Impassioned pleas came from both sides Wednesday in a UW-Madison forum on whether to scrub from spaces in the university’s student union the names of two prominent alumni who, while students, belonged to a campus group called “Ku Klux Klan.”
The Wisconsin Union Council, the governing body of UW-Madison’s Memorial Union, held the first of two public forums regarding spaces named for Academy Award-winning actor Fredric March and art historian Porter Butts, the first director of the Memorial Union. A play circle in the Union is named for March, and an art gallery for Butts.
Rena Yehuda Newman was among the speakers at Wednesday’s forum who called for renaming the spaces.
“To not remove this name is to condone an ongoing historical wrong,” Newman said.
At the same time, Newman said the university should honor “the complexity of March and Butts’ legacy in a way that collaborates with family members, community members and helps the university reckon with a racist past that extends far beyond the actions of March or Butts.”
Others said the debate has been unfair to Butts and March, both of whom died decades ago.
Gary Kriewald, of Madison, said he’s “vehemently opposed” to changing the name of the art gallery named for Butts. Kriewald said Butts’ art exhibits in the Union, which he viewed as a UW-Madison student in the 1960s, fueled his and other students’ passion for art.
“I would like to hear someone defend the proposition that one youthful indiscretion negates a lifetime of positive achievement and devotion to the university,” Kriewald said.
The UW-Madison debate is a local installment of one that has unfolded on college campuses nationally, in which closer scrutiny is paid to the names of long-dead people affixed to campus buildings and spaces.
The Union Council announced in May that, for now, it will cover the signs for the two spaces named for March and Butts. A final decision on whether to rename them will be made later this year.
Family members of Porter Butts publicly came to his defense and said his career shows he championed “social inclusion.”
Butts’ granddaughter, Kara Randall, faulted the media for its reporting on the issue. Butts’ daughter, Sherrill Butts Randall, said her father disliked the Klan and successfully pushed to remove that name from the student group after joining it.
“He did not have racist views, and we are sure of that,” Butts Randall said. “He was very strong on inclusivity. And I say to the people who feel so threatened by this, that he’s on your side.”
Greg Jones, president of the Dane County NAACP, said he grew up in Mississippi during a time when the KKK was a constant threat to people of color.
“I saw the terror,” Jones said. “Whether we believe there was actual actions presented by (March and Butts), we don’t know — I don’t think we care. Because the affiliation and connection by name only has already placed this university in a delicate position.”
Spring Sherrod, a UW-Madison staff member, presented the council with an online petition with more than 460 signatures calling for the spaces to be renamed.
Sherrod said in a later interview that while she understands why the families of Butts and March are defending their legacies, the debate is about more than them.
“White people need to step outside of their whiteness and realize there are other voices that need to be heard,” Sherrod said.
The Wisconsin Union Council, made up of student, alumni, faculty and staff representatives, made the decision on covering the spaces’ names in response to the release of a report probing the history of white supremacist groups on campus.
The Wisconsin Union also said a hate and bias report was filed with the university relating to the names of the two spaces.
Commissioned by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and released earlier this year, the report included an examination of the legacy of two groups on the UW campus in the 1910s and 1920s that called themselves “Ku Klux Klan.”
The report acknowledged March and Butts were among those who belonged to a student group that emerged in 1919 bearing the “Klan” name.
That group appears not to have been affiliated with any larger Klan groups, such as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
A second group examined in the document — a Klan-controlled housing fraternity, Kappa Beta Lambda, or KBL, for “Klansmen Be Loyal” — surfaced in 1924 and was tied to the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the report found.
Editor's note: This story has been changed to correct the name of Porter Butts' granddaughter.