Fridays with Fred: Beloiters, civil rights, and the March on Washington

1960s Beloit and its participation in civil rights.

By Aug. 28, 1963, the day some 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, students at Beloit College and citizens in town had already demonstrated personal—often inspiring—commitment to the civil rights movement.

In 1961, Beloit College student Jim Zwerg’62 attended Fisk University in Nashville on exchange and became involved in movie theater protests. Zwerg made national headlines that May after an angry white mob nearly beat him to death for participating in the famous Freedom Rides through the Deep South. The following year, the college’s chapter of the Delta Gamma sorority pledged African-American student Patricia Hamilton, resulting in suspension by the national organization. Beloit’s chapter stayed true to their ideals and went local, and Theta Pi Gamma is still going strong today. The city of Beloit, with its sizable African-American population, featured an active branch of the NAACP, which helped to change, among its many projects, an unfair, discriminatory housing code.

Like so many fellow citizens from all over the United States, Beloiters traveled cross country by car, bus, and airplane in order to participate in the history-making march in Washington.

“I will represent Beloit in this demonstration as a Christian and as a civil rights person,” Sadie Bell told the Beloit Daily News. President of the Beloit branch of the NAACP, Bell traveled with the University of Wisconsin Student Council on Civil Rights. The paper also reported that a caravan of buses carrying nearly 150 Wisconsin residents stopped in Beloit to pick up seven passengers, among them a young minister and his family. Another minister, Reverend Oliver W. Gibson, pastor of Wesley Methodist Church, participated that week in a conference on religion and race in Chicago. He caught a plane to Washington and also attended the rally.

U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, longtime friend to Beloit College, was one of a strong Wisconsin delegation at the event. A day later, moved by the eloquent speeches after the march, he summed up the feelings of many:

“I sat on the rostrum yesterday beneath the awesome figure of Lincoln and many members of my staff stood with the throng on the grass and in the streets…I can assure you that this was one of the most inspiring ceremonies that I have ever witnessed…the demonstrators were as fine a group of Americans as I have ever seen assembled on any issue anywhere…”

Although it is likely that some Beloit students and alumni attended the March on Washington, Beloit College was not in session at the time and nothing turns up in the Archives. That October, however, the Round Table reported that two faculty members, Professor of Sociology Donald Summers, and Dean of the Chapel Anderson Clark, had attended the march:

Mr. Clark was particularly fascinated by the excellent engineering of the affair. There were Negro marshals, appointed by the organizing committee, interspersed among the crowd, as well as members of the Washington police force, patrolling the sidelines. He remarked on the abundance of picnic baskets, cameras, and clerical collars to be seen and ‘couldn’t remember anyone not well-dressed.’…

Mr. Summers’ opinion of the march was that it brought the participants a deep sense of identity and the colored people more unity as a group. The event in itself pointed to the profound confidence the Negro people have in the democratic method, their devotion to the American way of life, and their faith in the ultimate solution of their problem by democratic processes. “The fact that they have to demonstrate is an indication of its continued success,” he observed. “It was a great experience, and made one proud to be an American.”

On April 10, 1968, six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Beloit College Library Director, H. Vail Deale, wrote to President Miller Upton offering to the college his vast personal collection of books, pamphlets, and memorabilia dealing with non-violence, conscientious objection, and world peace. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection on Non-Violence is one of Morse Library’s “Special Collections” housed with the Beloit College Archives. The collection includes rare and seminal works by and about pacifists and civil rights leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as countless books on non-violence and the peace movement in the United States. Among its many treasures are items concerning the March on Washington.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection on Non-Violence is available to researchers, although its materials do not circulate outside of the Archives.

August 30, 2013

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