Fredric March stands alongside four other mid-century drum majors for civil rights during the 1943 national radio broadcast of “Race-Relations Sunday.” Left to right: concert soprano Dorothy Maynor, actor Canada Lee, March, actor Fredi Washington, and Judge Hubert T. Delany. Photo Credit: Fredi Washington Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Louisiana.
A three-part article exploring the mistaken identification of Wisconsin native, Hollywood Golden Age icon, and civil rights giant Fredric March as a white supremacist – and the resulting removal of his name at two leading Wisconsin universities. Part I examines how research-free “conclusion jumping” – followed by lightning-fast social-media rumor that March was a Klan member – got the ball of confusion rolling, tarnishing in a blink the actor’s reputation across the World Wide Web. Part II looks at the ubiquitous but altogether neglected historical sources detailing March’s lifetime of racial-justice advocacy and activism across seven decades and his personal and battle-line friendships with leading lights of the civil rights movement. Part III describes the disbelief and outrage these unfolding events stirred in Hollywood racial-justice pioneers, civil rights scholars, and the actor’s family – all who now spring to March’s defense and point the way to admitting and correcting a monumental injustice. An article postscript offers a kind of quick study guide – “Be Aware the Ideas of March,” a rapid-fire, comprehensive timeline of just how often March and wife Florence Eldridge risked their box office in Jim Crow America on behalf of their commitment to civil rights.
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UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 20, 2021: A summer/fall 2021 effort — spearheaded in great part by Karen Sharpe-Kramer, widow of groundbreaking film director Stanley Kramer — pulled together acclaimed progressive academics, venerable Hollywood activists and living legends of the American Civil Rights Movement, all dedicated to restoring the good name of Golden Age acting icon and racial-justice giant Fredric March on the two Wisconsin college campuses that chose to believe false social-media rumors that the two-time Oscar, two-time Tony winner was a white supremacist and accordingly stripped March’s name from two theaters dedicated to his memory. Twenty-eight powerhouse civil rights stalwarts (individuals, organizations and institutions) attached their names to a September 15, 2021, letter — emailed to 37 people and departments associated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh — asking both schools to correct their horrific factual mistakes and return March’s name to a place of honor. Essayist John McWhorter broke the story of the Fredric March ensemble support letter in The New York Times on September 17, 2021.
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UPDATE #2, OCTOBER 2, 2021: After John McWhorter’s September 2021 piece in The New York Times critical of the decisions by both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to remove Fredric March’s name from two campus theaters, The Times published on September 22, 2021, a letter from University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank in response to McWhorter’s essay. Subsequent to that, Bright Lights author George Gonis penned an “Open Letter” September 29, 2021, in response to Chancellor Blank’s statements in The Times, which was then emailed directly to both the Chancellor and 36 other individuals and departments connected to both schools. The attached Oshkosh Examiner link includes both Chancellor Blank’s New York Times letter and author Gonis’s response to it. Fredric March & the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh Examiner.
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This is a Wisconsin story of right now and a story of moviemaking’s Golden Age. With the primary tenant of Lake Michigan’s west coast a mainstay of national news thanks to its vital swing-state status – and at a moment in history when racism, rightly, is as central an issue as it’s ever been, with the Jacob Blake tragedy now offering the Badger State’s own excruciating contribution to the dialogue – it is a story about one of the most famous Wisconsin and Hollywood Democrats ever and his seven decades spent on the right side of civil rights. It’s also the surreal story of friendly fire from well-meaning campus racial-justice activists hitting and debilitating him, nearly 50 years after his death. And with today’s long overdue efforts to purge the landscape of anti-historical monuments celebrating the un-American ideals of the Confederacy, it is a story, too, about the opposite – a years-long cause célèbre resulting in the unwitting removal of anti-racism monuments to a man who was raised in a Wisconsin city that had been the radically abolitionist maritime headquarters of the Underground Railroad’s western front and who himself was devoted to a 20th-century replay of those same Underground Railroad sensibilities: black strategists firmly calling upon white citizens to wake up. Finally, it is a story, when told from beginning to end, that is all at once inspiring – and not. Perhaps the best place to start is 1939.
By Easter Day 1939, Fredric March (born Racine, Wisconsin, 1897) had already won his first Oscar and was a dozen years into a 48-year marriage to a woman who in the 1920s was already recognized as one of the most politically progressive actresses in the American theater – Florence Eldridge. Three years earlier, March himself – with fellow activists Dorothy Parker, Oscar Hammerstein, Fritz Lang, and a few others – had been one of the principal founders of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. But heading into this particular Easter Sunday, the Marches were showing in the biggest way yet just how much they put principles above any risk to their box office, a recurring bit of behavior they surpassed many times over in the decades to come.
In that spring of ’39, when heavenly-gifted opera singer Marian Anderson, an African American, was barred by the racist policies of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) from performing in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, Charles Hamilton Houston – the NAACP’s first legal counsel and Thurgood Marshall’s most influential mentor – initiated with other African American leaders a broad-based letter-writing campaign condemning the DAR for its actions, and Fredric March, a well-known compatriot on civil rights issues, was one of the first letter-writers they enlisted. And when these same leaders in blindingly short order organized a now beyond-historic Marian Anderson Easter concert at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, the Marches’ names appeared on the event’s official printed program as two of the sponsors, and the husband-and-wife team made sure to take the day off from The American Way – a hit Broadway play denouncing Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism in which they were co-starring – to fly from New York to Washington in time to let Anderson’s glorious voice wash over them.
Considerably south of the Lincoln Memorial, a pair of voices singing elsewhere in 1939 belonged to two schoolboys who themselves would one day become good friends and legendary civil rights champions, but who were, for the moment, complete strangers separated by a wide stretch of sea. Ten-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. sang with his church choir that year at the premiere of Gone with the Wind in his hometown of Atlanta. And 12-year-old Harlem-born Harry Belafonte was temporarily in Jamaica with one of his grandmothers, learning the vocals, rhythms, and rhymes that would make him a beloved citizen of the world. Both of their paths would cross Fredric March’s in turbulent times ahead.
Fast-forward to 1963. King and Belafonte are men in their thirties, committed to each other and to a movement that will change the world. Fredric March, Screenplay Magazine’s 1933 box-office champion, is in the twilight of a still-active career and held in awe by his peers – always prepared, wanting every fellow player to shine, allergic to grandstanding. He is the first lead male actor nominated five times for an Academy Award, and is the only lead male actor to win two Oscars and two Tony Awards – true in 1963 and true in 2020.
But many of his 1963 peers revere March more for the fact that his 40 years as an actor have also been 40 years spent as a vocal and tireless soldier for world peace, free speech, racial equality, the defeat of anti-Semitism, and the end of fascism. Taylor Branch, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, describes a March 31, 1963, secret strategy session for Dr. King and his Northern supporters held in Belafonte’s New York City apartment on the eve of MLK’s momentous trip to Alabama and his enduring “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Branch notes Fredric March’s attendance. A few weeks later, March and several others sign a telegram chastising President Kennedy for moral failure in not doing enough to protect peaceful protesters in Birmingham from vicious dogs, fire hoses, and police brutality. And just a year later, the NAACP, citing the actor as one of its longtime friends, asks March to deliver the “keynote to the production” on a coast-to-coast live television program celebrating the 10th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and the outlawing of school segregation.
Living such a life, it would have been difficult for the Marches and five decades’ worth of American civil rights pioneers to fathom why, in 2018, students at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, would brand March a Klan member and virulent racist and strip his name posthaste from the campus’s heretofore venerable Fredric March Play Circle in the historic landmark, student-governed 1928 Memorial Union – an action recently mirrored at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in August 2020 where another March namesake theater met the same fate. But both of these things happened, and all based on a wispy, single thread of evidence so glaringly misinterpreted – according to a wide array of March family members, colleagues, acclaimed scholars, and civil rights trailblazers – that it is, in reality, no evidence at all.
Instead, the decision to remove his name came accompanied, these same people maintain, by complete unawareness of (and an incomprehensible, negligent lack of curiosity about) March’s deserved and exalted standing as one of his century’s finest actors (in one socially conscious production after another) and his towering public record as a supremely outspoken advocate for racial justice. March the man remained blatantly unexamined and virtually unstudied by those moving – usually quite enthusiastically – to extract the civil rights stalwart from any honored place at either university.
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Of the dozens of Fredric March facts and anecdotes found both herein (timeline at the end of this article included) and in numerous civil rights histories on public library shelves across America – all clearly revealing a 77-year lifetime conspicuously devoted to defending the rights of African Americans and progressive politics – scarcely a one was offered up or discovered by any university hearing, commissioned study, press release, or extensive media coverage addressing the now three years of campus controversies fixated upon the nature of March’s racial views. March’s brand-new 21st-century fate now seemed to echo his two Oscar-winning roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Best Years of Our Lives – and not in a good way. The decision to permanently wipe the March name off both university theaters certainly and utterly ignored the best years (indeed, all the years) of his life and left us, many historians say, with a massive violation of the truth by stigmatizing March, for who knows how long, as a white-supremacist Hyde.
There is no shortage of progressives, better versed on March, who now find themselves either outraged or aghast – or at the very least scratching their heads – when it comes to what transpired in Madison and now Oshkosh, among them the Marches’ daughter and grandchildren; Karen Sharpe-Kramer, widow of director and March collaborator Stanley Kramer; actors/activists Harry Belafonte, James Cromwell, and Ed Asner; Tappan Wilder, nephew of Thornton Wilder and executor of the Wilder literary estate; Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the John Lewis-birthed National Museum of African American History and Culture and currently Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; and a broad collection of other civil rights academics and authors. And they’ve all wondered how something like this could happen. Here’s how.
Certain dusty but pertinent Klan facts – vital to understanding the happenings at both campuses – are disputed by no one, and careful attention to nuance in the specific chronology of a few key historic events is important. To even start exploring March’s past, the what-came-first timeline below must be sliced thinly and parsed precisely – the matter of a few weeks or months can make a significant difference in the pursuit of truth:
- D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation is released in 1915, reintroducing to mainstream America the ugly and mistaken notion of a heroic Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan and outraging the NAACP and its allies. Later that same year, inspired in part by the film and looking to tap into the windfall of dues and merchandise sales generated by countless fraternal associations in vogue at the time, Southern racist and inveterate organization-joiner William Joseph Simmons founds in Georgia what historians refer to as the Second Klan – the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, aka the Invisible Empire.
- Although white supremacy was a value shared by no small number of Americans coast-to-coast at the time, the Second Klan remains quite regional for nearly all its first five years, limited to a few thousand members scattered exclusively in Georgia, Alabama, and environs. Simmons’s Klan doesn’t even involve itself in a public event until a 1919 Georgia veterans’ parade, according to longtime New York University professor Linda Gordon, who points out “a photo of ‘his (Simmons’) group’ in that parade turned out to show 20 African-Americans he had paid to dress up in sheets. By 1920, his small new group had stagnated.” The Klan only starts to take off in other parts of the country very late that year when two Atlanta public relations professionals – Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke – convince Simmons to target, for recruitment purposes, not only African Americans with hate, but Jews, Catholics, all non-Christians, the foreign-born, evolutionists, and radicals. The new strategy works. Beginning in 1921-22, the Invisible Empire balloons with members nationally, even finding itself in control of some non-Southern state governments, most famously in Indiana.
- Here we need to backtrack for a moment. Going back to early-19th-century America, male campus honor societies frequently dubbed themselves with Greek or ghostly and dark names. Was that the reason a new interfraternity honorary society for outstanding junior men – founded around 1916 at another Big Ten school, the University of Illinois – cluelessly and stupidly called itself the Ku Klux Klan (both Greek and ghostly in pedigree)? Were these Illini merely tone-deaf innocents for whom the concept of their own white privilege – and any self-awareness of their unintended but real bigotry – existed as mindsets that could only be awakened by a civil rights movement on the scale of the 1950s and ’60s, something 40 years in the future? Or did these Land of Lincoln collegians not-so-cluelessly have a more sinister and racist agenda from the very start? No definitive answer to that has ever been found, but the facts all historians agree on are these: In 1919 – in Madison and just about everywhere else in the country – several million may know the controversy surrounding the depiction of the Reconstruction-era Klan in Birth of a Nation, but there is virtually no awareness that the new Second Klan even exists; in a desire to expand to other campuses, Illinois’s honorary Ku Klux Klan (labeled for shorthand in this article as HKKK to distinguish it from the actual Second Klan/Invisible Empire, labeled IE) visited Madison in mid-1919 and jump-started the first year of a UW chapter for the 1919-1920 academic session; every known constitution, charter, or document connected to the HKKK at either campus calls only for each individual fraternity to elect its most outstanding junior to the HKKK and for the interfraternity organization to be influential in campus affairs and social life – there is not a single word or idea related to the IE or that group’s bigotries; not only is there no evidence of an entry requirement based on one’s racial views, HKKK members had no agency in even becoming members – your academic/extracurricular performance alone conferred membership as a surprise honor to the inductee; no ties between the HKKK and the IE have ever been found; the HKKK carried that name at the UW for just three or four years; official HKKK photos those years in UW publications are devoid of anyone in blackface and of any IE symbols, sentiments, clothing, or paraphernalia – showing, instead, members in suits and neckties, formal wear, casual attire, and team uniforms or sporting cartoonish top hats and pushing baby carriages for an initiation ritual.
