Opinion | The University of Wisconsin Smears a Once-Treasured Alum

But March was, to use our current term of art, a lifelong ally of Black people par excellence.

As the journalist George Gonis, who helped to write the recent letter in support of March, has uncovered in his research on the actor, March gave orations as a high schooler on what we would today call antiracism. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Black contralto Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall, he was not only one of the signatories on the famous protest letter, but attended Anderson’s protest concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, despite it meaning taking that night off from the Broadway play he was in. When Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte were strategizing in the latter’s apartment in New York about civil rights efforts in Birmingham in 1963, March was there, too (King wrote a certain letter from jail soon thereafter). The next year, March was one of the white people who spoke on a national broadcast the NAACP sponsored in 1964 celebrating the 10th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education.

This is a Klansman???

Hardly. It just happened that in 1919 into 1920 March briefly belonged to an organization that happened to also be called Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, I know — but wait. It was a student interfraternity organization. The Ku Klux Klan of revolting memory had emerged at first amid Reconstruction and then flamed out. The later 20th century Klan emerged gradually in the wake of the racist film “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and only became a national phenomenon starting in 1921. In Wisconsin in 1919, when March was inducted into his group, it was possible to have never heard of the Ku Klux Klan that was later so notorious.

We can’t know whether this group modeled this name after the Ku Klux Klan organization depicted in “The Birth of a Nation.” But what we do know is that there is no evidence that their mission had anything to do with racism, and that when the “real” Klan made its way to campus in 1922, the organization March had joined (but left in 1920) immediately dissociated itself from that group and changed its name.

The name of the campus’s Ku Klux Klan seems to have been an accident. Clumsy, probably. The boys may not have thought of the “real” Klan as significant enough players in 1919 to merit avoiding the same name, and just liked the sound of it because of the sequential k’s and such. There is no record of this organization doing or supporting anything racist — and let’s recall that in this era, racism was thought of as so acceptable in conventional expression that one could in a newspaper casually refer to a big rock with a racist epithet for Black people.

Some antiracist activists may see this as nit-picking. They may argue that these young people must have known there was a racist Ku Klux Klan and didn’t care enough to change the organization’s name, and that this evidences a kind of racism in itself.

These are reasonable points. But against them, to seek a fair-minded assessment rather than a Star Chamber, we must note that in addition to what I wrote above, March’s life also included battling McCarthyite red-baiting (to which he was subjected) and anti-Semitism. His wife, the actress Florence Eldridge, was a lifelong prominent progressive. He was friends his whole adult life with the philosopher Max Otto, who was a Unitarian-Unversalist, a group famously aligned with the civil rights movement even today.

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