UW–Madison releases report on student organizations that took name of KKK in 1920s

April 19, 2018 By Doug Erickson

UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank today announced several initiatives in response to a new report reviewing the history of two student organizations that operated under the name Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s.

Blank last fall charged a study group with researching the history of the organizations and advising how the university can best acknowledge and respond to it.

The report states, “The history the UW needs to confront was not the aberrant work of a few individuals but a pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry, casual and unexamined in its prevalence, in which exclusion and indignity were routine, sanctioned in the institution’s daily life and unchallenged by its leaders.”

It proposes two actions to acknowledge and remedy this discrimination: a history project that identifies and gives voice to those who experienced and challenged prejudice on campus; and a further commitment to current programs designed to increase diversity and create a more equitable campus community.

In response, Chancellor Blank has charged Professors Stephen Kantrowitz and Christy Clark-Pujara with leading a group to design a campuswide public history project to capture the experience of those on campus who endured, fought and overcame prejudice, not just in the early 1920s but throughout the history of the university.

This would be an important step in acknowledging the past and helping the university community learn from it, according to Dr. Floyd Rose, co-chair of the study group and president of 100 Black Men of Madison.

“Many people, despite being pushed to the margins of campus life during this era, demanded a full and equal place in it,” he says. “Their histories deserve a prominent place on campus.”

The group considered but ultimately did not recommend renaming any campus facilities that are named after individuals who were members of the student organizations, instead focusing on a series of actions that expand the university’s ownership of its history and ensure greater inclusivity in the future.

“Rather than singling out particular names, our advice is to first confront the broader and deeper lessons of that era and to commit the university’s resources to reverse the lingering legacies of that culture of intolerance,” says Kantrowitz, who co-chaired the study group with Rose.

Chancellor Blank praised the report and thanked the group members for the difficult task they undertook.

“Revisiting this history is important, even as it causes anger and discomfort,” Blank says. “Understanding our past is necessary if we want to understand who we are today and the work we still need to do on diversity and inclusion. The challenge is to turn the results of this report into meaningful action. The study group has provided a thoughtful and nuanced document that lays out an excellent path forward.”

Blank announced several other actions based on the report, including:

  • Funding a proposal from the four ethnic studies divisions to hire four new faculty members, each of whom will be jointly appointed with other departments, over the next year.
  • Allocating new resources to the recruitment of top scholars from underrepresented groups in the coming year. Details of this initiative are still in development and will be announced publicly in fall 2018.
  • For a complete list, visit news.wisc.edu/confronting-campus-history-uw-madison-actions/.

The steps build on efforts to create a more representative and inclusive campus detailed in the 2015 “Affecting R.E.E.L. (Retain, Equip, Engage, Lead) Change” document and in the 2016 Campus Climate Survey report.

According to the report, two UW–Madison student organizations took the name “Ku Klux Klan” between 1919 and 1926. Both organizations formed more than a half-century after the establishment of the Klan in 1866 in Tennessee. Members of the early Reconstruction-era Klan, wearing hoods and robes, committed horrific acts of racially motivated terrorism, including murder, rape and torture. This first iteration of the Klan had faded substantially by the early 1870s, according to the report.

Popular culture and post-World War I racism, nativism and religious prejudice fueled the Klan’s renewed momentum in the early 20th century. Amid this backdrop, the first UW–Madison group emerged in 1919, establishing an interfraternity society under the name Ku Klux Klan.

This group was “an unmasked, above-ground interfraternity society composed of leading students,” the report says. The historical record on the group’s activities is scant, but it appears to have had no connection with the national Klan organization.

“Still, (the first group’s) choice of a name signals an identification — or at the very least, no meaningful discomfort — with the widely known violent actions of the Reconstruction-era Klan as it was remembered, celebrated and given new cultural and institutional life in the early 20th century,” the report states.

The second group at UW–Madison was a direct product of a new for-profit fraternal organization in the country dubbed the “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” The national organization began recruiting on the UW–Madison campus in 1922 and found “some success among the faculty and student body,” the report states. The UW administration apparently had no concerns about the group, and in 1924 a Klan-controlled housing fraternity, Kappa Beta Lambda (KBL, for “Klansmen Be Loyal”) was established at UW–Madison. A Milwaukee Klan newspaper praised this group’s commitment to the Klan principles of “White Supremacy, Restricted Foreign Immigration, Law and Order.”

The emergence of the second group inspired the first group to change its name to the cryptic “Tumas.” Tumas persisted for a few more years. The second group expired in 1926.

The culture of intolerance that led to the emergence of these student groups was a defining feature of American national life in this era and was not unique to UW–Madison, the report says. Expressions of anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant and racist opinions were common.

“This helps explain how campus organizations of the time could so easily or eagerly adopt the name ‘Ku Klux Klan’ and why so few at the UW objected,” the report states.

The report mentions two student members by name: Porter Butts and Fredric March. Both are memorialized on campus due to the accomplished lives they went on to lead. Both were members of the first campus group.

At the age of 23, Butts became the first director of the Wisconsin Union. Under his direction, the Wisconsin Union “became a place where all members of the community were welcome, to the point where those who wanted to practice exclusion had to host their events elsewhere,” the report says. In his long career in Madison and as a national leader in the organization of student unions, Butts promoted policies of nondiscrimination, mutual understanding and openness to debate. The Memorial Union’s art gallery is named after him.

March became a Tony-winning stage actor and won best actor Academy Awards for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931) and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).  He was a leader in the fight against the efforts to identify and persecute “Communist sympathizers” in the 1950s. The Fredric March Play Circle, a theater inside the Memorial Union, is named after him.

Chancellor Blank announced the study group in August, saying UW–Madison rejects the ideologies of white supremacist groups and all groups that express hatred of people because of their identities. The group’s charge came in the wake of the protests and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and amid a national debate over Confederate memorials and other reminders of the nation’s troubled history of racism. The panel consisted of nine campus and community members.

Chancellor’s Blog: Confronting our campus history