- Well liked on campus, different among most fraternity men because he needed to wait tables to support himself, a standout academically and in dramatic and comedic productions, it is no surprise that Fredric March (born Frederick Bickel) – inducted into five other honorary societies and soon to be senior class president – is elected, solely on the basis of his conventional but plentiful campus accomplishments, by the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity after his junior year as its representative to the brand new HKKK, an organization March had nothing to do with starting or naming and whose membership he did not and could not seek. He is a member of the honorary society for just nine months of his entire life – appearing in three HKKK yearbook photos – before receiving his diploma in June 1920. He moves to New York a few weeks later. By early 1921, he’s an aspiring Broadway actor.
- Shortly after the IE made its inaugural recruiting trip to the UW campus in autumn 1922, HKKK members made it clear they had no wish to be associated with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and, sounding a little mortified, announced before the end of the year that they intended to drop the HKKK name because, as Wisconsin’s HKKK student president said, “so many people confused it with the name of the non-collegiate secret organization of the same name.” As of early 1923, the HKKK was now called Tumas, a benign, likely Latin phrase. Actual Invisible Empire Klan members were not welcome in Tumas, UW fraternities, or campus honorary societies. In response, accordingly and unfortunately, a true Invisible Empire-sponsored fraternity – Kappa Beta Lambda – did emerge at the UW in 1924. But by 1928, both it and Tumas had ceased to exist on campus.
The UW uproar over March’s “Klan membership” is – but for one crucial point – the proverbial déjà vu all over again. Any state university drawing from the general population for more than a century-and-a-half will have had – in that time period – its share of right-wing, reactionary elements and bigots, and the UW today is criticized loudly by many who fault the school of 30,000 undergraduates not only for a minuscule minority population, but for a systemic insensitivity to students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Conversely, going back to at least the very early 20th century, the UW has simultaneously been famous as a bastion of liberal politics, born of racial-justice stalwart Robert M. (Fighting Bob) La Follette and others. Beginning in the late 1950s, on the eve of March receiving an honorary doctorate from the UW, progressive student and faculty watchdogs started a Fredric March cycle of sorts that would repeat about every 10 or 15 years. Someone paging through the Badger yearbook from March’s senior year would notice the three HKKK photos featuring one of Wisconsin’s most famous alumni and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Immediate loud cries for the university to divorce itself from anyone who was a Klan member ensue. But in just a few short days, university statements, campus publications, or local city newspapers straighten out the confusion with versions of pretty much the same two observations: it’s not that Klan and Fredric March’s lifelong progressive bona fides are obvious to anyone. Explanation accepted, end of flap. March’s vindication is then remembered – until it’s not by a whole new generation of students, resulting in another episode of rewind and play. And that is exactly how this recurring scenario played out on campus in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Only that’s not how things happened in 2017. The times and the climate were different. On top of that, Fredric March – stating the obvious – had been dead longer than he ever had been, and in a world where many fewer eyewitnesses to March’s life existed, his ancient name meant nothing to most people on campus, most especially students, even if it was a name a few of them happened upon in all the 2018 Lady Gaga coverage pointing out March’s 1937 starring role in the very first A Star Is Born.
In August 2017, with the future of Jim Crow-allied Confederate monuments as a backdrop, what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, that month became a catalyst for what was about to happen to Fredric March in Madison, Wisconsin. The repellant and violent actions of neo-Nazis and other racists in that Virginia city – resulting in a white supremacist driving his car into a crowd of racial-justice advocates, injuring 19 and killing one of them, Heather Heyer – galvanized students in Madison committed to the end of racism as it similarly galvanized students on campuses across the country. But even those quite necessary good intentions can take you down the wrong road if you don’t pay attention to all you should pay attention to. And it is intention minus attention that has assuredly and clumsily destroyed Fredric March’s legacy at his alma mater – and across the internet, social media, and Wikipedia universe.
With the recycled rediscovery of Fredric March in those three HKKK yearbook photos, the actor/activist was immediately branded a white supremacist, and the 2017-18 school year – via meetings, protests, petitions, opinion pieces, social media, and filed hate and bias reports – became awash with student and community demands for stripping March’s name from the Play Circle. Despite the fact that not a single racist statement or sentiment attributed to March was ever offered or found – and despite the fact that just about every UW student voicing an opinion freely admitted they weren’t really sure who March was – for the prevailing number of them weighing in, the three yearbook photos alone told the whole story: here was an honest-to-goodness Klan member and white supremacist. Campus social media, in particular, was rife with warnings that, thanks to its name, a beloved campus performance space was better labeled an unsafe space and an affront to all students. And, many added, the fact that the March name remained large and emblazoned across the Play Circle’s entrance for even a minute after the photos were “discovered” exposed, despite any official lip service otherwise, the university’s contempt for a diverse student body.
Prompted solely by suddenly louder protests against keeping the Fredric March name on the Play Circle – and protests against a Memorial Union art gallery named for Porter Butts (an HKKK inductee three years after March), who later, as Director of the Memorial Union itself for nearly 50 years, fought sustained battles against racial discrimination – UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank just days after the violence in Virginia directed the formation of a study group to address the issue and make a report. “In the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville,” Chancellor Blank said in a statement, “it is time to take a fresh look at our history to ensure that we fully understand . . . the activities of members of the campus community during this time period.” She then instructed the study group to research any campus organizations using the KKK name in the 1920s and offer recommendations. The nine-member, multiracial panel was co-chaired by UW history professor Stephen Kantrowitz and Floyd Rose, president of 100 Black Men of Madison, and included other faculty in the history, Afro-American Studies, and social work departments along with student and citizen representatives.
Student reaction upon the announcement of the study group’s formation was immediate, and it was all pretty much cut from the same dogmatic, research-free cloth. Typical were August 23, 2017, comments in the Badger Herald, one of two student newspapers on campus, from a member of Yoni Ki Baat, a campus performing arts collective annually presenting in the Fredric March Play Circle a showcase of songs, monologues, and spoken-word poetry celebrating stories from women and non-binary people of color.
“It just does not surprise me at all that people like Fredric March . . . have connections to white supremacist organizations,” said the student performer, “and it is about time that the UW acknowledges that. I cannot believe that my friends and I have been performing in a space named after someone who would have considered all of us to be lesser beings. I find it so ironic that we are sharing our intersectional stories in a theater that honors a racist.” In a simultaneous Facebook post addressed to the Memorial Union, this same student wrote: “Rename the Fredric March Play Circle immediately. Yoni Ki Baat performs there annually and it is disgusting for womxn of color on this campus to perform their intersectional stories about white supremacy in a space named after a KKK member. You have until April to rename this before this well-known and appreciated organization performs again. Do not let your students and community feel disrespected and unsafe in your spaces.”
The original due date for the chancellor-ordered study was December 1, 2017. The 31-page report was finally submitted April 19, 2018. Despite the fact that the chancellor’s study group was formed primarily because of the Fredric March name controversy, the panel chose to sidestep the name issue altogether, deciding rather to offer a blueprint for further commitment to current programs encouraging a more diverse and equitable campus, along with recommendations for a public history project finally giving voice to the forgotten Badgers who fought and overcame decades of bigotry at the UW. The report contained not a single fact about March’s lifelong affinity for racial justice. Indeed, the study strongly suggested not spending any time on the history of a few individuals, advocating instead “that any focus on the renaming of particular campus facilities follow rather than precede the work of substantial institutional change.”
The study’s findings – or lack thereof, in the eyes of many – left much of the campus community confused, frustrated or angry. Although no one could impugn the recommendations it did make, the report, for large numbers of students, was – literally – way more than a day late and way more than a dollar short. The study group may have determined that it was not its place to make any final recommendation on the names, but that did not change the fact that an awful lot of people still wanted a final decision on the name of the Play Circle – and fast.
It was at this point that the calendar itself – along with the mechanics of Memorial Union governance and unrelenting pressure to remove the March name – all came into play. The school year was winding down, and Yoni Ki Baat’s annual April performance was rapidly approaching. Moreover, it was not really up to the UW’s chancellor, faculty, administration, or board of regents to decide the future of the Memorial Union’s Fredric March Play Circle. That final decision was ultimately the province of the Memorial Union’s Union Council, a governing body that included some faculty, administrators, and alumni, but was – in a student-run Union – dominated numerically by students.
On April 26, Yoni Ki Baat took the stage at the still-named Fredric March Play Circle, and the program’s host and creative co-director took the microphone and issued a disclaimer:
The space that you are sitting in, that we are performing in, is named after someone with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. We consider this performance a reclamation of the space. . . . We have the floor. Our group was pretty shaken up by the fact that we had been working in a space that was named after someone who had affiliation with a group that, from our understanding, is diametrically opposed to everything we stand for as a performing group and as individuals . . . we’re taking up space in a theater that was named after someone that was part of a group that didn’t think that we should have the same rights as them.
Around the same time as the Yoni Ki Baat performance – and in response to the March name still being on the Play Circle – a 2018 senior filed a hate and bias report with the university, charging that campus leadership “knowingly and deliberately contribute an active harm toward students, alumni, faculty, staff and Union members by disregarding the importance of an urgent removal (of the March name).” Local Madison press noted that about 120 students signed the complaint as “affected members” and that another 270 people had registered support anonymously. This same student characterized the university’s response to student concerns as dismissive and inadequate. Of the decision to not immediately remove the March and Butts names, she said, “It’s literally a hostile act. . . . These controlling entities did not believe that the emotions of these students were valid at face value. . . . This is something that seems so easy – just go to the wall with a crowbar and peel off the names. That adds to the frustration. It would be such a simple act for students to feel safer and more welcome.” The student also pointed out that she had used social media to encourage others to file additional hate and bias reports, adding that she knew of at least 10 people who had done so.
The Union Council that spring of 2018 quickly announced a plan promising that a final decision on the Play Circle name would absolutely be rendered sometime during the September-through-December 2018 window. But it didn’t take nearly that long. Faced with continuing demands and roiling emotions, the Union Council convened two separate two-hour public forums in July 2018 after the spring semester was done, attracting about 100 people from the campus and general Madison community. And, again, virtually no substantive defenses of Fredric March were presented or even attempted.
The president of the Madison-area NAACP, unaware of March’s 30 years of collaboration with the national organization, stated his support at one of these public forums for removing the actor’s name from the Play Circle – a position clearly in contrast to the San Francisco NAACP’s 2019 researched and reflective stand that a local high school’s 1936 WPA George Washington mural branded as racist by many was actually intended as “a critique” of racism, a nod to the notion that things aren’t always what they first appear to be. Speaker after speaker at the forums misidentified March as a member of the actual Invisible Empire, regularly confusing and conflating the few facts they had and ignoring the important chronological nuances of any Klan-history timeline. Even so, many students addressing the assembled proudly touted their history credentials.
“As a history major, I have great a respect for the complexity of this issue,” said one student. “To not remove this name is to condone an ongoing historical wrong and to not properly reckon with the symbolic intangible impact of white supremacy on this university today.”
Lack of research notwithstanding, most students at these hearings spoke with assurance and total authority. “Fredric March – everyone knows he was part of the KKK. It was pretty well-known, not hard to figure out,” offered another student. “That (name) really needs to be changed immediately without any kind of conflict. Take, what, 20 minutes? Pull the name off the wall and go figure out a new name for the number of how many amazing theater producers/directors that have come out of this university in the past 100 years.” This same student said of the hearings that she was “insulted by the emotional labor” and “deliberate harm” caused by the Union’s decision that it needed to call a public forum to discuss the name of the Play Circle, adding that the entire Union was a “kind of memorial to rich white men,” and that the unnecessarily long time the Union and the university took to complete the chancellor-ordered study and were now taking to render a decision on the March name was “an actual violent act toward us.”
Several student speakers at the hearings alluded to the vital role social media played in uncovering “the truth” about Fredric March. “We know,” said one, “thanks to social media now, about how (March was) connected to the KKK. That’s all we know; we don’t know all of the history behind it. Yeah, you can tell everybody go do your research, but the majority of students of color on campus are hearing (through social media) . . . that these are KKK-affiliated members (March and Butts), and there is trauma associated with that. It’s not about his character or what a great guy he was or everything he did for the community and all of that kind of stuff. It’s about how is this impacting students today and what can we do about it. These names are infringing upon the rights of students and creating a less open campus. . . . (The names) are rooted in white supremacy and racism.”
