Many of the ninety black students who assembled on Algoma Boulevard at 8:30 on the morning of November 21 were tense, nervous and angry. As a group, the students had resolved to hand President Guiles a list of demands—a more forceful, and determined list than what the group had submitted in October. They hoped he would sign the list and thereby give his consent to an expedited effort to resolve several outstanding issues. Failing that, some of the students hoped to obtain at least some acknowledgement of their concerns. But no one who ascended the stairs of Dempsey Hall on the way to the executive offices knew how the president or anyone else would act under pressure.
When the students finally appeared in the executive offices, President Guiles sitting at his desk, looked up and, startled, asked: “Do you have an appointment?” Forty students silently crowded into his office and presented the demands. Guiles steadfastly refused claiming that he did not possess the authority alone to take action. What happened next has been disputed for forty years. According to Roger 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 vandalism, with typewriters thrown to the ground, desks overturned, ink spilled onto carpets, windows broken, and administrative files and records strewn about. Disputing the notion of a premeditated plan of attack, many students have claimed that the destruction erupted spontaneously, spurred on by the anger and frustration that had been building within them for weeks and now suddenly triggered by the countenance of the obstinate white authority figure who was before them.
Absent direct evidence and instead dependent on clashing eyewitness accounts, on disputed testimony taken at subsequent disciplinary hearings and the imperfect memories recorded in years since, what transpired in Dempsey Hall on the morning of November 21, 1968—“Black Thursday,” as the student newspaper The Advance Titan designated it several weeks later—will always be somewhat shrouded in mystery. It seems clear, however, that students’ culpability varied widely, that a good number of students were only witnesses and not participants in the destruction.
With a renewed sense of urgency. President Guiles explained to the black students that he could authorize nothing until he received a report from the committee of faculty and administrators who were coincidentally meeting that same morning to discuss the demands the students had submitted earlier. The students vowed to sit and wait in the Executive Offices until the Committee issued its report and a timetable for subsequent action was reached with President Guiles. “I can give up a few hours of my life for my future,” one student resigned as she prepared to wait. 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. When one of the students saw a throng of police in riot gear approaching, the atmosphere grew suddenly tense. Following Oshkosh Police Captain Robert Kliforth’s order to vacate the offices, the students hastily 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—obtained through the cooperation of nine cities throughout the region—and then herded into rented Hertz 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 as far away as Green Bay. As nightfall approached, feelings of fear, anger and confusion hung over Oshkosh and its Wisconsin State campus. Alerted to the events of the morning, Father James Groppi traveled swiftly to Oshkosh. He was met by NAACP Commandos from Milwaukee and members of Madison’s Black People’s Alliance, all of whom had converged in WSU-O’s Reeve Memorial Union along with leaders of white student groups who were sympathetic to the black students’ plight. When plans to stage a sit-in there were foiled by police, nearly a thousand students and activists marched down Algoma Boulevard toward the Winnebago County Courthouse. As protestors later surrounded the president’s darkened home, Roger Guiles huddled with his advisors and made two decisions: he would close the university for Thanksgiving break five days early in an effort to ease tensions and prevent the outbreak of violence and, more importantly, he would initiate procedures to have the students who occupied his office permanently expelled from the university.
As news of the Oshkosh demonstration spread throughout the United States, WSU-O students and citizens of northeast Wisconsin reacted with varying degrees of panic and anger. As members of the Oshkosh Citizen Band Radio Club set up mobile communications units at strategic street corners in order to keep city and county police notified of developments, angry callers besieged a conservative call-in radio program on local radio station WOSH. Student counterdemonstrators meanwhile began a petition campaign calling for the black students’ suspension and taunted the students’ supporters by shouting “Keep ‘em in jail” and “Throw them in the Wolf River.” Were it not for the presence of over one hundred uniformed police, one observer noted, the confrontations between students on Algoma Boulevard could have ended “in a fist-swinging melee.”
Immediately the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern warned obliquely that “there are those who say these ‘anarchists’ [the black students] should be off the campus and out of town by sunset today.” Over the next several days, Northwestern editorials validated local taxpayers’ disgust with the destruction of state property. “Nothing would warrant the savage acts that included the overturning of desks,” the Northwestern opined. Together with local politicians, the Northwestern insisted that “no mere ‘slap on the wrist’ can compensate for damage done.” Referring to the administration’s decision to suspend the students, the Northwestern stated: “Such prompt and unequivocal action will be noted across the country and those who have been dismayed by previous inaction will take heart in this action.”
To understand the sentiments behind the Northwestern’s editorials and the letters sent to university and local government officials, to comprehend how the events of Black Thursday unfolded in late 1968, it is critical to understand the nature and widespread appeal of the period’s “law and order” politics. As Wisconsinites and citizens throughout the United States witnessed civil rights demonstrations, urban rioting, antiwar protests, political assassinations, and the chaos of the Democrat’s political convention in Chicago, many yearned for a way to contain the spreading civil disorder. Conservative “law and order” politicians such as California governor Ronald Reagan, Alabama governor George Wallace (a politician who found much favor locally) and the new president, Richard M. Nixon harnessed Americans’ fear and apprehension brilliantly, calling for the termination of liberal permissiveness, a crackdown on dissidents, and the restoration of respect and authority.
