

We tried to tell our perspective of what we thought was important. I don’t know if anything came of it beyond that, but we thought meeting face-to-face would help create better understanding. It’s a philosophy of mine: Do what you can from where you sit, and do it as authentically as you can with your own perspective and story and with whatever influence and power you have, no matter how limited it may be.

While thousands of students supported the strike, many did not. Some opposed the group’s demands; others supported the demands but not the group’s tactics. And some students simply didn’t appreciate their education being interrupted.

Frank Emspak

Basically, it was not business as usual, but you have 35,000 students on campus. Even if 5,000 or 6,000 people are doing something, most people are not, and that was also true.

Some students actively confronted the protesters, including posting a sign to the Abe Lincoln statue atop Bascom Hill reading, "Down With Student Fascism." Strikers and counterprotesters occasionally scuffled.

Wahid Rashad

We were on Bascom Hill and there were these white football players who wanted to disrupt us and push us around, but the black wrestlers and black football players came and pushed them back and backed us up.

UW–Madison administrators were far from alone in their opposition to the strike. A petition signed by 1,372 faculty members, about two-thirds of the faculty, supported the administration’s stance.

Frank Emspak

I wish we had been able to win the faculty vote. On the table were all the black demands, and the university’s position was, "We have to support the chancellor. We have to support the governor calling out the National Guard." A law-and-order position, basically.

African American leaders of the student strike hold a rally outdoors. Photo: UW Archives

For the leaders of the protest, the strike was both a major growth experience and a culmination of years of study and preparation.

Harvey Clay: I was very nervous. I’m a country boy from Texas. I had never participated in anything like that. I was trying to help make a difference and trying to get some fairness that I thought we did not have at the university.

Wahid Rashad: We were versed in the issues. You couldn’t out-talk us or intimidate us in a debate. If we got on TV, we articulated. We got the support of the community from that articulation and the self-education we gave each other. We were comfortable and confident.

Liberty Rashad

We just worked, worked, worked, worked, and we organized, organized, organized. It took a lot of that to make it happen.

Frank Emspak

I just remember endless meetings.

By Feb. 21, strike organizers had called for a moratorium on protests due to smaller turnouts, though there was a brief flare-up on Feb. 27.

Frank Emspak

It was a brilliant success for a week. The number of people probably peaked on the Tuesday and Wednesday of that second week, and then petered out.

Wahid Rashad

It was the winter. Less and less people came out. We never said, "It’s over." I wish it had gone on longer, but I understand that people have exams and stuff.

Liberty Rashad

It’s kind of a blur to me right now (how long the strike lasted). It was enough time for (the administration) to give in.

On March 3, the Faculty Senate, on the recommendation of the campus Committee on Studies and Instruction in Race Relations, OK’d a plan to create an Afro-American Studies Department. The committee had been researching the issue since May 1968. However, because of the protesters’ demands, the committee moved from a conversation about individual black history and literature classes to a recommendation for a full department.

Seymour Spilerman Assistant professor and a member of the Committee on Studies and Instruction in Race Relations

There was a feeling that the university had to take steps to show that it understood the pain of African-American students, while not necessarily agreeing with how they were expressing that pain. It certainly was the right thing to do, and perhaps it should have been done earlier.

Hazel Symonette

That was a major accomplishment to get that department.

The Afro-American Studies Department, which exists to this day, began in the fall of 1970 and is considered the most tangible result of the strike. Other outcomes were less direct, though many people credit the strike with a renewed commitment on the part of the administration to recruit African-American students, to hire and promote faculty and staff of color, and to strengthen the campus Afro-American & Race Relations Center by hiring a permanent, full-time director.

Frank Emspak

It would have been nice to say we had this great march down State Street in victory, but that’s not what happened. There were clearly changes made, though we didn’t get the additional 500 African-American freshmen, that’s for sure.

The earliest reporting of student race/ethnicity in official university records came five years later, in the 1974-75 academic year: Of 36,915 undergraduate and graduate students, 825 (2 percent) identified as African-American. In recent years, the data collection has changed to allow students to report multiple racial identities. In 2018-19, of 44,411 students, 1,443 (3 percent) identified as African-American, either solely or in addition to other identities.

Liberty Rashad

There wasn’t any way for us, as students who were leaving or graduating, to see those kinds of things through, which is always the problem with campus movements. (Other students) have to keep on pushing, keep on making a loud noise and keep on doing stuff that would push the envelope further.

Wahid Rashad

I don’t have any regrets. I think the strike was a success. I was very pleased that we got our issues out there in the whole community, and we did it in such a way that there was a lot of support. The university began talking about spending more money (on the issues we’d raised).

Hazel Symonette

We stand on the shoulders of those undergraduate activists who sacrificed and gave so much — some of whom lost the opportunity to secure a UW degree.

Wahid Rashad

If I came back to campus, I would say this to black students: "Do not feel marginalized. Be you. Be confident and do your thing. Let your light shine."

Where Are They Now

An overhead shot of hundreds of students gathered at the intersection of Linden and Charter. Photo: UW Archives