These preponderant sentiments at the hearings received perhaps their boldest exclamation point from one student in particular: “By naming these spaces after men who were complicit in that incredibly racist climate at the time . . . we’re continuing to perpetuate that racist culture, and the pervasiveness of racism is physically staying in this building by having that name there. I don’t think that it should be that big of a conversation. If current students say, ‘I feel uncomfortable in this space when it’s named after this person,’ then that should be the end of the discussion. Their needs are first. This is a space for those students to learn, not a space to honor people who died a long time ago.”
At this point – after these two public forums and after months of March being a popular topic of campus conversation – positive references about March’s character were still scant in university and local media outlets, and those few that had been offered succeeded only in damning the actor with the faintest of praise. Most tended to repeat and recycle a variation of the only positive spin – conspicuous for its weakness – ever posted by Chancellor Blank: that apparently March had “fought the persecution of Hollywood artists, many of them Jewish, in the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)” or that March “took actions later in life to suggest (he) opposed discrimination,” statements showing no awareness of March’s early and exhaustive civil rights record or that the Marches, falsely accused for more than a decade of being Communists, were two of the blacklist’s bravest and cheekiest enemies.
In this atmosphere, the Union Council’s announced timeline of additional careful deliberation beginning in September 2018 – while also guaranteeing a decision on the March name by no later than December 2018 – was perfunctorily thrown in the wastebasket. On the heels of the two emotion-filled hearings, the 15-member Council voted in early August 2018 to remove the Fredric March name from the Play Circle.
In 1978 – three years after his death – Fredric March’s widow, Florence Eldridge, and their daughter Penelope came to Madison to dedicate the Fredric March Play Circle. In what would play as undiluted irony 40 years later, they brought with them to hang at the theater’s entrance a copy of a painting showing March in one of his signature Broadway roles, that of the justice-seeking Major Joppolo in the famously anti-fascist A Bell for Adano. Merely by coincidence, this painting of March had been taken down earlier in 2018 for routine scheduled maintenance. It never made it back up. Before the 2018-2019 school year started, the large buff-colored, sans serif, art deco letters spelling out Fredric March’s name were unceremoniously scraped off the long, wide rosewood-stained wall welcoming audiences into the Play Circle.
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Nearly 100 years old, Memorial Union on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus has few peers as a building for the sentimentality it stirs in Badger students and alumni. It matters. A lot.
And so it should have mattered when the wording of the August 2018 Union Council resolution ordering the removal of the Fredric March name from the building’s Play Circle (now simply called The Play Circle) allowed for “the understanding that more research into Fredric March’s legacy is needed before a possible solution for recognition elsewhere in Memorial Union can be decided upon.” But right up until the spring 2020 Coronavirus-tinged campus shutdown in Madison and continuing in the months since, Union officials report that none of that has happened – no additional research, no consideration of recognition for March elsewhere in the building. Apparently, even in the ensuing 18 months before the campus shutdown, the Union Council, students, and other parties that had so insisted upon speed in the condemnation of March – those insulted and claiming injury due to what they decried as the molasses pace of the decision process – presumably did not aspire to those same exacting standards of velocity and efficiency now that March was sufficiently sullied, besmirched, and, in a magician’s flash-paper instant, vaporized into thin air at his alma mater. Nothing seemed so pressing anymore. The resolution’s mandate for “more research” notwithstanding, having second thoughts about Fredric March’s sealed fate hasn’t appeared to trouble much of anyone’s sleep on campus, at least not enough to move with any alacrity on the Union Council’s last directive. To the eye, it seems as if the detractors are so sure in their verdict on March that the only sentiment they’re able to muster on “more research” is “What would be the point?”
Later that fall of 2018, word of what had happened at the UW spread to one of its sister universities, one also with a vested interest in Fredric March. March himself came to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (UWO) – 90 miles northeast of Madison – in 1971 for the dedication of the Fredric March Theatre, the primary performance venue for Oshkosh’s Theatre Department. By spring of 2019, concerned students at UWO – equipped only with the same limited information in possession of their peers in Madison – were also seriously questioning the presence of the March name on their university’s theater space. And they were equally at a loss as to who March even was.
The Advance-Titan, UWO’s student newspaper, opined – below a cartoon of a performer on stage casting a robed and hooded Klan shadow – “why would UWO risk keeping the name of a building on campus if the name has any sort of ties to a white supremacist hate group? Surely the renaming of one building on campus isn’t too much to ask as Wisconsin – indeed the country – grows increasingly diverse . . . there is little information on what type of personal beliefs March held . . . the Fredric March Theatre is named after a man who was largely unknown by most of the campus prior to the UW-Madison naming controversy,” and concluded, “It’s time to consider the possibility of a more progressive name for the theater, something that students can be proud of.” This Advance-Titan article was published March 7, 2019 – an interesting time to note March as an icon of obscurity and mystery. Turner Classic Movies was in the midst of “March Madness” month – airing 31 straight days of films starring Fredric March. Although that calendar fact eluded the student writer, hindsight identifies the article as the likely first harbinger of another calendar fact: the days of UWO’s Fredric March Theatre were numbered, as well.
It bears repeating, yet again, that in this journey to remove and rebuke the Fredric March name, virtually none of the March biographical facts in this article (timeline included) were discovered or offered by any of the parties voting March off the UW island – and later off the UWO island. The absence of these facts at either of the two student/citizen forums in Madison – or in any statements, public record, or accounting provided by UW’s Union Council, other UW/UWO entities, or local press coverage in both cities – is, given the historical information’s pervasiveness and easy accessibility, all the stranger.
The majority of facts in this article come from two thoroughly researched, heavily footnoted, critically acclaimed biographies of March – the 1996 release Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second, by Deborah C. Peterson (who died, sadly, in April 2020) and Fredric March: A Consummate Actor, by Charles Tranberg (2013) – limited-run titles from smaller publishers, to be sure, but readily available at either America’s public libraries or Barnes & Noble, especially in Wisconsin. Likewise, visit those same public libraries in neighborhoods coast-to-coast, turn to the index pages in any number of civil rights histories written by Pulitzer Prize winners and leading academics – for example, University of South Carolina professor Patricia Sullivan’s 2010 Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement, proclaimed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. “the definitive history of the NAACP” – and one will easily and frequently stumble upon the Fredric March name in all its protagonist glory. Most embarrassing of all, however, is that many of the other March facts offered here sat just 30 yards from the Memorial Union in the Wisconsin Historical Society, one of the world’s most expansive and revered repositories – and home to the voluminous Fredric March Papers. In the run-up to removing March’s name from the Play Circle, every party at the UW with a stake in the outcome admits to not consulting any of these sources. And, naturally, the fact that nobody tried to contact any March colleagues and friends who might still be living almost goes without saying.
While correctly concluding that casual racism and anti-Semitism were mainstream behaviors at the University of Wisconsin in the 1910s and ’20s (as they were, unfortunately, at most American campuses), March’s detractors failed to point out that the UW was, at the same time, also under the thrall of one of the era’s greatest racial-justice champions – Robert M. La Follette, loudest proponent of the campus-driven, internationally acclaimed Wisconsin Idea, a movement and a concept tightly entwined in this Fredric March tumult. Nor did they mention that between 1910 and 1947, the most popular professor on campus was La Follette intimate Max C. Otto, world-renowned Unitarian humanist philosopher, leading civil rights activist, and – to be discussed more in a moment – a prominent player in the saga of his student and eventual lifelong friend Fredric March. Whether one was majoring in engineering, dairy science, commerce, history, physical education, or English literature, the prevailing student zeitgeist for nearly four decades was that no one should receive their UW diploma without a semester in a Max Otto Philosophy Department class.
If spending a little extra time now on Robert La Follette and Max Otto might seem like an unnecessary tangent and off-topic, it’s not. Their influence – and their monumental place in a six-degrees-of-separation-style paradigm – is essential in tracing an accurate 55-year map of March’s heart and mind.
The civil rights resume of suffragist/feminist La Follette and his equally inspiring suffragist/feminist wife Belle Case La Follette is unquestioned. Both La Follettes had long supported political roles (by appointment or election) for women, roundly condemned anti-Semitism, and worked tirelessly for the rights of African Americans, Asian Americans, and other minorities. Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois counted themselves as admirers. The La Follettes stood out in that both scoffed at the racist notion that African Americans were themselves not up to being the leads in the fight for equality. When addressing the graduating class of Howard University in 1886, and bemoaning the ongoing evil of racism 25 years after the start of the Civil War, La Follette emphatically told the assembled, “You are equipped for the mighty contest. Go to your work.” La Follette scholar Nancy C. Unger, professor at Santa Clara University, observes that “Belle La Follette was widely acknowledged within the African American community nationwide . . . as a dedicated and fearless leader in the fight for racial equality,” and describes a scene in 1914 when Mrs. La Follette spoke to a crowd of 1,000 mostly African Americans at the so-called colored YMCA of Washington, D.C. “Wild cheering interrupted her speech several times,” Professor Unger tells us. “La Follette argued that segregation was entirely wrong, and ‘it was to the credit of the colored people that they had arisen en masse to protest.’ She advised (African Americans) to keep up their fight.”
La Follette – U.S. congressman, three-term Wisconsin governor at the beginning of the 20th century, founder and presidential candidate of the Progressive Party, and still considered by many academics the greatest U.S. senator in history – made sure the Wisconsin Idea was inextricable from his alma mater’s mission. In the words of Professor Unger, La Follette’s particular brand of progressivism was inherent in the Wisconsin Idea, an unprecedented cooperative relationship between government, the university, and the private sector, with public interest transcending all lesser concerns. “Vast faith was placed in the experts at La Follette’s beloved University of Wisconsin,” states Professor Unger, adding that La Follette “characterized the university as the fourth branch of government – the nerve center of the commonwealth, impelling it into action in almost every field of activity.” Unger points out that upon La Follette’s death in 1925, swaths of scholars, citizens, and politicians conceded that the Wisconsin Idea probably stimulated more genuine reform in state and national politics than any other influence in the previous 40 years. For La Follette, both the university and the state were to be, famously, “a laboratory of democracy.” The most legendary phrase associated with the Wisconsin Idea is memorialized on a plaque created in 1910 and affixed still to Bascom Hall, the university’s signature building: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
All this begs the question, why then the disappearance of the vaunted, cherished, and continual sifting and winnowing when it came to Fredric March? There appeared to be no sifting and winnowing from students or most anyone else at the two public forums. There appeared to be no continual search for truth from those demanding the removal of March’s name. Had there been, there might have been recognition of a few glaring contradictions: For example, repeatedly identifying the question of March’s fossilized name as a root problem specifically because it is always wrong, especially in matters of racial justice, to forget and forgo history and a detailed reckoning with the past – and then rushing to do just that. Or complaining that the excessive time taken for the chancellor-ordered report and other research was tantamount to a “violent act” against students – and then committing no small amount of violence against the very kind of civil rights achievements students sought to protect by not discovering a single fact about March’s life precisely because the research wasn’t pursued long enough. Or proudly announcing your history-major status and then abandoning all academic rigor by still somehow buying into the notion that thorough historical inquiry – always replete with stubbornly cryptic clues, unexpected turns, and serendipitous findings – should adhere to a set timetable, governed only by a stopwatch, never a calendar.
Since at least the November 2016 election, progressive students on the Madison campus had rightfully complained – when it came to climate science and any number of other topics – about the emergence of a post-fact world. And now here they were, doing their part to encourage one. The gratitude for the powerful role students assigned to social media for finally pulling the curtain on March as supposed racist also went unexamined, presaging a December 2019 statement offered in The Atlantic by Congressman Adam Schiff: “In social media, fear and lies and anger travel so much faster than truth. And we haven’t figured out how to deal with it. I don’t think anybody has.”
Of course, one of the salient, likely exonerating aspects of March’s long-ago interfraternity society required no research beyond the few confirmed facts that everyone already agreed upon – just logic. It was essentially one of those things just staring people in the face and again hidden in plain sight that no one, apparently, ever happened to notice: If the 1919-founded HKKK University of Wisconsin chapter (to which March’s fraternity elected him that same year as its representative) was a real Klan group with real Klan sentiments, then why would the actual Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (again, the so-called Second Klan) need to make a special first recruiting trip to the UW in fall 1922 to launch a campus KKK – and then later form an IE-based fraternity in 1924 – if there were an honest-to-goodness KKK organization already on campus? And the findings of civil rights historian and University of Utah professor Robert A. Goldberg back this up: in autumn 1922, the Invisible Empire’s very first UW incursion was far too organized (and far too hyper-committed to making inroads on campus) to not pursue the HKKK had the honor society displayed any Second Klan sympathies and viewpoints, but the fact is, there is not a shred of evidence that the real Klan in any way considered or approached the HKKK as a farm team – or evidence of any communication ever between the IE and the junior honorary. In fact, there’s nothing that says the IE even knew the HKKK existed. The HKKK’s immediate horror in 1922 at being confused with the IE certainly seems to confirm this gulf.