In Oshkosh and Milwaukee, calls for stiff punishment and the restoration of “law and order” echoed the types of conservative appeals President Nixon was making to white voters, those whom he would soon label “the silent majority.” But public opinion in Oshkosh and Milwaukee was far from unanimous. Indeed, like many other American communities caught in the crossfire of the 1960s civil war, these cities were deeply split over issues just like those prompted by the Black Thursday demonstrations. Although many of suspended students’ parents disapproved of the children’s participation in the demonstration, they realized the necessity of closing ranks in support of their young sons and daughters, most of whom were still only in their teens. Back in Oshkosh, the suspended students found their greatest support among a small but growing group of student radicals and a contingent of politically liberal faculty. Although liberal faculty members took pains to explain that they regarded the students’ vandalism as impetuous and ill-advised, they expressed concern over the administration’s apparent disregard for the motivations behind the protests and considered the suspension of the entire group of students without proof of individual culpability a violation of students’ rights and the due process of law.
Two central questions concerning the treatment of the black student demonstrators emerged in the early phases of their civil trial (conducted at the Winnebago County Courthouse) and the campus disciplinary hearings: would the students be prosecuted as a group or as individuals, and, in the face of bitter public enmity, how would students’ procedural rights be protected? Milwaukee civil rights attorney Lloyd Barbee representing a great majority of those arrested, insisted that the black student defendants—all of whom faced the possibility of two-year prison terms—receive individual trials, even though this would place a great strain on the county court’s caseload.
A similar plea to the WSU administration and Board of Regents was rejected, thus triggering a long and complicated legal battle that ended up in the U.S. District courtroom of Judge James E. Doyle, the father of our current governor. On December 6 Doyle ruled that WSU Oshkosh had to hold a hearing by December 20 in order to determine the students’ futures at the university.
In a span of three days, a hearing was conducted at the Winnebago County Courthouse in Oshkosh. Few people were satisfied at the hurried pace of the proceedings. Worse yet, only one of the Oshkosh 94—Willie Sinclair—was able to testify about his involvement in the demonstration. In the end, neither the testimony of Sinclair, the protestations of the students’ attorneys, the presentation of facts, nor the sanctity of due process itself were any match for the Board of Regents’ determination to punish the Oshkosh 94.
On December 20 Regent W. Roy Kopp of Platteville delivered the board’s unanimous decision to expel ninety of the Oshkosh 94. (Four other students were only suspended since their attorneys were able to prove that they were not in Dempsey Hall when the damage occurred on the morning of November 21.)
The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern applauded the WSU Board of Regents’ decision soon after it was rendered. “Let the rest of the nation note,” it crowed, “that here a stand has been made for law and order, for a restoration of limits to which patience may be extended….A corner has been turned in Oshkosh.” Not everyone agreed, of course. White students at WSU-O—until this time relatively quiet when compared to their protesting counterparts at the UW Madison campus seventy-five miles to the southwest— students awoke to the reality of racial injustice and suddenly felt compelled to speak out against the way the Oshkosh 94 were treated.
By early February 1969 the influence of student protestors had gained so much ground that members of the student government voted in favor of a strike, which would force the university to shut down. President Guiles managed to prevent a strike by promising the WSU-O students a special investigation into the Black Thursday demonstration and allegations that professors in the departments of History, English, Political Science and International Studies who sympathized with the Oshkosh 94 were being fired or intimidated by the WSU administration.
Protests against the expulsion of the ninety black students continued outside of Oshkosh as well. White and black students at WSU-Whitewater, UW Milwaukee and Lawrence College in Appleton had the events of Black Thursday clearly in mind when they waged demonstrations on their own campuses in the months following November 21. The Oshkosh 94 found their greatest source of solidarity among students at UW Madison.
When members of the UW Madison Black People’s Alliance (BPA) approached their campus administration and asked for better treatment and greater respect, they included among their demands: “That the University use all influence with the Oshkosh administration to readmit those students…and failing this [see to it] that they be admitted to the University of Wisconsin next semester without prejudice.” News that the University of Wisconsin was denying admission to three members of the Oshkosh 94—members of the Oshkosh 94 were being “blackballed” at campuses throughout the state of Wisconsin and elsewhere—helped precipitate a week-long student strike on the UW Madison campus the following February.
In the ten months that followed Black Thursday, WSU-O committed itself to making a series of improvements for black students on campus. It recognized a new black student organization, the Afro-American Society, and converted the campus Intercultural Center into a new Afro-American Center. Under the direction of an energetic, new black assistant dean of students, Curtis Holt, the Afro-American Society and Center began sponsoring a speakers series, music festival, and a black theater workshop. Faculty members such as Virginia Crane began offering classes on black history and literature.
Since 1969, black students at WSU-O and its successor, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, have attempted to preserve the memory and meaning of Black Thursday on campus.
Over a dozen members of the Oshkosh 94 re-enrolled at WSU-O and, much to their credit, returned to the Oshkosh campus determined to succeed. Like other members of the Oshkosh 94 who eventually pursued higher education elsewhere, they later enjoyed successful careers in education, business, law and the performing arts. As these individuals realized, however, the personal stories of many other members of the Oshkosh 94 did not end so well. Indeed, the dream of obtaining a college education abruptly ended for many on November 21, 1968. For these former students, certainly, the legacy of Black Thursday is mixed with pain and misgiving.