Fredric March & the University of Wisconsin

(Oshkosh Examiner) On Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, nearly 40 individuals and departments associated with the University of Wisconsin Madison and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh were emailed this letter, which criticized each school’s treatment of the legacy of acting legend Fredric March and asked them to reconsider their decisions to remove his name from campus facilities.

The signatories, also listed below, include the two top officials of the NAACP, Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr., the late Ed Asner, eminent scholars and activists, and descendants of March.

Rebecca Blank, chancellor of UW Madison, responded by writing a letter to the editor of The New York Times, which broke the news of the March letter.

Also below is an open letter from historian George Gonis in reply to Blank’s arguments.

SUBJECT: Racial-Justice Icons, Flagship Civil Rights Groups Ask UW, UWO to Reconsider Fredric March

September 2021

Dear University of Wisconsin-Madison & University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Communities,

We the undersigned write you today because it has come to our attention that – due to the efforts of well-intentioned, nobly motivated students, administrators and community members guided solely by social-media rumor and grievously fact-free, mistaken conclusions – the name of Wisconsin native and Golden Age acting icon Fredric March (b. 1897) was stripped from both UW-Madison’s Fredric March Play Circle (in late 2018) and UW-Oshkosh’s Fredric March Theatre (in late 2020). These name removals took place when enough people chose to believe mere word of mouth that the two-time Oscar winner and two-time Tony winner was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (or its offshoot) and a white supremacist.

We know emphatically that not only was Fredric March not any of these —  by a measure of 180 degrees — but that he was, to the contrary, for more than five decades one of 20th-century Hollywood’s earliest, greatest and most boisterous racial-justice activists. Indeed, for 30-plus-years – through the end of his life – he was a close ally of the NAACP upon whom the organization knew it could rely.  And so we remain confused as to why, on both Wisconsin campuses, the avalanche of readily accessible primary- and secondary-source materials detailing Mr. March’s loud, concerted and enduring lifetime commitment to fighting racism and anti-Semitism was never pursued, discovered, consulted, heard or made public – and why neither UW-Madison nor UW-Oshkosh has moved to correct this clear and unconscionable rejection of conspicuously demonstrable historic truth and academic rigor.

Moreover, our statements here have been supported on the public record by a number of nationally revered and respected progressive academics and historians – and by individuals who actually knew Mr. March – including Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III (founding director of the John Lewis-birthed National Museum of African American History & Culture); civil rights author and professor Raymond Arsenault; performer/activist Harry Belafonte; actor/activist James Cromwell; and late UW-Madison professor Max Otto (Clarence Darrow/“Fighting Bob” La Follette intimate, NAACP compatriot and internationally acclaimed humanist philosopher).

When it comes to labeling Mr. March a civil rights hero, what other conclusion could one come to about a man who:

  • As a young Wisconsin teen delivered the same anti-white-supremacy speech given by Massachusetts high school senior Paul Robeson a few years later?
  • Risked his massive box office in 1939 Jim Crow America by coming on board as one of the very few Hollywood stars unafraid to act as a primary sponsor of Marian Anderson and her historic Lincoln Memorial concert?
  • Met in Harry Belafonte’s New York apartment for a 1963 secret strategy session with Martin Luther King and others on the eve of Dr. King’s momentous journey to Birmingham?
  • Co-signed a telegram to President Kennedy with James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Ossie Davis, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, A. Philip Randolph and others condemning the president for his failure to adequately protect “the rights of 20 million negro citizens”?
  • Was asked by NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins in 1964 to deliver the keynote at the national 10th-anniversary celebration of Brown v. Board of Education?
  • Was one of the civil rights stalwarts selected in 1968 to host the grand, CBS-televised-coast-to-coast reopening of Ford’s Theatre in the nation’s capital along with racial-justice icons Harry Belafonte, actor Robert Ryan and choreographer Carmen De Lavallade?
  • Spent the bulk of his career seeking out roles in one socially-conscious film after another?

We fully support the legal and prompt removal anywhere of monuments, memorials and names of those who fought to defend the enslavement of human beings and of those who are on record belittling and dehumanizing any segment of a gloriously diverse human race as “less than.”  But with such intentions and decisions comes the weight of making sure you get your facts right.  We cannot afford the certain disaster that comes with making commonplace a post-fact world – a world far too many have tried to fashion since the 2016 American election.

The actions of both UW-Madison and UW-Oshkosh – again, coming from a place of high-mindedness – have resulted, unfortunately, in the careless and heartless demolition of Fredric March’s deserved good name across his alma mater, across Wisconsin, across social media and across the World Wide Web. Allowing the campus removals of Fredric March’s name to stand is tantamount to lumping Mr. March for all time with the 1930s Daughters of the American Revolution who closed the doors to Marian Anderson, with the separate-but-equal crowd, with neighborhood redliners, with Dixiecrats, with those who spiked Jackie Robinson or showered him with disgusting racial epithets, with the perpetrators of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, with those in Hollywood who signed a petition to prevent Lena Horne from acquiring an upscale address, with those who maimed or assassinated returning WWII African American servicemen, with Bull Connor, with the 1960s murderers of little girls in church, with that same decade’s  killers of three young civil rights workers, with the repulsive letter-writers who threatened Henry Aaron’s life and family as he neared Babe Ruth’s record, with the different races/different IQs proponents, with PTA members who left neighborhoods at the mere thought of a black family moving in, and with the violent predators who bring their often fatal hate sadly and still into Jewish synagogues, Sikh temples, Islamic mosques and African American churches (and to LGBTQ+ citizens and peoples of Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous roots simply on their way to work or out for a stroll).  This “lumping” of Mr. March is an unacceptable and frankly insane fate for a man who across seven different decades devoted his public life to peace, human rights, racial justice, freedom of expression and the establishment of the United Nations.