That logical observation is echoed by another one. The one “bible” used by Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s nine-member study group was a 38-page 1993 article on the history of UW campus Klan activity appearing in the prestigious Wisconsin Magazine of History and written by Timothy Messer-Kruse, then a graduate student at the UW and today a history professor at Bowling Green State University. The Messer-Kruse article pointed out that almost immediately after an ever-so-brief, unsuccessful first foray into the city of Madison in late 1921 by the actual Invisible Empire, The Capital Times – a Madison daily founded specifically in 1917 to champion the influence of La Follette Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea – published numerous editorials and articles condemning both racism and the appearance of the Klan. Accordingly, why, then, did this bigotry-hating, doesn’t-miss-a-trick, quick-on-the-scent, always-on-the-lookout, muckraking, ear-to-the-ground, campus-loving, gadfly, watchdog, supremely left-leaning newspaper never look into the HKKK? Likewise, leftist and progressive student organizations existed on campus in 1919 and were unafraid to assemble and voice their views, but when the HKKK chapter made its initial appearance at the UW in 1919-20 (and for every year of the chapter’s brief existence thereafter), the 1993 article recounts that “Not even the more radically inclined students made the issue a matter of public debate.” And Utah’s Goldberg offers that Madison’s largest daily – the 1839-founded Wisconsin State Journal, born of a proud anti-slavery legacy – also went after the real Klan the very moment in 1921 the group first appeared in town. This makes two inquiring metropolitan newspapers quick to condemn the Invisible Empire for importing its ideas to Madison – yet both dailies somehow never print a word outing the HKKK. One could perhaps argue these facts alone likely go a long way in revealing the stupendously ill-named honorary society as a body never built upon a nefarious, racist mission.
But it is clear that, more than anything else, good old-fashioned scholarship would have been the most powerful force in setting the record straight and getting the March story right. Had anyone merely taken the time to peruse the shelves of their neighborhood library or used the internet as a locator of primary archival sources rather than as a social media forum – or exerted the slightly extra effort to explore just a few key file boxes in the Fredric March Papers – they would have found a treasure-trove of undeniable truths. For one, they might have happened across an editorial spotlighted by the Archives Department of the University of Illinois – home campus to the 1916 flagship HKKK – and found in a 1923 issue of the Daily Illini student newspaper. Urging the HKKK to change its name in order to distinguish it from the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Illini editorial reads in part, “The campus group is in no way connected with the older group that is now spreading so rapidly throughout the country; its aims and ideals are of a different nature, its personnel different, the campus Ku Klux Klan is purely a social organization.” The editorial then deemed it “unfortunate that the juniors should have the same name as the band of 100 percent Americans who have aroused such a storm of protest from coast to coast.” In short order, the Illinois interfraternity organization also replaced its unfortunate moniker with the Tumas name that year.
A trickle or two more of academic rigor could have led easily to pertinent March ancestral, childhood, adolescent, and collegiate details just there for the taking, like so much low-hanging fruit. As it turns out, the stirrings of March the civil rights champion seem to appear quite early, likely inspired by some fairly deep roots. Pre-Civil War, according to historian Michael J. McManus in his 1998 book Political Abolitionism in Wisconsin, 1840-1861, the most radical anti-slavery, equal-citizenship members in the national Republican Party were almost certainly the Republicans of Wisconsin – indeed, Wisconsin’s was the only state supreme court to defy the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, the most insidious pro-slavery law in American history, and declare it, repeatedly, unconstitutional. And it was Fredric March’s Lake Michigan hometown of Racine that anchored the most radically abolitionist county in the state. In the 1850s, when it came to Wisconsin’s efforts on behalf of racial justice, even Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune trumpeted “Glorious Wisconsin,” and The New York Times applauded Wisconsin’s “constructive treason.”
March’s father, John, born 1859, left the family farm in Racine County – settled mostly by New Englanders, New Yorkers, and a smattering of liberal Germans – and came to the thriving lakeport of Racine, some 15 minutes north of Kenosha, to make his living and his future in 1873. He spent his first three years in town working for A. P. Dickey, a maker of farm implements and a principal founder in 1848 of Racine’s First Congregational Church, one of the city’s most abolitionist congregations. In 1876, John himself became a lifelong member of Racine’s First Presbyterian Church, an 1851 building that stands today – a building where a young Fredric March later taught Sunday school – and, by the way, another fiercely abolitionist congregation that in pre-Civil War times required prospective members to swear they had never owned slaves.
With this backdrop, Fredric March grew into a state oratory champion by the age of 15 – a scholastic career built on a platform of speeches he personally selected attacking tyranny and promoting justice, freedom, independence, and racial equality (see timeline). When it came time for college, he was insistent on following his older brothers into the Alpha Delta Phi house, a literary fraternity founded before the Civil War by Samuel Eells – a man whose primary guiding stars were American abolitionists and Enlightenment and Transcendentalist philosophies – who spoke and wrote regularly on behalf of equality, justice, peace, and the need to recognize the horrible mistreatment of indigenous peoples. Others in the Alpha Delta Phi lineage across the country and across the years include civil-rights and progressive lodestars Salmon P. Chase, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, President James Garfield, Stephen Vincent Benet, Supreme Court Justice William Rufus Day (who in 1917 authored the majority opinion declaring all municipal ordinances segregating neighborhoods as unconstitutional), historic University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins, Illinois U.S. senator Charles Percy, murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
And then into the March narrative comes Unitarian-Universalist humanist philosophy professor Max C. Otto, whose own pedigree is vital to shaping, recognizing, and defining March’s pedigree. It is no small thing to emphasize that Otto was a Unitarian-Universalist (UU). All faiths fulfill their noblest principles at best imperfectly, but UUs can look back on a liberal religious past and still boast of multiple proud firsts: the first American denomination to officially proclaim its opposition to slavery (1790), the first to ordain a woman (Racine’s abolitionist minister Olympia Brown in 1863), the first to ordain openly gay ministers, and the first to perform same-sex marriages. The abolition, women’s suffrage, gender equity, and civil rights movements have been disproportionately populated with UU leaders – think abolitionists John/Abigail/John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Darwin, and Louisa May Alcott; think suffragists Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony, and Belle and Bob La Follette; think former Texas governor Ann Richards and women-can-do-anything astronaut Laurel Salton Clark of Racine, who sadly perished aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. National Urban League executive director Whitney Young was a UU, as were Pete Seeger and Barack Obama’s maternal grandparents. Martin Luther King and wife Coretta at one time seriously considered becoming UUs. When on March 8, 1965, Dr. King sent a call to clergy around the country to join him in Selma for a second attempt at crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge the next day, some 650 religious leaders showed up with just that 24-hour notice. Almost 40 percent of them were UU ministers – a consequential observation because they were representing one of the tiniest denominations in the United States. Later that evening, 38-year-old Unitarian minister James Reeb was attacked in Selma by white supremacists, dying two days later. He was not the only UU civil rights martyr of the era. In just another two weeks, 39-year-old Michigan UU Viola Liuzzo would be assassinated by Klan members as she was transporting fellow civil rights activists between Selma and Montgomery.
Max Otto, who died in Madison in 1968, was a civil rights leader and a philosopher in this UU tradition. An ardent partisan for evolution, he had heard anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan speak in person on several occasions, and accordingly coached his former student March on Bryan’s delivery and mannerisms when the actor was about to take on the Bryan role in Stanley Kramer’s 1960 Scopes “monkey trial” take Inherit the Wind. That film featured the Henry Drummond character as a stand-in for Clarence Darrow, and Otto himself had been at the deathbed of that Chicago civil rights agitator and fellow UU in 1938 to say goodbye to one of his dearest friends. Earlier, in 1931, The New York Times reported that Otto delivered the eulogy for fellow Madison UU and close family friend Belle Case La Follette, one that saw him describe her as “wife, mother, journalist, public speaker, civil rights activist, political campaigner and proponent of peace and disarmament.” Upon dedication in 1951 of Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark First Unitarian Society of Madison, it was Max Otto who spoke that building’s first sermon. Two years later in 1953, Wright’s Madison masterpiece hosted the first annual state conference of Wisconsin NAACP branches, an event welcoming, according to venerable NAACP periodical The Crisis, NAACP standard bearer and future Fredric March brother-in-arms Roy Wilkins.
Fredric March’s close friendship with Otto almost certainly started when March took philosophy his senior year, and the Fredric March Papers attest to the warmth and duration of the friendship: the Marches writing Otto and wife Rhoda from all over the world right into the 1960s, the Ottos writing letters back using the very personal “Florence and Freddie.” The strength of the March/Otto bond is confirmed today by Otto’s granddaughter, a retired physician who recalls that her grandfather’s classroom was a must-enroll destination for 40 years, and by Tappan Wilder – nephew of Thornton Wilder and executor today of the Wilder literary estate. The Wilder connection is not what one might think – it has nothing to do with the fact that Fredric March and Florence Eldridge delivered tour de force performances on Broadway in the premiere run of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Skin of Our Teeth. Working on his master’s in history at the UW in the late 1960s, Tappan Wilder found himself very interested in the origins of American philosophy and ended up writing his thesis about Max Otto. Rhoda Otto, a colorful six-footer, was still alive, and he fondly remembers long, lively interviews with her and her generous gift of full access to her writer/cartoonist husband’s dozens of diaries.
“I know that it was a rite of passage to take one of his (Otto’s) courses,” said Wilder. “Max was one of the very first to teach American Philosophy in an American university. In the attic of my memory, I definitely remember the Fredric March connection to Max. Based upon the man I spent a lot of time getting to know through my research and conversations with his wife, the thought that Max Otto would ever associate with a racist and an anti-Semite is not only ridiculous, it’s beyond the realm of possibility.”
It’s important, as well, to tick off a couple of other circumstances in close proximity to March’s college years. Mere weeks after receiving his diploma in June 1920, commerce major March moves to New York City on a banking scholarship. A burst appendix has the young banker reconsider his future there, and by January 1921, he’s working hard to get acting roles on Broadway. A little later that same year, he meets an already profoundly liberal director, John Cromwell. Not only do the two become fast friends, they become the closest of confidantes right up through March’s death, with Cromwell directing some of March’s finest films and HUAC-foe March becoming one of the few who refused to abandon Cromwell, one of the biggest victims of the Hollywood blacklist. And then, just six years after graduation, March becomes engaged to the ever socially conscious actress Florence Eldridge, daughter of a Brooklyn Eagle newspaper editor, kicking off a dazzling civil liberties partnership and an utterly-devoted-to-each-other marriage of 48 years. They were as big as the Lunts, just with politics and lots of high-profile social-justice crusading thrown in.
Knowing all this, for March’s recent detractors to be correct about their conclusions, we would have to believe that somehow March, after delivering anti-white-supremacy orations as a high-schooler, left for college where, during his senior year, the Hollywood-star-to-be became a virulent racist and a prototypical anti-radicals, evolutionist-loathing Klan member for nine months – and started an intimate 48-year friendship with a professor known around the world for his humanism and his serious advocacy of civil rights and evolution. On top of that, we would also have to believe that it makes complete sense for March, just a few months removed from a supposed full-on Invisible Empire endorsement, to attract the undying camaraderie of a progressive activist director and racial-justice stalwart who stays one of March’s closest friends until the actor’s last breath. Finally, we must rationally believe, too, in the high likelihood of March, only 72 months after said “Klan involvement,” winning the lifelong affections of an actress already known as one of the acting community’s most fiery political liberals – wife Florence joining director Cromwell as just one more radical boon companion in a nonstop long line of accused radicals to come who would find with Fredric March enduring and endearing embrace.
Such conclusions strain credulity and appear, in fact, beyond the bounds of all reason and evidence. Indeed, accompanied by all we do know about March between the bookends of ages 13 and 29, his very presence in the HKKK makes it overwhelmingly more likely that the HKKK was exactly what it said it was – an honor society (albeit thoughtlessly and stupidly named) with no litmus test other than asking each fraternity to nominate its most accomplished all-around junior, thereby inducting members across the entire range of the racial-enlightenment spectrum, reflecting the makeup of so many groups and even families in this country, filled with a very American mixture of bigots and those who loathe bigotry. Instead of “guilt by association” with a group not fully understood and very probably mischaracterized – and a group March belonged to only ephemerally, to boot – is it not wiser, fairer, and likely more accurate to affix upon March vindication by the actual, tangible, lifelong associations he made and sought in this early period of his life?
The “vindication by association” starting just a tick later in March’s life and continuing to his last days is even more impressive. The Marches began to socialize with producer Irving Thalberg and Oscar-winning wife Norma Shearer in 1932, but the relationship soon cooled when it became clear that the Marches’ activities as liberal Democrats didn’t mesh with those of the conservative Republican Thalbergs. In 1936, as mentioned earlier, March is a principal founder of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League with other leading liberal lights and civil rights activists, including actor Melvyn Douglas, director Fritz Lang, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein (think South Pacific’s milestone condemnation of race prejudice “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”), and writer Dorothy Parker. (Upon her death in 1967, it was discovered that Parker had bequeathed her entire literary estate to Martin Luther King Jr. Today, her ashes are interred in the Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden on the grounds of the NAACP’s national headquarters in Baltimore, and all royalties from her publications and productions benefit the NAACP.)
