What is it about the University of Wisconsin and race? The administration’s recent decision to move a rock from view because a journalist referred to it with the N-word almost 100 years ago was goofy enough. But there has been more at the school in this vein.
This week a group including alumni, faith leaders, actors, and the N.A.A.C.P. wrote to University of Wisconsin officials asking them to repeal the tarring and feathering of an alumnus of the school, the renowned actor Fredric March. The letter, which was also sent to the Wisconsin governor, Tony Evers, and shared with me, decried the decisions to strip March’s name from theaters on the Madison and Oshkosh campuses, which the writers blamed on “social-media rumor and grievously fact-free, mistaken conclusions” about March.
March has been done a resounding wrong. I have no animus against the University of Wisconsin, but what we are seeing in these two sad episodes — the removal of the rock and the defenestration of March — is how antiracist “reckoning” can, if done without proper caution, detour into mere posturing, even at the cost of justice itself.
Fredric March is not the most famous of names among long-ago movie stars. But he attended the University of Wisconsin more than 100 years ago and went on to become as central in the old Hollywood firmament as Tom Hanks is today.
Despite the conclusion of a report — commissioned by Madison’s chancellor — that there was no evidence linking the Ku Klux Klan organization March belonged to with its more widely known namesake, the student-driven campaign resulted in the removal of the actor’s name from that theater building. Throughout, there was apparently little or no investigation of what the man actually stood for.
But March was, to use our current term of art, a lifelong ally of Black people par excellence.