March still given the blind eye

‘The ball is in the court of both universities’


Advance-Titan File Photo– March’s name has yet to be added back to the UW Oshkosh and UW-Madison campuses, even after new complaints.

Katie Pulvermacher, Managing/News Editor

The character of Hollywood Golden Age icon Fredric March is still tarnished as UW Oshkosh and UW-Madison administrators have stayed silent to objections from supporters who maintain the universities should put March’s name back on buildings.

“While both schools have cloaked their reasons for banishing March in the deservedly sacrosanct Wisconsin Idea, their very actions to date have been the antithesis of the Wisconsin Idea’s time-honored commitment to sifting and winnowing for truth,” Milwaukee journalist George Gonis said. 

Gonis has dedicated years to studying March’s life as a civil rights activist and graduate of UW-Madison.

“As I did my own deeper research, I became stunned at just how wrong all of March’s detractors were,” Gonis said. “Even with all I knew about March before the campus controversy started, I had no idea just how dedicated March was to racial equality and other civil rights issues.” 

What we know

March had his name removed from Madison and UWO campus theaters after false information was acquired on him being a white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member. 

“March’s name was removed on the Madison campus just a couple of weeks after four hours’ worth of public hearings,” Gonis said. “It was people without any of this knowledge who unanimously labeled March a racist, a white supremacist and a Klan member at those high-intensity, emotionally fraught, fact-free public hearings.”

March belonged to an inter-fraternity council called the Ku Klux Klan, which did not have any affiliation to engaging in racist practices like to the notorious white supremacist group. 

“[People] jumped to utterly false conclusions about a collegiate organization photo in March’s senior yearbook without taking the time required to dig into the full story behind the photo and the yearbook page,” Gonis said.  

Without doing research and believing said rumors, both campuses defamed March’s name.

“Neither university gained a single off-campus supporter for its Fredric March actions and stances,” Gonis said. 

Support letters shown no mercy

An initial support letter was sent to both universities in September 2021, filled with serious inquiries from 30 progressive academics and nationally revered civil rights icons advocating for the schools to reconsider their decision.

“The attitude was, ‘The indisputable facts that have now come out are so overwhelming on March’s behalf, how could they not [change their minds]?’” Gonis said. 

Disbelief followed as the support letter was largely ignored. Those who knew March knew he risked not just his career, but his life, on behalf of civil rights.

“All 30 signatories were gobsmacked by the utter lack of response from either school,” Gonis said. “Both universities repeatedly doubled-down throughout this past year on the decision to remove March’s name, refusing to admit a single error or a rush to judgment of any kind and making no real attempt to make either campus a hospitable place to tell the full story of March’s gargantuan civil rights record.”

Having died in 1975, March cannot speak about false accusations. His legacy relies on the now 54 distinguished signatories who signed a new support letter the campuses have ignored since sent in August 2022.

“How do two institutions of higher learning just blow off the national headquarters of the NAACP and that amazing organization’s two principal officers, or Dr. Martin Luther King’s personal legal counsel and the co-author of the “I Have a Dream” speech, or a Freedom Rider and one of the principal founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or Ed Asner, Louis Gossett Jr., Glynn Turman and Mrs. Stanley Kramer — just to name a few?” Gonis said. 

UWO’s Chancellor Andrew Leavitt wrote a letter to Gonis last year, in which he dismissed any further actions. 

“I very seriously considered Mr. March’s time, contributions and legacy,” Leavitt wrote in his letter. “I also took very seriously my responsibility to hear, understand and address the present-day concerns shared by UW Oshkosh students, alumni, colleagues and other stakeholders over the last few years. All of this informed my decision and statement.”

UWO told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in September that they have no plans to reconsider, and referred to an earlier statement, saying the university will be more equitable this way. 

Gonis said it is clear that Leavitt will not return March’s name back to campus unless UW-Madison does first. 

“Chancellor Leavitt’s mere copycat decision on the Fredric March issue is particularly confounding and not particularly sophisticated,” Gonis said.

UWO’s multi-racial student and faculty fact-finding committee concluded that March was on the right side of history and that to remove his name would be a “betrayal of UWO’s mission.”

 “[Leavitt followed UW-Madison] rather than the lead of his own committee, who got all the facts right,” Gonis said. “Not thinking for yourself and going along with the crowd often gives us decisions devoid of justice.”

Previous UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said even though March was a “fighter for civil rights and equality,” it still remains a fact that he oriented himself with a “student group that echoed the KKK name.”

A statement made by UW-Madison in August represents the position of the new chancellor, Jennifer Mnookin.

“The decision was made by Union Council [and] continues to be supported by the university,” UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas said. “There are no plans to revisit it.”

Gonis said he believes both universities were caught off-guard by the list of signatories. 

“Having so many progressive academics and acclaimed racial-justice champions shaking their heads at you in disbelief can’t be what either university wanted,” Gonis said. 

Celebrating March’s 125th birthday

A little over a month ago, March’s 125th birthday and his civil rights accomplishments were celebrated on national television on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

“TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz hosted six terrific history segments throughout the Fredric March triple-feature evening Sept. 30 — five of which highlighted March’s prodigious racial-justice activism and two of which gently chastised both universities for insufficient research,” Gonis said. 

Mankiewicz addressed the issues surrounding the accusations during the tribute to the actor. The tribute included three of March’s most popular films he acted in: 1933’s “Design for Living,” 1941’s “So Ends Our Night” and 1960’s “Inherit The Wind.”

“March’s birthday provides us an opportunity to set the record straight about March, correcting a misconception that did some unfair damage to his reputation,” Mankiewicz said. “[March] was a fervent and outspoken champion of civil rights throughout his life.”

What happens next?

Both universities still have the opportunity to do the right thing and re-open the topic, Gonis said.

“To a degree, the ball is in the court of both universities,” Gonis said. 

Gonis said “the injustice done to March in Wisconsin has touched an awful lot of hearts and minds in assorted corners around the world.” He has been contacted by various people wanting to send messages to the campuses. 

“We’ve also gotten wind that other publications and television productions are looking into doing something on March that exposes all that went on in Madison and Oshkosh,” Gonis said. “We’ll see in the coming months if any of that pans out.”

The signatories have given light to March’s name, despite the decline in comment from the universities.

“Telling March’s full civil rights story now would make people realize just how silly the universities’ actions were,” Gonis said. “I suspect that’s a road both schools are just too embarrassed or too cowardly to go down.”