After getting to know opera singer Marian Anderson as official sponsors of her historic, bigotry-defying 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert, the Marches continued an enduring friendship with the contralto, joining the regulars at Anderson’s frequent Connecticut summer barbecues and making several appearances with her over the years at assorted progressive rallies and events. From March personally introducing Bette Davis at a Roosevelt rally in the 1940s to visiting her backstage on Broadway in the 1960s, the Marches also counted Davis as a friend and ally. March had volunteered his time for World War II servicemen and -women at Broadway’s famed Stage Door Canteen. Meanwhile, Davis was the moving force behind the founding of the Hollywood Canteen and made headlines in the national African American press when there were complaints about white soldiers dancing with black hostesses and black soldiers dancing with white hostesses. Davis would brook no racial discrimination – not only were mixed couples welcome, Davis insisted that African American soldiers had every right to mingle with everyone in all sections of the Canteen.
Professors Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson, in their 2012 book The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, cite March three different times and place him prominently in “a who’s who of Hollywood liberalism” with Humphrey Bogart – the same Bogart who helped make sure Lena Horne could live anywhere she damn well pleased. And indeed, so many of the Marches’ decades-long friendships do read exactly like a who’s who of Hollywood and Broadway civil rights battlers – primary among them the great blacklisted actor Canada Lee, felled in 1952 by an early death at age 45. Lee had made his mark as one of the first African American actors to insist on leading roles of great depth and dignity, making a splash playing Banquo in the Federal Theatre Project’s 1936 production of Macbeth, directed by Orson Welles. Lee and March appeared often together throughout the ’40s, especially in radio productions.
Scholar Mona Z. Smith wrote the definitive biography of Lee in 2004, Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee. Smith offers that Lee often poked fun at the idea that he and his friend March were linked on more than one occasion as Communist “fellow travelers.” “It’s not at all a stretch to say that (March) and Canada saw each other often at progressive political events and in radio, film and stage productions,” said Smith. “It was common to find Fredric March and Canada Lee on the same bill. They were certainly friendly and had friends in common, and Canada felt comfortable regularly mentioning Fredric March’s name in the most complimentary of terms – as a true patriot and citizen. Clearly, Canada thought he and Mr. March were on the same page in fighting for citizens who weren’t enjoying the same freedoms of our democracy and in wanting the country to live up to its democratic principles. Canada felt very comfortable in the company of Fredric March. I’m happy for Mr. March and his wife that they were able to get their careers back after the blacklist. Canada died before that could happen to him.”
March forged other strong, lasting professional relationships with everyone from film and stage directing legends Stanley Kramer, John Frankenheimer, and John Houseman – social-justice-driven artists all – to NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins, who lauded March’s “past and present support of our efforts.” The Marches’ regular social “dance card” was heady liberal stuff, including as it frequently did the likes of friends Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson and – on the Hollywood side – everyone from kindred spirit Robert Ryan to groundbreaking actress Dorothy Dandridge. In his 2005 book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, historian Donald Bogle writes, “Dandridge enjoyed entertaining. . . . She liked to prepare dinner herself. . . . Her larger, more formal dinner parties might include Gary and Rocky Cooper or James and Pamela Mason or Peter Lawford or Fredric March.”
Perhaps the biggest vein of March friendship gold runs through the Fredric March Papers in Wisconsin’s State Historical Society. Therein one finds archival boxes protecting a bounty of personal letters from a small army of civil rights notables all addressing March by first name – and almost always with the more intimate, familiar “Freddie” – including: writer/producer/directors George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Joseph Mankiewicz; Helen Keller (a slave owner’s daughter renowned for joining with the NAACP and others in fighting for racial equality); crusading New York Post journalist Max Lerner; Florida senator and congressman Claude Pepper – one of the first three individuals inducted into that state’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame; and a somewhat well-known fellow actor and Wisconsin liberal, Spencer Tracy, who penned to March in early 1961 a note with a wry nod to the just-past Kennedy-Nixon election, wondering why he, Tracy, received an Oscar nomination for Inherit the Wind while March was skipped over for the same film: “I have to admit to you – Freddie – that I am wondering a bit if maybe the votes were tabulated in Cook County. . . . But I thank you – a good Democrat – for giving me the benefit of the doubt.” Even March’s agent – the celebrated and remarkable Katharine “Kay” Brown – was renowned for her leftist, inclusionary politics.
Additionally, in the entire span of both the Play Circle disquiet in Madison and the ensuing uproar in Oshkosh, other important March associations were egregiously overlooked in the very mischaracterization of the Marches’ role in fighting the blacklist as one mostly on the sidelines – minor, casual, half-hearted, with no personal stake or career damage, and not particularly significant. This slight continues to be curious and troubling. As charter members of the Committee for the First Amendment, few were as out there in the limelight as the couple on this issue (see timeline). Beginning in 1938, the Marches made headlines for a good 10 to 15 years as they fought off multiple accusations that they were Reds. No shrinking violets – and unafraid still of what a public confrontation might do to their box office – the Marches became one of a handful of people who made the bullies gulp hard. After being labeled as Communists by the Red-baiting weekly newsletter Counterattack eight times, the Marches sued for half-a-million dollars – and came out on top. On January 2, 1950, Newsweek reported, “Last week in settlement of the suit, Counterattack took it back.”
As for all the trouble this took, March wouldn’t have had it any other way. Shortly after the first accusations of Communism, March wrote a 1940 article for Liberty Magazine, responding to those who would criticize actors for voicing public opinions and engaging in social-justice activism, saying, “What are we supposed to do – between making up our faces and powdering down for the next shot? Sit home and read Shakespeare all day long? If Donald Duck could read, don’t you think he’d express an opinion? I venture to say he would in no uncertain terms . . . thank God there are a few of us dim-witted liberals who continue to put our necks out for what we hope will prove to be the Right – the side that the men of Good Will are on.”
But there is another aspect of the Marches’ fight against accusations of Communism that is even more pertinent to the controversies in Madison and Oshkosh. Not only were the couple’s battles against the blacklist grossly understated, the ever-present racial implications of Communist accusations were missed altogether, as such accusations – say most blacklist historians – were often, in today’s parlance, racial dog whistles from those harboring deep-seated bigotries. It is no accident that a Los Angeles Daily News article in 1949 listed March as an accused Communist along with civil rights pillars Edward G. Robinson, Paul Robeson, Danny Kaye, Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Parker, and Lena Horne. According to longtime Brandeis University professor Steve Whitfield, a go-to scholar in political and American Jewish history, “Right-wing anti-Communism often sought to vilify the struggle for racial justice, and those who enlisted in that struggle were often accused, accurately or inaccurately, of being Communists.”
* * *
From film historians to actors, many veterans of the movie and entertainment industry – some of whom knew Fredric March – are astounded or disheartened today by March’s problematic and utterly mistaken rebranding as a white supremacist by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his alma mater, and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Included among them are four senior-citizen activists so woke they make most anyone younger appear deep in REM by comparison: actors James Cromwell, Ed Asner, and Harry Belafonte, and Karen Sharpe-Kramer, widow of director/producer and civil-rights pioneer Stanley Kramer (Home of the Brave, The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Although younger than his aforementioned colleagues, Cromwell, Oscar-nominated for 1995’s Babe, has a history with March that goes back the farthest. Before – somewhat ironically – he was arrested in Madison for disrupting a 2013 UW Board of Regents meeting on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to protest experimentation on cats at the university, Cromwell started out life as the son of John Cromwell, Fredric March’s oldest Broadway and Hollywood friend. It was John Cromwell who in 1921 encouraged March to drop his birth surname Bickel for a variation of Marcher, the maiden name of the young Wisconsinite’s beloved mother Cora.
Cromwell’s lifetime of activism today is a tribute to father John, who early on steered his son to laying things on the line for civil rights. Recalls Cromwell:
My father was responsible for my joining the Free Southern Theater (FST), a troupe of black and white actors touring in the Deep South in 1963-64 under the auspices of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, committing basically a crime in the Jim Crow South. We toured Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. We didn’t suffer the dangers and threats the Freedom Riders and civil rights organizers and demonstrators suffered because the White Citizens Councils wouldn’t take us very seriously, but we were always aware of what could happen. I went to high school with Mickey Schwerner, and I remember being down South with the FST when Mickey, (James) Chaney, and (Andrew) Goodman disappeared and being very concerned for them. It was never a joke when somebody went missing. We were a van full of mixed-race people on the back roads of Mississippi, and that was not a very good thing.
Cromwell feels a special affection today for March, in no small part thanks to the Golden Age star saving the preschool Cromwell’s life around 1943. During an evening party at his parents’ home, young “Jamie” knew he was supposed to be in bed, but the happy noise from downstairs awakened him, and he restlessly made his way into the adjoining bathroom. Once there, he hopped up on the counter and started mixing a concoction in a bathroom drinking glass with whatever he found in the medicine cabinet, when suddenly he heard footsteps coming up the circular stairway. Startled, he accidentally knocked the glass off the counter – a sound not loud enough to be heard by socializing partygoers a floor below. The glass had landed base down, its jagged, now-broken edges sticking up. “I jumped down to avoid detection and landed on the glass, slicing myself from the ball of my foot to my ankle and severing the main artery in my leg,” recalls Cromwell. “I didn’t cry out – I was probably in shock – and quickly made my way back into bed. It was fortuitous that Freddie came up the stairs at that moment to use the bathroom. He was a loving father and fond of children. I think our doors were always open a crack, and Freddie decided to peek in to see how Jamie was doing – then he saw the blood on the floor.” And so it was that one multiple-Oscar nominee was able to ensure that James Cromwell was around long enough to pick up his own nomination 52 years later.
But Cromwell is even more thankful to March for another gesture.
Freddie was probably one of my father’s very best friends and one of the few who did not cut my father out of his life after the blacklist. I know my father and his politics and his principles, and I know how HUAC affected his career. And I know for a fact my father’s relationship with Fredric March came with a trust and a bonding based on a mutual dedication to compassion and fairness and an understanding of the importance of social justice. My father, of course, could not have had so intimate a friendship with anyone who felt otherwise. They wouldn’t have made films together like So Ends Our Night unless they had shared those values, which I inherited from my father. Branding Fredric March a racist is just absurd. I’m honored to be in the tradition of Fredric March and John Cromwell in the work that I do, and in my craft and as a citizen.
As to the Play Circle verdict at March’s alma mater, Cromwell’s response is no less emphatic.
I’m appalled they took his name off the theater, and that should be redressed. This bothers me on a number of fronts. I think it’s really indicative of how ignorant this generation can be, and it’s not their fault. We’ve become a nation in amnesia. We as a culture are not aware of our history, and the students, in this case, sadly don’t know what they’re talking about. There can be such strong knee-jerk reactions on campuses right now, along with the wrong kind of political correctness. I guess in the ’60s, we could be knee-jerk, too, but in any era, you have to take the time to do your research. Young people and all people should learn about the consequences of the civil rights movement, and those consequences are still happening, still affecting us today. The cruelty, disrespect, prejudice, hatred, and violence meted out to both native peoples and Africans are a stain on our history, and there has been no recompense. We’ve barely acknowledged it, and we feel the consequences of that inaction to this day. And so I can only say to the students and others who supported removing the Fredric March name, if people do not know the history of the country and who stood on what side of this question, they are incapable of being effective in fighting racism in the present.
Ed Asner never met Fredric March, but has for decades counted himself “an extreme admirer of his and a student,” long aware of March’s role as an early civil rights advocate. Asner grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, in a segregated neighborhood. “When I was a youth,” Asner said, “I didn’t have the most enlightened ideas on race – until I was ripped down to shreds by my sister who knew better, and I’ve been grateful ever since.”
It is not an overstatement to say that Asner is incensed by the removal of the March name in Madison and Oshkosh. “How silly it is. I think the Wisconsin folks should stop playing with themselves and chalk up the (HKKK name) to a slight aberration of history,” said Asner, adding jocularly but also seriously, “I’ve been talking to the ghost of Fredric March. I have it on authority, and I’m relaying (his) message to those at the university: Stop it. Grow up. You’re misguided liberals.” Post “séance,” Asner insisted on making one final thing clear: “The quality of Fredric March’s work and the causes he fought for all make him worthy of our highest esteem.”
Asner’s friend Harry Belafonte, still a blur of activist activity in his 90s, is rightfully considered a legend and lion of the civil rights movement. Offering his New York apartment to Martin Luther King, Fredric March, and a few dozen other movers and shakers in 1963 for a secret pre-Birmingham strategy session was one of countless events Belafonte organized for the movement. The iconic actor and singer recollects March “had strong personal feelings about the civil rights movement” and “would lend his name,” adding, “When I met him and took up with him, he continually expressed a great sense of commitment to and approval of what we were doing in the civil rights movement.”
