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“We Shall Overcome”

March 8, 1965

On the morning of March 8, 1965, the corridor outside of Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe’s office in Strong Hall was the scene of a sit-in to protest racial discrimination and the policies that supported it at the University of Kansas. About 150 members of the Civil Rights Council (CRC), an organization of both black and white students, sat down in the hallway at about 10:30 a.m. and passed the day mostly doing their homework. The goal of the protest was to bring attention to the administration’s tacit approval of discrimination in campus housing and University-sanctioned organizations, particularly fraternities and sororities.

The sit-in was led by three seniors – Walter Bgoya from Tanganyika, George Unseld, of Louisville, Kentucky, and Nate Sims, from Pasadena, California, who also acted as spokesman for the group. The protestors presented Wescoe with a list of seven demands they wanted him to act on immediately.

First, they called on Wescoe to issue an executive order abolishing “racially discriminatory practices” and requiring fraternities and sororities to sign notarized statements pledging that they did not practice racial discrimination. Second, the CRC sought creation of a board composed of students, faculty, and administrators empowered to investigate discrimination complaints against landlords, organizations, or any other university-sanctioned entities, even if such groups claimed not to practice discrimination but in fact still did. In addition, the protesters demanded the administration sever all ties with groups found to discriminate on the basis of race, called for an investigation of all landlords before allowing them to register with the University Housing Office, and insisted the KU School of Education not assign any student teachers to schools or districts found to practice racial discrimination. Finally, the CRC sought to prohibit the University Daily Kansan from accepting advertising from any landlord or organizations practiced racial discrimination, and called on the All Student Council (ASC) to pass a pending Civil Rights bill and for the chancellor to sign it.

Wescoe’s only immediate response was to say that he would not issue an executive order demanded by the protesters and that he had not heard of housing complaints in 2½ years. The Kansan, for its part, announced it would meet with the ASC about the demand regarding advertising. The number of protestors peaked at 400, and when 5:00 p.m. rolled around and the doors to Wescoe’s office suite were to be locked, approximately 110 of the sit-in participants refused to leave. Wescoe notified Lawrence police. At 5:25, law enforcement officials arrested those who remained. By 6:00 that evening, police had peacefully transported the protestors in buses to both the county and city jails.

Authorities charged the protestors with disturbing the peace, and then released them on $25 bond each. Marvin McKnight, past president of the Lawrence chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Reverend Garnett Henning of St. Luke’s African Episcopal Church obtained financial assistance for those who did not have $25. Upon their release, most of the protestors regrouped at the Wesley Methodist Student Center at 1144 Louisiana to plan their next move.

After much discussion, the protesters decided to march peacefully in rows of three past the chancellor’s residence. When word of the nighttime demonstration got out, sightseers soon clogged campus streets. Protest organizers helped direct traffic and kept the demonstrators moving while University police watched from their vehicles. The explosion of four illegal cherry bombs was the only disturbance to the otherwise peaceful proceedings.

The next day, Wescoe met with CRC leaders in an attempt to defuse the situation. Taking an attitude similar to that adopted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, the chancellor argued that to begin making demands at this time would energize a reactionary opposition and undo much work that already had been done on civil rights. His administration was working on the problems, Wescoe told them, and only two incidents had been reported since his non-discrimination policy had gone into effect on July 1, 1962. That official statement, directed toward the Greek letter fraternities and sororities, declared that discrimination against race, religion, or national origin was “not consistent with the principles of our nation, and it is the hope and expectation of the University that these clauses will be removed where they still exist.”

Wescoe’s policy was well meaning, but his initial actions toward the protestors caused them to question his tolerance and sincerity. Wescoe suspended the students who were arrested, but then reinstated them the next day, an effort designed to “turn back the clock.” Let’s pretend you didn’t really stage a sit-in in my office, Wescoe seemed to be saying. A group of five KU philosophy professors, including the chair, presented a statement to Wescoe in support of the protestors. The philosophers pointed out that racial discrimination was “patently inconsistent with the aims of ‘a great university,’” and that “a great university” should encourage such protest. They also recommended the chancellor withdraw support from any campus organization that engaged in discrimination, and rescind the suspension of the arrested protestors. (Wescoe had already done this by the time he received the statement.)

The University eventually met most of the protesters’ demands, but as a Kansan editorial pointed out, the March 8 sit-in and its aftermath meant that civil rights was no longer an abstract question at KU. These problems, hitherto largely ignored by the majority of students, faculty, and administrators were not going to go away overnight. Events at KU were not happening in a vacuum. Discrimination had been the status quo nationwide since the beginning of higher education in America, and African-Americans were growing increasingly tired of waiting for better times.

