Fredric March (copy)

Oscar-winning actor Fredric March was a UW-Madison graduate, and the Play Circle in the Memorial Union bore his name for 40 years. His name was taken down after it was learned that he was a member of a campus group called the Ku Klux Klan. 

Rob Thomas’ Cap Times story "Advocates push to restore Fredric March’s name to UW-Madison theater," Sept. 26) did a fine job capturing the head-scratching intransigence displayed by UW-Madison in the school’s refusal to reconsider stripping stage and film legend Fredric March’s name from the school’s Play Circle. Continuing to defend the disappearance of March’s name is an outright repudiation of the sacrosanct Wisconsin Idea — and what our state is left with is a strange and sad tale of sincere opponents of racism on campus banishing the name of one of racism’s greatest enemies.

The fight to restore March’s reputation is not the quixotic campaign of one or two people. First, there are the 54 Civil Rights progressives who came aboard as signatories on a letter condemning the university’s actions — signatories including the national, state and Racine offices of the NAACP; two of Dr. Martin Luther King’s closest advisers, one the co-author of the “I Have a Dream” speech; and the children and descendants of Lena Horne, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Whitney Young, James Baldwin, Ambassador Andrew Young and the Hollywood 10.

UW, by the way, leaves the impression it has responded to that letter when — more than a year after it was first sent — the school has yet to acknowledge even once the letter itself or a single one of its iconic signatories. Meanwhile, hundreds more have weighed in on March’s behalf across the country — from Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch to Harry Belafonte — and the university’s stance has garnered only ridicule from liberal, progressive critics in academia and in the national and local media. The UW will have to stew in that embarrassment of its own making for years to come.

Likewise, every time the UW maintains that its “decision was rooted in the overwhelming amount of community feedback,” it fails to mention that all of that feedback came from people armed only with social-media rumor who had absolutely no awareness of March’s loud presence (since the age of 13) on the front lines of the fight for racial justice across seven different decades, battling alongside allies Canada Lee, Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, Orson Welles, Fredi Washington, Paul Robeson and revered UW prof Max Otto.

Moreover, that community feedback also came before any new primary-source facts were presented by progressive and nationally renowned longtime Klan scholars establishing the innocence of March’s coincidentally named junior honorary. That innocence is not rooted in speculation, but in thorough research. Despite what university spokespeople have said, the mostly research-free decision to remove March’s name was made with complete obliviousness to a mountain of available historical documents. Simply put, well-meaning students and community members dogmatically labeled March a white supremacist and a member of the actual KKK or a sympathetic, offshoot organization. He was neither.

Finally, the UW has been boasting of late that it honors March with a detailed biographical profile on a new electronic kiosk in Memorial Union — so “detailed” that for more than a year now, this kiosk has run a photo identifying a man as Fredric March who clearly isn’t Fredric March. The kiosk entry also presents a lapse in the Memorial Union’s brand of logic: If March was too tainted to keep his name emblazoned upon the Play Circle, wouldn’t that same name also be too tainted to honor on the kiosk?

The kiosk’s inaccurate and incomplete few paragraphs about March (devoid of a single example, by the way, of his lifetime commitment to racial justice) is not nearly commensurate with having his name — and a memorable oil painting depicting him in one of his signature Broadway roles — adorn for 40 years the entrance to a beloved campus performance space. But beyond that, the school still incomprehensibly maintains that the name removal was “less about March himself” and more about an effort to “rectify the … impact of racism.”

But this entire affair is precisely about Fredric March the person, as well. Reputations matter, and the UW played a significant role in promoting the ridiculous branding — across the World Wide Web and elsewhere — of March as a bigot. How, exactly, can an institution rectify the impact of racism by being complicit in actively tarnishing a true civil rights champion as a champion of hate? Where is the courage to simply admit an error?

It is alarming how casual and uncaring the university has been in allowing charges of racism and white supremacy to stand against a worthy alumnus whose own towering civil rights record dwarfs that of all those responsible for stripping and keeping his name off the Play Circle. Wouldn’t the natural reaction be to shout such a record from the rooftops? Isn’t the university supposed to be in the business of protecting the legacies of worthy alums? If the honors for an alumnus of March’s civil rights pedigree are that easily disposable and unimportant, future alumni donors need to think long and hard about gifts to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The university might want to consider if that’s the message it wants to be sending.

George Gonis is a Milwaukee-based writer and historian.

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