This is also the Fredric March that Stanley Kramer and Karen Sharpe-Kramer knew. Kramer died in 2001, but his legacy is enthusiastically curated today at the Stanley Kramer Library in Los Angeles by his widow and their daughter Kat Kramer. Sharpe-Kramer’s passion for Fredric March’s legacy is almost as strong. “If Stanley were alive,” said Sharpe-Kramer upon hearing of the events in Madison, “he would not be allowing this to happen to Mr. March. Stanley would not have worked with Mr. March at all if he (March) was like that (a racist), and certainly not repeatedly over three films (So Ends Our Night, Death of a Salesman, Inherit the Wind).” Later – and before news of the Oshkosh name removal broke – Sharpe-Kramer issued the following statement: “Shame on you, University of Wisconsin. How could you? Why would you? This is revisionist history. Fredric March was NO bigot. His life and career were dedicated to advocating for diversity and inclusion. The many films he chose to give his talent and time to speak for themselves. I have spoken to many heavyweights in our industry, and we are all outraged by your actions. We stand for what is right. Do you? We are dismayed and shocked with what you have done with Mr. March’s valued name. You are shameful.”
Many authors and academics, too, are not any more forgiving. Film historian Patrick McGilligan – acclaimed biographer of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Oscar Micheaux, and other cinema notables and, like March, a UW alumnus – heartily agrees with the many colleagues he’s spoken to who call the removal of March’s name “pathetic” and “stupid.”
Raymond Arsenault – the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg – is admired in academia as one of the nation’s leading civil rights historians. His books exploring the Freedom Riders, Klan history, Arthur Ashe, Marian Anderson, and other topics are revered texts in the field. Arsenault became well acquainted with Fredric March through research for his 2009 book The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America. In that book, Arsenault discusses the number of famous and influential individuals missing a backbone when African American civil rights leaders sent out a clarion call to them in April 1939 to come on board as sponsors of Marian Anderson’s Easter Day concert. “During the first week of April . . . more than 500 telegrams (went out) to prospective sponsors,” Arsenault writes. “Too many individuals, it seems, had responded with some version of the excuse ‘My position makes it unwise for me to participate in controversial issues of this character.’” This was a consideration, apparently, that mattered not one iota to Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, who instead let loose with a full-throated conspicuous readiness on Marian Anderson’s behalf.
Noting that the actual Second Klan was still, in Arsenault’s words, “a baby” when Fredric March’s academic accomplishments resulted in his nomination to the HKKK in 1919 – and that the real Klan was also, at this brief moment in time, merely a fledgling Georgia/Alabama-only “fraternal organization” bent as much on just becoming a successful money-making club as it was on its still-nascent ideology – Arsenault added, “It would have been unusual if college students (in 1918-1920) would have a full understanding of the Klan name. People today just see or hear the KKK name and jump to conclusions, but it’s complicated. Most people do not take the time to understand the subtleties and nuances here, and Fredric March is just caught in this.”
As for what his own years of research tell him about Fredric March and the happenings in Madison and now Oshkosh, Arsenault is unwavering, confident, and clear:
There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that March was a liberal on race early on, both as a youth in grade school and high school and as a college student. He had a remarkable career as a civil rights advocate. It’s almost tragic, really, that someone who did so much for civil rights would be treated like this. It’s horrible. The irony is that someone as dedicated as Fredric March to civil rights and human rights could end up as a victim. He’s caught in the middle, negating a lifetime of commitment and courage. Of all the people chosen to bear the burden of our racist past, Fredric March is the last person that should be asked to do that. People protesting his name on the Play Circle had no idea of the main contours of his life. It’s up to us to get it right and not substitute mythology for history, even if it’s well-meaning. For people who are creative like Fredric March, reputation is everything. This is sad and unfortunate.
Lonnie G. Bunch III is a friend and longtime colleague of Arsenault. The founding director of Washington, D.C.’s spectacular National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bunch today is the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Although offering a slightly different take than Arsenault, he’s no less generous in his defense of Fredric March. “First of all,” Bunch stated,
the preponderance of evidence is that Fredric March was one of the great liberals of the 20th century. The Klan did get lots of visibility in the years 1915 to 1918, so it’s hard to believe no one knew the name was tied to a racist organization. But Fredric March did not – did not – become a member of the Klan as we know it and define it. The rest of his life, he was clearly someone who was never a member of the Klan and someone who believed in racial justice and fairness. And that should be enough. The worst case, he’s a young man flattered by being asked to join an honor society and he says yes. What we do know is that from that moment on, his life was one people should continue to emulate because of his commitment to racial justice.
Both Arsenault and Bunch repeatedly emphasized how there can be no accurate telling, understanding, and interpretation of history without attention to nuance, and that the story at hand offers a paradoxical, counter-intuitive, unexpected – but no less real and fact-based – nuance not enough people seem to be grasping: that in 1919, it was entirely possible for this horridly, stupidly, naively named honor society to actually count among its inductees a selection of students who not only were not desirous of an association with the real Klan, but were individuals whose personal views were ardently 180 degrees away from those of the Invisible Empire. And indeed, it is this nuanced reading of the evidence that appears to provide a truer take on the past.
For now, it is still difficult to say where we are in the denouement of the UW Play Circle story. Certainly the repercussions have been felt in Italy. In the 1950s, the Marches’ daughter Penelope (Penny, born 1932) married Umberto Fantacci of Florence, and that city became home base for the Fantaccis, raising their four children there while punctuating the years with long, frequent stretches in the States for the March grandkids. Accordingly, the UW held a cherished place in their hearts. But today, essentially in the blink of an eye, Penelope Fantacci and her children have gone from considering the UW the obvious final resting place one day for March’s two Oscar statuettes to wanting nothing to do with the university ever again.
Despite repeated claims from various factions on campus that the Play Circle controversy was ultimately not about any one person but part of well-intentioned attempts to shed light on all past bigotries at the university in hopes of accomplishing something larger (i.e., setting a course for greater diversity and a fuller understanding of racial justice on campus today – indisputably a good thing), the most tangible results so far have been very Fredric March-specific indeed, with the biggest body blows delivered to March’s world-wide reputation, his family, his friends – and historical accuracy. Emailing from Florence and answering “in concert with my mother Penelope” – and on behalf of his siblings Gian Fredric, Cristina Eldridge, and Maria Victoria – grandson Michael March Fantacci put it succinctly:
I’m personally just glad the university got the copy of my grandfather’s portrait (as A Bell for Adano’s Major Joppolo) while I enjoy the original at my home. My mother wanted me to let the university have it, along with the Oscars, one of which is on my mantelpiece. We are sure glad we didn’t. They certainly showed us they don’t deserve them. . . . It would have been more educational (for students and the Union Council) to research my grandfather’s life than to cast wholesale judgment based on a limited affiliation. When individuals fall into this trap, it can be understood. When an educational institution does it, it’s more difficult to condone.
And who can blame the Fantaccis for their reaction now that the online and social media world – thanks entirely to the actions in Madison – is cluttered and sown, forever apparently, with scathing references to a man whose conscience they hold so dear, references perpetuating a raft of newborn falsehoods? Typical of the misinformation is a 2020 statement found in the Wikipedia entry for Wisconsin’s Memorial Union Theater: “The Play Circle, formerly named after Fredric March, was renamed in 2018 after research commissioned by Chancellor Rebecca Blank outlined March’s association with the white nationalist supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.”
Less vital to the big picture – but adding clear insult to this nonstop injury nonetheless – is one of those stranger-than-fiction, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up ironies: the fact that the student-run Memorial Union turning its back today on March owes, in no small part, its very existence to him. Elected senior class president at the UW October 28, 1919, March launched the first student fund-raising campaign to build a union. Earlier campaigns solicited alumni only, but March went after Badgers currently enrolled, establishing the revolutionary idea of offering students still in school a lifetime Union membership for $50. Virtually half the undergraduates on campus took March and his “administration” up on that offer, enabling the now-venerable, Neo-Renaissance Memorial Union perched on the shoreline of Lake Mendota to open its doors in 1928, just eight years after March left Madison. March continued to show his affection for the campus and Memorial Union over the years, personally underwriting the lighting system for the Play Circle long before it was ever named after him and in 1939 – the same year March took on the role as one of the most visible sponsors of Marian Anderson’s historic Lincoln Memorial concert – leading a drive among New York City alumni to raise funds for all the lighting equipment in the building’s larger Union Theater. As late as the 1960s, March was also a Memorial Union trustee.
In paying close attention to this Memorial Union origin story, however, one also finds in it the seeds planted that could possibly allow a new plot twist welcome to many. If the stars align, irony has an opportunity to be pasted upon irony because – perhaps – it is the Memorial Union’s governing structure March himself helped kickstart that could suddenly give the March/Fantacci family and others a someday reason to hope for better things.
Susan Dibbell – a Wisconsin Union/Memorial Union staffer for 30-plus years and the Union’s deputy director since 2016 – had a ringside seat for the entire Play Circle controversy. She remains a little perplexed herself by the removal of the March name. “We could present all the facts we wanted to, and it didn’t make a difference,” said Dibbell. “It’s hard. We are part of higher education and facts matter, and in this case, facts didn’t matter. It just didn’t seem fair, and yet at the end of the day, this is how the (Union) Council voted.”
But Dibbell does not dismiss the notion of a deceased March doing what many a talented actor has done – making a comeback. Mindful that the makeup of the student-run Union Council changes in personnel every single year thanks to graduations, Dibbell – when asked if a new Union Council with new evidence could revisit the Play Circle controversy in the future – answered, “Yes. Because there is a different Union Council every year, a Union Council a couple of years from now could put the names (Fredric March and Union Art Gallery namesake Porter Butts) back on the spaces.”
Meanwhile, of course, as it has turned out, Madison’s still-standing verdict on March has now been echoed at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. On August 18, 2020, UWO Chancellor Andrew J. Leavitt issued a lengthy statement announcing the removal of March’s name from the Fredric March Theatre, declaring in part:
I heard shock and pain from UWO community members and stakeholders urging the administration to remove March’s name from the Oshkosh campus theatre. I have since heard from additional students of color, colleagues, alumni, and other advocates supporting that change. . . . As this year alone has reminded us, systemic racism continues to shatter our communities, country and world, exacting a particularly devastating toll on people of color. . . . I no longer possess – and this institution should reject – the privilege of nuancing explanations as to how a person even tangentially affiliated with an organization founded on hate has his name honorifically posted on a public building.
Chancellor’s Leavitt’s statement also acknowledged UWO’s heavy reliance on both the shallowly dug study put together by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s task force and the UW-Madison Memorial Union student leaders who discovered virtually none of the plentifully available facts detailing March’s passionate civil rights involvement across seven decades. Likewise, the UWO announcement included, as well, yet another go-round of the seismic understatements – nearly criminal in their omissions – that have continued to dog March, with the Oshkosh administration half-heartedly offering that “some . . . accounts have documented a streak of social justice later in March’s life.”
Earlier, when UWO students, prompted by the news in Madison, first expressed concern over the March name during the 2018-2019 school year, Chancellor Leavitt appointed in February 2019 a student-faculty committee to study the matter and make a preliminary report. That committee was co-chaired by Theatre Department chair Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft and Dr. Sylvia Carey-Butler, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Support of Inclusive Excellence. Another prominent committee member was UWO history professor Stephen Kercher.
For years, Carey-Butler also oversaw UWO’s Campus Center for Equity and Diversity. When the Fredric March issue suddenly loomed on campus, Carey-Butler offered that “As an African American woman, it was very important to me to get this right.” And for her, Purse-Wiedenhoeft, and Kercher, that meant showing restraint and entertaining no preconceived notions on where they wanted to land. When Carey-Butler left UWO to accept a position at a Georgia university in summer 2019, she departed feeling that March was very much on the right side of history. Obviously, the needle at UWO ended up rotating to a different compass point altogether in 2020, with the university’s administration ultimately listening to the righteously motivated, high-minded entreaties of truly principled students and individuals in the UWO community who just, unfortunately, didn’t yet know how much they didn’t know.
The stubborn persistence of this well-meaning but mistaken mindset continued to pop up frequently in The Advance-Titan, UWO’s student newspaper. One Advance-Titan writer – in an item published just ahead of the COVID-19 shutdown – described what he authoritatively termed “the discovery of March’s connections to the Ku Klux Klan during his time at UW-Madison,” and added, “Though a forum was held at UWO in the spring of 2019, the name of the Fredric March Theatre remains unchanged. . . . Personally, I believe that UWO should follow in Madison’s footsteps and look into changing the name of the theater.”