We ask and urge the return – with all possible dispatch – of Fredric March’s name to a place of honor on both the UW-Madison and the UW-Oshkosh campuses.  In affirming this, we are also asking the University of Wisconsin-Madison to live up to the creed of its hallowed Wisconsin Idea to “ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found” – a creed that by definition demands both admitting and then correcting mistakes. And we are asking the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to finally listen to the recommendations of its 2019 multi-racial student/faculty fact-finding committee who concluded that Fredric March was indeed on the right side of history and that to remove Mr. March’s name “would betray ideals of critical thinking fundamental to UW Oshkosh’s education mission.”

Since the world began, no human being has lived a life free of failures and mistakes – and perfection of the mind and heart is not possible for anyone.  But Fredric March’s lifelong commitment to social justice – a record close to being unmatched in his or any era – is precisely the kind of example that should daily be presented to American university students for generations to come.

Respectfully,

Signatories

Amistad Research Center

New Orleans, Louisiana

Donna Anderson

Actress (retired); Fredric March Co-Star in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind

Ed Asner

Actor, activist; most honored male performer in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards

(Date of signatory affirmation: June 30, 2021)

Fran Bennett

Stage, film, television actress; educator; inductee – Arkansas Black Hall of Fame; recipient NAACP Theatre Award and Screen Actors Guild Diversity Award; alumna University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Canada Lee Heritage Foundation

Atlanta, Georgia

Bonita Cornute

35-year veteran of the St. Louis broadcasting community as television reporter, anchor and host; recipient of the Living Legend Award from the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists; Dred Scott Freedom Awards Honoree; alumna University of Wisconsin-Madison

Penelope March Fantacci & Family

Daughter and grandchildren of Fredric March

John Fricke

New York-based popular culture and film historian, author; Turner Classic Movies on-air guest scholar; Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary writer/producer.

Robert A. Goldberg

Professor Emeritus of History, University of Utah; American Jewish, civil rights and Klan history and grassroots social movements; alumnus University of Wisconsin-Madison

Louis Gossett Jr.

Actor, activist, Academy Award winner

John Gurda

Author, historian, broadcaster, public television documentary maker; with Orson Welles, Richard Schickel, David Maraniss, Edna Ferber, Aldo Leopold, Zona Gale, Carl Sandburg, Thornton Wilder, John Ridley Jr., and more than two dozen others, a Wisconsin Writers Wall of Fame inductee

James H. Hall Jr.

Civil rights attorney; past president, NAACP Milwaukee Branch; Founding Member, 100 Black Men of Milwaukee; past member, ACLU National Board of Directors

Reggie Jackson

Longtime lead griot at America’s Black Holocaust Museum; recipient of the National Education Association’s 2021 Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award; co-founder of Nurturing Diversity Partners

Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Dr. Clarence B. Jones

Adviser, collaborative speechwriter and personal legal counsel to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; co-author of the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech

Jeff Kannel

Author of the just-published Make Way for Liberty: Wisconsin African Americans in the Civil War; alumnus University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Reverend Dr. Andrew C. Kennedy

Minister Emeritus, First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee – longtime Black Lives Matter organizational hub and one of the nation’s largest Unitarian Universalist congregations

Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr.

College president, professor, educator, minister; Co-Founder, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960); Leader, Nashville lunch counter sit-ins (1960); Freedom Rider (1961); lifelong friend and college roommate of Congressman John Lewis; appointed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as National Program Administrator, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1962); leading strategist for the Selma Movement (1965); National Coordinator for Martin Luther King’s 1968 Poor Peoples’ Campaign; Founding Director, University of Rhode Island Center for Nonviolence & Peace Studies

Patrick McGilligan

Acclaimed biographer of  film directors Orson Welles, Oscar Micheaux, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Fritz Lang, Mel Brooks and others; alumnus University of Wisconsin-Madison

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Headquarters

Leon Russell, Chairman

Derrick Johnson, President/CEO

Arnold Rampersad

Professor Emeritus Stanford University; a dean of American biographers noted for his definitive works detailing the lives of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison and Jackie Robinson; collaborative partner on the Arthur Ashe memoir Days of Grace

Dr. Edward Ramsamy

Chair, Department of Africana Studies, Rutgers University; comparative politics of identity and race relations

Karen Sharpe-Kramer

Producer, activist; widow of groundbreaking film director Stanley Kramer; founder of the Stanley Kramer Library

Gareth H. (Gary) Shellman, Ph.D.

Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (retired); past president Greater Milwaukee United Nations Association

Charles Tranberg

Film historian, biographer; author Fredric March: A Consummate Actor

Glynn Turman

Actor, writer, director, producer, activist; Emmy Award winner; recipient of multiple NAACP Image Awards

Nancy C. Unger

Professor of History, Santa Clara University, whose books include two winners of the Wisconsin Historical Society Book Award: Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformerand Belle La Follette: Progresive Era Reformer

Stephen Whitfield

Professor Emeritus of American Studies, Brandeis University; twentieth-century American political and cultural history, American Jewish history; author The Culture of the Cold War