After a year-long review, the Union Council finally made the no-brainer decision to strip the names of two deceased alums with ties to the Ku Klux Klan from Memorial Union facilities, prompting the question: how the hell did this take a full year to decide?
The Cap Times reported the Fredric March Play Circle theater and the Porter Butts Gallery will be stripped of their namesakes, becoming simply the Play Circle and Main Gallery, respectively. Butts, the first director of the Union, will still be present as part of an interactive kiosk, and March, an Oscar-winning actor, may still be recognized elsewhere within the building.
In yearbooks from the 1920s, March (then known as Fred Bickel) and Butts were each listed as members of a student organization called the Ku Klux Klan. A 1993 article published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin found no direct connections between the campus group and the white supremacist group, which was spreading its hate-filled ideology throughout the Midwest at the time.
Despite the lack of official endorsement from the racist organization, the article noted the campus group — which had an all-male, all-white membership — shared “many of the racist and nativist attitudes” of the national version of the Klan.
March and Butts’ actual role in the group is unclear. Per The Cap Times, Butts’ family expressed concern that he was being punished for “guilt by association” (Butts eventually denounced the national Klan). It’s probably a little late to tell Butts this now — he died in 1991, and March in 1975 — but a really good way to not be associated with white supremacy is to not join an all-white group named after the largest white supremacist group in the nation.
The review of the names, which eventually produced the decision made Monday night to remove March and Butts from the facilities, started more than one year ago. In the wake of the white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville, Va., and resulted in the death of a counterprotestor, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank called for a review of the history of UW student groups affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.
That review placed new scrutiny on Butts and March, as their names appeared prominently within the Memorial Union. However, they’re far from the only alumni who have the stain of white supremacy on their record.
In Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Volume 1, local historian Stuart Levitan wrote the campus Klan had members who “served in or on the student senate, student court, alumni committee, prom and homecoming committees and were directors of the Daily Cardinal board of control, athletic board, the YMCA cabinet, Student Union board, and Memorial Union fund-raising committee.” Prominent Klan members included Brittingham Park namesake and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation co-founder Thomas E. Brittingham, Jr., and longtime Madison schools superintendent Philip Falk, for whom Falk Elementary School is named.
According to The Cap Times, the names March and Butts will be pulled from the Memorial Union before the semester starts, and temporary signs will explain the decision. The move is sure to dismay racists everywhere, which means it’s a good call.