Another pre-COVID Advance-Titan story seemed to imply with a measure of disappointment that one of the school’s last pre-COVID productions – the anti-racism Nat Turner in Jerusalem – was forced to play on a stage named after Fredric March. There clearly existed no widespread campus inkling that the Fredric March name and setting couldn’t have been more fitting for such a play. For his performance in the title role, UWO’s Bryan Carter was proclaimed this past spring by the Kennedy Center – keeper and temple of our performing-arts conscience – as one of the four outstanding collegiate actors in the nation. How powerfully coincidental, then, that Carter and Kennedy critic/supporter March happen to share the same hometown of Racine.
Back in Madison, March’s legacy certainly remains obstinately tarnished. On the heels of this past year’s Oscar nominees being announced, a January 2020 Wisconsin Alumni Association online newsletter listing Academy Award-winning Badgers disparaged the actor as “the now controversial Fredric March.” And when the spring issue of UW’s glossy alumni magazine On Wisconsin was sent to Badgers across the nation in March 2020, just as COVID-19 shuttered the campus, it ran two stories touching briefly again on the recent Fredric March saga – both essentially reaffirming March as racist, a sentiment echoed yet again by a June 2020 local news story in a Madison daily.
In a more recent event of harrowing continuity, Madisonians just a few blocks from campus, somehow in the name of the immeasurably worthy and necessary Black Lives Matter movement, toppled in late June 2020 a statue of a Wisconsin Union colonel – a man outnumbered and killed at Chickamauga – who had been one of the greatest abolitionists in a state whose very name angered slaveholders, so identified were Badger citizens with the Underground Railroad. This was accompanied by renewed efforts at the UW to remove a 1909 campus Lincoln statue and the sudden wee-hours razing of the “Forward” statue in front of the state’s capitol building – a feminist icon personifying the state motto “Forward,” a slogan selected in the 1850s when the lawmakers of Wisconsin emphatically affirmed protection for all African American freedom seekers and declared it open season on all “slave catchers.” At the current vital moment in history, it seems more necessary than ever to elevate all those of all races who represent, in any century, the spirit of the Underground Railroad: a spirit of courageous African Americans risking their precious lives and leading the charge for equality – and whites of cultivated heart and suddenly open eyes finally, firmly, and felicitously joining the cause. A repeat of the Underground Railroad dynamic in any era gives us reason for hope. Enter Fredric March.
Wisconsin’s flagship university announced with great fanfare this year a “Public History Project” (set for a Madison unveiling of a museum-style campus exhibit in 2021) offering “an honest reckoning” with the UW’s racial-justice past. Will that exhibit also include details of the still-unfolding story just told here? And with a whole new slew of facts to suddenly weigh and measure, will any of March’s campus critics counter the very attitude they’ve loudly condemned whenever it’s come out of the nation’s capital and the White House – that is, never admitting that you’re wrong when all the hard, empirical evidence proves that you are? The great John Lewis left the gift of a final letter, printed the day of his own funeral, conferring a sacred charge: “When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. . . . You must also study and learn the lessons of history. . . . People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you . . . that is why the answers worked out so long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time.” Will March’s past accusers heed Lewis’ call?
For those willing to even consider such a road, there is an opportunity for some poetic justice in choosing to seize this particular moment, given that 2020 marks both the centennial of women voting – something March and Eldridge passionately endorsed in their lifetime defense of the disenfranchised – and the centennial of March’s graduation from the UW. The San Francisco Board of Education last year reversed its decision to obliterate WPA murals some considered racist, an action taken after several artists pointed out the murals were actually designed to expose racism, with actor Danny Glover adding “to destroy them or block them from view would be akin to book burning.” Meanwhile, the Union colonel and Forward statues – both steeped in the abolitionist cause – are being reinstalled on Madison’s capitol grounds. Can the fortitude be mustered to reinstall another anti-racism monument – certainly what anything named after Fredric March assuredly is? Does the state have such a disposable surplus of civil rights giants that it can afford to squander one so carelessly?
And if, after reviewing this litany of facts, there might be those who still find fault in the collegiately decorated March – confirmed teenage denouncer of white supremacy – not rejecting, in 1919, induction into yet another honorary (or in his periodic participation in the group’s purely social gatherings and dances for those fleeting nine months of his life), do they not count as sacrosanct to any enduring, effective, self-respecting civil rights movement the effort to raise consciousness and to change minds and ways? And do we – should we – continue to punish people who, by word and deed, have listened and permanently learned? The hope of the world relies alone – now and always – on people growing, seeing, hearing, transforming, doing better. That sounds like something to celebrate for the ages. To topple or remove memorials and monuments to people who have made such a magnificent journey seems counterproductive – and feels like the abandonment of a credo central to achieving justice.
Anyone with the courageous humility to point themselves in this direction might do well to mull and mark words spoken decades ago by Fredric March and Florence Eldridge themselves in response to those who would mistakenly and unjustly question their patriotism in the era of blacklists, HUAC, and Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy. Read them, and the prescience then and pertinence today are staggering:
Florence Eldridge, September 12, 1946, speaking to women at Madison Square Garden on their responsibilities as citizens in a republic: “She can learn to base her opinions on something firmer than hysterical headlines.”
Fredric March, June 30, 1949, at a fund-raising dinner for a New Hampshire children’s hospital – quoted by the Boston Post: “Let me make clear that false accusations and opprobrious labels will not deter either of us from doing those things which we consider our prerogative and duty as good citizens. . . . Another step toward the paralysis of good will is the dangerous and growing practice of building a case against a man on a small, selected portion of his life, often times chronologically distorted. A man can only be judged on his whole record.”
The Marches, December 1949, a joint statement printed by Counterattack along with its retraction of Communist accusations against the couple:
(It) is our hope that we have been able to demonstrate that ours is a country where a man can still exercise his democratic right to put his accuser to the proof, and that an innocent person cannot be destroyed by the application of the un-American theory of “guilt by association.” . . . We have believed and continue to believe that America is best served if all Americans are decently housed, fed, and educated; and if racial and religious minority groups are given the opportunity to make their full contribution to society. . . . We have in the past given our support to groups working toward these ends . . . before we are actors, we are American citizens, and we must be permitted to make our fullest contribution in that role, too. The public can help us to exercise this right by insisting that the American way is to consider a man innocent until he is proved guilty and by refusing to be stampeded by careless, unjustified accusations.
Florence Eldridge, 1951, commenting, again, on the responsibilities of an American citizen, this time while recalling the victory over Counterattack to Saturday Evening Post Washington editor Beverly Smith: “Among these responsibilities are those of not repeating rumor for fact and not bearing false witness.”
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Be Aware the Ideas of March . . .
Fredric March: A Timeline of Civil Rights & Progressive Acting Roles, Activism, Associations, Awards
(In the recent, rapid, and mistaken journey to labeling Hollywood immortal and liberal icon Fredric March an authentic Klan member and white supremacist, virtually none of the facts below were discovered by or offered in any university study, report, press release, public hearing, meeting, or local media coverage addressing either the 2018 removal of March’s name from the Fredric March Play Circle at March’s alma mater – the University of Wisconsin-Madison – or the August 2020 removal of the March moniker from the actor’s namesake theater at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Sources for the following facts listed at bottom.)
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A Shared Experience with Paul Robeson. As a 15-year-old sophomore, March became Wisconsin’s state high school oratory champion. Historians have identified only a few of the famous speeches the teenage March selected for recitation, and all of them very specifically champion liberty or equality – including the anti-slavery “Spartacus to the Gladiators at Capua” and “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” a fiery condemnation of both slavery and white supremacy by legendary abolitionist Wendell Phillips. One would like to have heard March, likely age 13 on the occasion of this particular speech, emote with Phillips’ words: “I am about to compare races; indeed, I am engaged tonight in what you will think the absurd effort to convince you that the negro race, instead of being that object of pity or contempt which we usually consider it, is entitled, judged by the facts of history, to a place close by the side of the Saxon. . . . I would call him (Toussaint L’Ouverture) Washington, but the great Virginian held slaves. This man risked his empire rather than permit the slave trade in the humblest village of his dominions.” March graduated from Racine High School on the west coast of Lake Michigan in 1914. A year later, another senior near an entirely different coast in Massachusetts – Paul Robeson of Somerville High – chose “Toussaint L’Ouverture” for his state oratory contest. Robeson historians point to his selection of Phillips’s attack on the concept of white supremacy as the first real sign of Robeson’s burgeoning, radical commitment to civil rights, especially as it was delivered before a virtually all-white audience – much like the audience who heard young Fredric March deliver the same speech.
March’s Senior Year in College. The same nine-month period many recent detractors claim – without evidence – that March was a practicing virulent racist with ties to the actual Ku Klux Klan or its sympathizers, March almost certainly began an intimate 48-year friendship with one of his instructors, Max C. Otto, an internationally renowned Unitarian humanist philosophy professor, a lifetime champion of civil rights, and a confidante of three of racism’s greatest foes: Clarence Darrow and the husband-and-wife team of Robert (“Fighting Bob”) and Belle La Follette.
John Cromwell. March moves to New York just a few weeks after his college graduation. In early 1921, he initiates a 54-year relationship with a man who would become one of his closest friends, director John Cromwell. Cromwell, already fiercely liberal on matters of politics and race, would become one of the biggest casualties of the Hollywood blacklist.
Florence Eldridge. March meets, courts, and marries actress Florence Eldridge, his mate for life. Even before meeting her future husband, Eldridge was known around Broadway and other theater circles for her vocal stands on behalf of progressive politics – including racial equality.
Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Along with civil rights pioneers Oscar Hammerstein (the lyricist), director Fritz Lang, Dorothy Parker (who willed her entire literary estate to Martin Luther King) and a few others, March is one of the principal founders of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. This same year, March starred in Anthony Adverse, a swashbuckler with veiled but definite anti-Nazi sentiments.
Democracy in Spain. Ernest Hemingway co-writes and narrates The Spanish Earth, a documentary in defense of those fighting the despotism of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The Marches host a screening at their home as a fund-raising benefit for the Loyalist forces desperately trying to preserve a Spanish republic.
The American Way. March and Eldridge star in one of the hits of the Broadway season, The American Way. This pointedly anti-Nazi, anti-prejudice production, written by Jewish playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, ends with March’s character losing his life for his stand against Nazism.
Marian Anderson. Enlisted by leading African American civil rights activists, including legendary attorney Charles Hamilton Houston – the NAACP’s first special counsel and Thurgood Marshall’s primary mentor – March commits himself to a vigorous letter-writing campaign condemning the Daughters of the American Revolution for not allowing African American opera star Marian Anderson to perform in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. With Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in full support, a strategy devised by an inspired cadre of African American movers and shakers in short order arranges Anderson’s historic April 9 Easter Day outdoor concert, to be held at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. With their names printed on the official event program as two of the sponsors of the concert, the Marches take a day off from The American Way so they can fly from New York to D.C., in time for the performance. A copy of the concert program, treasured by March, rests today in the Fredric March Papers in Madison on the University of Wisconsin campus. It is signed boldly in ink, “To Mr. Fredric March, Gratefully, Marian Anderson.”
Christian Science Monitor. In a May 5 interview conducted by a writer for the Christian Science Monitor backstage at The American Way, the Marches are praised for their commitment to the civil rights of minority groups across America, and they express the need for Hollywood celebrities to promote the civil rights of all Americans.
Honored by National Conference of Christians and Jews. March and Eldridge are awarded the Badge of Tolerance by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Victory. March stars in Victory – a film directed by his good friend John Cromwell – a barely concealed anti-fascist plea for the United States to join Britain in the fight against Nazism.
The Gentleman from Indiana. The Marches star in The Gentleman from Indiana, a radio drama adapted and directed by John Houseman, liberal firebrand and founding co-director in 1935 of New York’s Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. With a small Hoosier town as the story’s backdrop, March plays a crusading editor bent on doing battle with the White Caps, a clear stand-in for the Ku Klux Klan.
So Ends Our Night. As the world heated up, March actively sought roles in films condemning the Nazis and anti-Semitism. In So Ends Our Night, also directed by John Cromwell, March portrayed a former German officer run out of his country because of his anti-Nazi political activity. At the end of the film, March sacrifices his life to save a heroic Jewish couple. So Ends Our Night is considered one of the most explicitly anti-Nazi/pro-Jewish films made before U.S. entry into the war.
This Is America. A Treasury Star Parade radio program featuring March with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Langston Hughes. Longtime Stanford professor Arnold Rampersad – author of acclaimed books telling the stories of Langston Hughes, Arthur Ashe, and Jackie Robinson – writes that Hughes’s 1943 poem “Freedom’s Plow” was “performed publicly with great aplomb that year by the actor Fredric March,” listeners no doubt moved as March intoned the final stanza: “A long time ago/An enslaved people heading toward freedom/. . . plowed a new furrow/Across the field of history./Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped./From that seed a tree grew . . ./That tree is for everybody,/For all America, for all the world./May its branches spread and its shelter grow/Until all races and all peoples know its shade.”