The civil rights movement was approaching its peak in the United States in 1965. Lawrence was certainly not the center of it, but the arrest total on that Monday evening in March exceeded that of every previous demonstration in the nation save one led by the Reverend Martin Luther King in Alabama. The Chicago Tribune and Newsweek both reported the sit-in at KU. Civil rights organizations across the country were questioning the discriminatory practices of fraternities and sororities as well as the universities that sanctioned them.

At KU, the CRC formed a research committee to investigate the national situation. It found widespread evidence of existing discrimination in campus organizations at numerous colleges, and also took testimony from students who had witnessed similar examples of discrimination at KU. In addition, the committee investigated the legal bases utilized by other universities around the country to force fraternities and sororities to adopt anti-discriminatory practices.

The discriminatory patterns that existed in Greek letter organizations included “blackballing,” where the group could control an individual’s actions, including his or her choice of friends by ostracizing that person. Also, evidence indicated that some alumni used economic pressure to ensure that local chapters adhered to de facto discrimination even though there were no written policies condoning such practices. National Greek letter organizations also influenced the actions of local chapters, threatening to withdraw charters and financial support if “unacceptable” individuals were allowed to join. A former KU professor, Alfred McClung Lee, had published a book in 1956 that examined these “ritual restrictions,” i.e. unwritten policies of discrimination. The CRC research committee cited this book, Fraternities Without Brotherhood, numerous times and at some length.

As for legal precedents for universities taking action against campus organizations practicing discrimination, these were not hard to find. The most significant case was Webb v. State University of New York (SUNY) in 1954, in which the National Intrafraternity Council lost on appeal a case allowing SUNY to force Greek organizations to adopt anti-discriminatory policies. SUNY’s policy was simple: Discrimination of any kind was expressly forbidden, and all campus groups found to be practicing it could either change or be removed. The CRC Research Committee also found that the University of Wisconsin had adopted a policy forcing campus organization to certify that there were no national or local rules, by-laws, rituals, or other controls that permitted discrimination. The Board of Regents at the University of Colorado had adopted a policy placing all organizations with national discriminatory policies on probation until September 1, 1962, at which time those policies had to be changed, or the organizations would lose official university sanction. And in California, a five-year moratorium on campus organizations ended in September 1964, when all such organizations had to sign an anti-discrimination statement. Closer to home, a law professor consulted by the CRC researchers said that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine of public facilities segregation, would possibly be used one day to force Greek letter organizations to accept members of all races, creeds, colors, and religions. In short the CRC Research Committee report stated that KU “has every legal right to correct the existing situation,” and that the University had to act if change was to occur.

In order to correct the present system in KU’s Greek community, which CRC called a “shame and disgrace” to the University’s “declarations and ideals” the committee recommended the University Human Relations Council (UHRC) subpoena the constitutions, by-laws, rituals and “any other pertinent standard of policy” of campus organizations and check them for evidence of discriminatory practices. Those guilty of such practices should lose University recognition. In addition, all organizations should be required to sign statements certifying there were no written or unwritten discriminatory practices. Any organization that refused would be suspended from recognition. And finally, the committee recommended that no student could be discriminated against for statements made regarding his or her own organization. This provision was aimed at protecting those students who had testified before the committee as well as guarding them against the practice of blackballing. If these proposals were not met, the report went on, all fraternities and sororities should be discontinued.

If Chancellor Wescoe and other members of the administrative hierarchy at KU thought the committee’s report was unduly harsh, they hadn’t seen anything yet. The next several years were to be the most violent in KU’s history and civil rights was one of the major issues. Perhaps the degree of volatility was foreshadowed 12 years earlier when R.L. Youmans became the first white student to join the all-black Alpha Phi Alpha and the fraternity brothers found a cross burning in their yard that night. While this act was designed to intimidate efforts at integration, the scale was to swing far to the other side of the spectrum regarding civil rights. Black militants in the form of the Black Panther Party would find Lawrence and KU easy targets for their message of racial equality and expressions of rage. In March of 1965, things were only beginning to warm up at the University of Kansas.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: University Daily Kansan, 8-10 March 1965; Chicago Tribune, 10 March 1965; Newsweek, 22 March 1965; Alfred McClung Lee, Fraternities without Brotherhood, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956); CRC Research Committee on Fraternities and Sororities Report, Chancellor’s Office Executive Secretary Case Files, RG 2/0/1/1, Box 9, file folder “Civil Rights, February-June, 1965.]