This year the UW-Madison witnessed calls for racial justice and protests more intense than any since the 1960s. Historian Jonathan Z. S. Pollack, a CJS honorary fellow, describes that turbulent decade and the role of Jews in supporting the civil rights movement on campus. The article is excerpted from Wisconsin, The New Home of the Jew: 150 Years of Jewish Life at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, published by the Mosse/Weinstein Center with a generous grant from Julie and Peter Weil. Pollack’s book is now available in full through the UW-Madison Libraries’ digitized collections: https://search.library.wisc.edu/digital/A746I6CNBBR4RC8D.
Looking Back: Jews in the Civil Rights Movement at the UW-Madison
By Jonathan Z. S. Pollack
On March 3, 1960, UW students demonstrated on Library Mall to support the civil rights movement, which had begun its campaign of sit-ins a month before. Addressing the roughly five hundred students who had turned out despite snow and freezing temperatures, Hillel director Max Ticktin urged the assembled students to focus on local conditions as well as the southern Jim Crow laws that the civil rights movement fought against. “I hope we do not leave here without making a judgment on the discrimination that exists in subtle ways right here in Madison,” Ticktin advised. He went on to state that restaurants, barbershops, fraternities, and sororities were sites for local discrimination. He also urged students to support the Congress on Racial Equality in their efforts to fight Jim Crow. Ticktin’s comments emphasized the connection between Judaism and movements for social change. As the leader of the organized Jewish community on campus, he used that authority to place Jews on the liberal side of a nascent movement that would grow exponentially during the next decade.
Despite there being only a small African American population at UW and in the city of Madison, the University of Wisconsin was a hotbed of civil rights movement activity, and Jewish students on campus were leaders both in national civil rights campaigns in the South and local ones in the Madison area. Jewish students like Paul Breines took part in the 1961 Freedom Rides, where white and African American activists rode interstate buses into the segregated South to challenge the nonenforcement of Supreme Court decisions that ruled that segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus facilities, was unconstitutional. The riders endured arrests and brutal violence. Two of the three activists murdered in 1964’s Freedom Summer, when activists volunteered to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, were Jewish, and one of them, Andrew Goodman, had attended UW for a semester in fall 1961. Records show that Jewish students from UW who took part in the 1965 Summer Community Organizational and Political Education Project of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference comprised a much higher percentage of their University’s participation than Jewish students from other colleges, with 20 percent of UW’s contingent coming from Jewish families, compared to 11 percent for all colleges nationwide. The civil rights movement could not be classified as a Jewish student organization along the lines of Hillel or Zeta Beta Tau, but at UW, a community of Jewish students came together by participating in it.
Excerpted from In Wisconsin, The New Home of the Jew: 150 Years of Jewish Life at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published by the Mosse/Weinstein Center with a generous grant from Julie and Peter Weil
This book is now available in full through the UW-Madison Libraries’ digitized collections: https://search.library.wisc.edu/digital/A746I6CNBBR4RC8D.