A Community Reacts

Virginia Crane, Neil Harriman, Herb Gaede, anonymous history professor, Jon Guiles, Jack Steinhilber and New Yorker journalist Calvin Trillin describe the regional reaction to Black Thursday..1MB mp3

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News of the Black Thursday demonstration was broadcast on national television and carried in daily newspapers throughout the United States.



University officials were inundated by citizens' appeals regarding the
Black Thursday demonstrations. By a large margin, correspondents excoriated the students and demanded restitution for the public property destroyed during the brief spasm of vandalism.


Photos of all documents courtesy of the UW Oshkosh Archives.


For more documentation on Black Thursday, please visit the documents page

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. 

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