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Black Protest, White Hysteria

Police lined up for the arrest of African American students during “Black Thursday” in Oshkosh. Photo courtesy of UW – Oshkosh archives.

 

 

By Stephen Kercher

Early in the morning on Nov. 21, 1968, 90 African American students attending Wisconsin State University in Oshkosh, Wisconsin (WSU-O) assembled in front of the campus administration building and steeled their nerves for an unannounced visit with the university president. In the hand of the group’s spokesperson was a list of demands, which included a call for the introduction of black history and literature into the curriculum, the hiring of black faculty, the recruitment of additional black students, the creation of a black student cultural center and a series of other measures which they hoped would assure their safety and help restore their dignity. 

Throughout the previous three months, the students had been subject to verbal abuse, overt discrimination, and even physical assault, and as members of the campus Black Student Union (BSU), they had resolved to circumvent the foot-dragging of the bureaucratic entity charged with overseeing the black students’ welfare – the inelegantly named Committee for the Culturally Distinct – by bringing their demands to the desk of the man “at the top.”

At approximately 8:30, the students left the brisk air outside, entered the administration building and began climbing the steps to the second floor executive suite of President Roger Guiles. They were tired (many had not slept the night before), tense and on edge. 

Among their ranks was a mild-mannered, third-year accounting student named Rufus Finner. In a letter to the student newspaper that was published later that same day, Finner (now calling himself a “militant junior”) gave vent to the frustration he and many other black students were experiencing. “Just give us our proper respect,” Finner wrote, “and stop heckling us from the crowds when you see us on campus.” 

“Your system sowed the seeds of hatred, racism and evil. Now you are reaping what you have sown. You made the cake, now eat it.” When Finner and his fellow students appeared before Guiles, the president, seated at his desk, looked up and, startled by the assemblage, asked:  “Do you have an appointment?”

What happened next has been hotly contested in Oshkosh for the past 45 years. Guiles refused to sign the students’ list of demands, claiming that he alone did not possess the authority to take action on them. A tense standstill ensued. Tempers began to flare. According to Guiles and a second administrator present at the scene, a directive to “do your thing” issued by one of the students signaled a brief but intense bout of destruction, with typewriters thrown out windows, desks overturned, ink spilled onto carpets, and administrative files and records strewn about the premises. 

Disputing the notion of a premeditated plan of attack, eyewitnesses interviewed over the past several years have claimed that the destruction came at the hands of only a small number of the students – perhaps a dozen or so – and erupted spontaneously, spurred on by the anger and frustration that had been building within them for weeks and was now suddenly triggered by the countenance of the obstinate white authority figure before them. 

It appears clear the students lacked a script, and they were forced to deliberate their next move under adverse circumstances. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the students resolved to sit in and wait until the university showed some sign of accommodation. 

“I can give up a few hours of my life for my future,” one student resigned as she prepared to wait for the results of emergency deliberations undertaken by the administration. While a few plainclothes Oshkosh police, photographers and angry white students assembled just outside of the executive offices, students sat scattered within, some passing around books and engaging in conversation, others singing freedom songs.

While the 90 students continued their sit in and awaited the results of an administrative “crisis meeting” called to address the students’ demands, police dispatched from nine cities within a sixty-mile radius of Oshkosh amassed and prepared to restore the university’s control over the occupied offices.

When Oshkosh Police Captain Robert Kliforth issued an order to vacate the offices, the students once again weighed their options. Fortunately, those who pleaded with their fellow students to go to jail peacefully prevailed. The students were escorted outside of Dempsey Hall along a phalanx of helmeted police and then herded into rented U-Haul trucks idling outside. Taken to the Winnebago County courthouse shortly before noon, the students were formally charged with unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct, arraigned, and then distributed to prisons throughout the region. Within a month all of the 90 students – whether responsible for any property destruction or not – were expelled from the Wisconsin State University system and blackballed by other institutions of higher learning throughout the state.

During the tail end of the ’60s, campus demonstrations such as the one that occurred on November 21 – a day the WSU-O campus newspaper soon dubbed “Black Thursday” – spread throughout the United States. Often overshadowed in historical memory by the dramatic antiwar demonstrations staged on campuses during the same period, these episodes of organized protest, judging by the extensive media coverage devoted to episodes such as “Black Thursday,” triggered angry, occasionally hysterical reactions among white Americans. 

Often dismissed at the time as manifestations of the period’s youthful nihilistic rebellion or the frightening outgrowth of violent black separatism, this student component of the black liberation movement was first and foremost a signal of the determination of a generation of young African Americans to gain access to American higher education for the good of their professional ambitions, their entry into the ranks of the middle class and, in the long run, for the improvement of their communities. By pushing through the advance of affirmative action in college admissions and paving the way for hundreds of new black studies programs, the black student movement impacted American higher education significantly. 

Stephen Kercher directs the Black Thursday Oral History Project and is a Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He has been a frequent visitor to Baileys Harbor since the mid 1970s. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 920-424-7158.