“Race-Relations Sunday.” On Valentine’s Day, during a national observation of “Race-Relations Sunday,” March appears alongside actor and friend Canada Lee, opera singer Dorothy Maynor, actress Fredi Washington, and Judge Hubert T. Delany – all African American civil rights icons – in the Mutual Network radio presentation “Beyond the Call of Duty,” a program celebrating African American contributions to the war effort.
More Collaboration with Canada Lee. Americans gather together for the airing of George Washington Carver, a February 8 radio performance starring Canada Lee and Fredric March.
Salute to Freedom. On St. Patrick’s Day, March narrates the radio program Salute to Freedom, another tribute to the African American men and women in the armed services.
Tomorrow the World. March stars in the film Tomorrow the World playing a widowed college professor about to marry a Jewish schoolteacher – and charged also with reforming the Nazi-indoctrinated Hitler-youth refugee left in his care.
“Rally for Roosevelt.” On September 21, March appears in Madison Square Garden at a “Rally for Roosevelt” with civil rights activists Orson Welles, Helen Keller, Sinclair Lewis, and Henry Wallace. During the evening’s events, March provides a personal introduction for another famous civil rights warrior, Bette Davis.
Negro Freedom Rally. Langston Hughes biographer Rampersad writes that in the closing days of World War II, Hughes worked on a script entitled Carry On America, Victory Is What You Make It “for a dramatic pageant that would be part of a Negro Freedom Rally . . . held June 25 at Madison Square Garden, in which Paul Robeson, Fredric March and Canada Lee would take part.”
Eisenhower Medal. March receives the Eisenhower Medal as the actor who contributed most to democracy.
World Congress of Women. Florence Eldridge and others lead an integrated American delegation to Paris – a fact that impresses European hosts well aware of troubled race relations in the United States – to ensure women’s roles in the shaping of a new world and “the total destruction of Fascism.”
ICCASP. The Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, founded in 1944, devoted itself to a number of liberal and progressive causes, primary among them race relations and civil rights. In 1946, Fredric March is the group’s treasurer. On September 12, the organization sponsors a major gathering at Madison Square Garden. With 19-year-old Harry Belafonte and 28-year-old Ossie Davis in the audience, this famous event featured speakers Paul Robeson, stalwart of the American left Henry Wallace, and ICCASP Women’s Division chair Florence Eldridge, who offered the following advice on some of a woman’s responsibilities as a citizen in a free society: “She can start quite basically and simply within her domestic sphere, remembering that politics, like charity, begins at home. . . . She can teach (her children) to play and work happily with children of other races, creeds, and colors, and that differences in cultures are to be appreciated and enjoyed – not to be sneered or laughed at.”
Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. The January 1947 Winter Issue of this National Urban League magazine describes the eighth year of an independently produced public-service radio drama series designed since 1939 to combat prejudice and promote interracial understanding. Broadcast by as many as 700 stations across the country, the 1947 shows, according to Opportunity, would feature the talents of Fredric March, Canada Lee, Helen Hayes, and others.
HUAC. By this time, March’s milestone 1946 blockbuster film The Best Years of Our Lives is considered subversive by those hunting for Reds. In September 1947, Myrna Loy, John Huston, and others form the Committee for the First Amendment to condemn the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The Marches are charter members of Loy’s fledgling group. In a radio address, March asks listeners, “Who’s next? Is it your minister who will be told what he can say in the pulpit? . . . This reaches into every American city and town.” On October 25, Ira Gershwin hosts a gathering at his home for the Marches, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, and others – all there for the express purpose of strategizing ways to reveal the HUAC hearings as morally wrong.
The Blacklist and Counterattack. False accusations of Communism had been made against March as early as 1939. It is common knowledge among blacklist historians that false accusations labeling a person a Communist were often merely code for the coarsest, most racist language imaginable characterizing all those supporting civil rights. Everything came to a head for the Marches in the years 1947-49. An informer specifically linked March and Canada Lee as Communist “fellow travelers,” an FBI report put March on a list of people described as “pinkish to deep crimson,” and the Red-baiting weekly newsletter Counterattack hurled the Communist epithet eight times at both Marches. After Counterattack’s accusations, the Marches – who had been steadily employed for years – lost no small amount of work, reporting $2.58 on their 1948 tax return.
Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson’s presence on the Brooklyn Dodgers made March a Dodgers fan for life, and, biographers note, during the 1949 pennant-winning season, he rarely missed a Dodgers broadcast.
Norman Thomas Tribute. On February 4, NBC broadcasts In Praise of Difference, a radio special documentary in honor of Norman Thomas, a bit of a clerical rock star in his day – Presbyterian minister, avowed Socialist, pacifist, opponent of making the public school a religious establishment, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, celebrated by Democrats and Republicans, and, as the program’s narration describes him, defender of “exploited Mexican-Americans in Texas, persecuted Japanese-Americans in California, conscientious objectors in federal penitentiaries, Negroes everywhere in the United States.” In offering one of the hour’s principal tributes, Fredric March lauds Thomas’s commitment to ending racial discrimination. A thank-you letter from Thomas praises March for his own activism.
United Jewish Appeal Campaign. March receives several telegrams thanking him for all his work on behalf of the nationwide United Jewish Appeal Campaign “for urgent humanitarian needs in Israel and elsewhere.”
The United Nations. The Marches attend – with Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas – an event on behalf of the American Association for the United Nations, with March serving as master of ceremonies.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Two liberal stalwarts – March and Gregory Peck – star in this landmark film addressing corporate America, the pursuit of money, the role of family, the nature of conformity, the social contract, and what constitutes character, conscience, integrity and success.
More United Nations Activity. March is a keynote speaker at the 10th anniversary dinner observing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Plays for Living. An organization that lasted some 26 years, Plays for Living, beginning in 1959, created half-hour, prop- and scenery-free dramas addressing family and community problems – including racial and religious prejudice. The dramas are designed to be performed by integrated casts of citizen-actors anywhere in the country: public meetings, schools and colleges, employee lounges, church basements, or private living rooms. The Marches are founding patrons.
The Gettysburg Address. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth – immediately after March recites the Gettysburg Address before a joint session of Congress – historian and poet Carl Sandburg delivers a tribute to Lincoln. The pairing of Sandburg and March – the first private citizens asked to address Congress since 1874 – was no accident. The occasion merited the presence of prominent civil rights advocates. Just a few years after this memorable joint appearance, the NAACP, calling Sandburg “a major prophet of civil rights in our time,” awards the great writer its Silver Plaque Award and a lifetime membership – the first white individual so honored by the historic equal rights organization.
Gold Key Award. March is given the Gold Key Award from the Women’s Division of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.
A Liberal Icon Begins a Final Decade of Progressive Films. By 1960, the 63-year-old March is venerated and held in awe for his acting prowess, for his professional generosity, and for putting social causes ahead of any risk he might incur at the box office. Starting with Stanley Kramer’s 1960 Inherit the Wind – a film attacking provincialism and those who would shun science and free inquiry – a younger generation of Hollywood progressives jumped at the chance to work on socially meaningful films with March in this historic decade, from directors Kramer, John Frankenheimer, Ralph Nelson, and Martin Ritt to actors Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Paul Newman. Frankenheimer recalled March as “the finest human being I’ve ever known, as well as the best actor I’ve ever worked with.”
JFK Inauguration. In January, to consciously promote – on the national and world stage – the importance of integration, March appears with Sidney Poitier, Bette Davis, and others in one of the centerpiece skits at the Kennedy Inaugural.
Birmingham, Martin Luther King, and Harry Belafonte. On the evening of March 31 – just days before a momentous trip to Birmingham and his enduring “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – Martin Luther King makes his way to Harry Belafonte’s New York City apartment for a secret pre-Birmingham strategy session with Northern supporters. Fredric March is a guest in attendance.
Telegram to JFK. In response to what they considered grossly indifferent and insufficient action on the part of President Kennedy in the defense of peaceful civil rights protestors in Birmingham beset by vicious dogs, fire hoses, jailings, and police brutality, a few dozen luminaries fire off a 10-paragraph telegram to the White House May 4, chastising JFK in no uncertain terms: “How sadly we view the total, moral collapse of your response to the pleas of millions of Americans to protect and safeguard the rights of 20 million negro citizens. . . . we wonder how much further you will permit the present conduct of bigots and segregationists to continue in violation of the Constitution of the United States, which you are sworn to uphold.” The Marches sign the telegram with more than 50 others, including Steve Allen, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, A. Philip Randolph, Robert Ryan, Eli Wallach, and Joanne Woodward.
Tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt. To commemorate the first anniversary of her death, March is asked to co-host an October 21 “International Tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt” with Adlai Stevenson, Marian Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Sidney Poitier, and Helen Gahagan Douglas.
“Tribute to President John F. Kennedy from the Arts.” March is asked by ABC to be master of ceremonies for this special live program airing just two days after Kennedy’s assassination, appearing with wife Florence, old friend Marian Anderson, and others.
The Condemned of Altona. March stars in this Jean-Paul Sartre-conceived, Vittorio De Sica-directed tale offering a scathing look at the life and crimes of a dying Nazi war profiteer 15 years after VE Day.
Tenth Anniversary – Brown v. Board of Education. In early May, with the NAACP specifically requesting his services as a “friend,” March narrates an ABC documentary highlighting the 10th Anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling outlawing school segregation and also serves as a principal host for a 46-city closed-circuit live television celebration of the Brown decision. The NAACP asks March “to read the heart of the Supreme Court decision, as a keynote to the production.”
Stumping in Connecticut. At the start of perhaps the most dramatically important civil rights summer, March delivers a memorable Memorial Day speech in New Milford, his written text declaring, “Just as we strive with eternal vigilance to contain the enemy without – let us look into our own hearts and strike out all hatred and violence so that in this fateful summer ahead we may come closer here at home to achieving the true Brotherhood of Man!”
The Marches, John Brown, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Marches record “The Sounds of History” as a supplement to The Life Magazine History of the United States. Among their recitations, Eldridge reads a scene from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin while her husband receives critical praise for a stirring rendition of abolitionist John Brown’s final courtroom address before his execution, offering the climactic lines, “I believe that to have interfered as I have done . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood . . . with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”
Seven Days in May. In this anti-fascist John Frankenheimer film, March’s seemingly weak, disarmament-supporting U.S. president – without compromising his ideals – turns out to be the strongest of them all as he defends the Constitution and foils a right-wing military coup.
The Smoot Report. Dan Smoot is a well-known conservative segregationist and anti-Communist who for years publishes a weekly newsletter, The Smoot Report. In his June 1 issue, a Smoot article headlined “Communism in the Civil Rights Movement” cites March for his participation with Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, and others in the May 14 10th Anniversary Brown v. Board of Education national closed-circuit television event put on by the NAACP, one of many organizations Smoot lists in this same issue as Communist-run, along with the American Jewish Congress, the National Council of Churches, the Congress of Racial Equality, the ACLU, the American Jewish Committee, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Letter from LBJ. March appears October 7 at the White House in a “Salute to Congress” just before one of President Lyndon Johnson’s surgeries. From Bethesda Naval Hospital the next day, Johnson sends off a letter to the man the President calls “the most distinguished gentleman on the American stage,” telling March, “Your performance set the tone for the evening. . . . Every line was worth repeating over and over, but the one I carried with me to the hospital was that we have outlined a Great Society ‘where the bullet in the night will be replaced by a ballot in the hand and a book under each arm.’”
Hombre. March stars with Paul Newman in this Martin Ritt Western exploring the pervasive racism, injustice, and genocidal violence heaped upon indigenous peoples.
Ford’s Theatre. In its February 15 issue describing a history-making January performance broadcast live by CBS News, Jet Magazine reports that the first actors to take the Ford’s Theatre stage in the 103 years since Abraham Lincoln’s assassination included civil-rights veterans Fredric March, Harry Belafonte, Helen Hayes, Robert Ryan (a particular March friend), Henry Fonda, Andy Williams, and Carmen De Lavallade, the seminal dancer/choreographer who in 2017 announced, upon President Donald Trump’s remarks after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, that she would forgo any White House reception for Kennedy Center Honorees.
tick . . . tick . . . tick. His first film in three years, tick . . . tick. . . tick showcases the 71-year-old March as a white small-town Southern mayor forced to examine lifelong beliefs when his community elects an African American sheriff without a single white vote. “My wife has had great fun kidding me about becoming unretired,” March tells the Los Angeles Times, “but I just couldn’t resist the script.”
McGovern Campaign. The year Fredric March turns 75. Still active in politically liberal causes, the Marches co-host with a Connecticut neighbor a fund-raising dinner for pro-civil rights/anti-war Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. When asked by The New York Times about McGovern’s opponent, incumbent Richard Nixon, Florence Eldridge replied, “Doesn’t your paper say it prints everything fit to print? Well, I’m afraid my comments on that subject would not be fit to print.”
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Sources Include: The Fredric March Papers (Wisconsin Historical Society); The Fredric March Collection, Racine Heritage Museum; the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum; Marquette University Archives; The Library of Congress, Serial & Government Publications Division; The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, Stanford University; Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second, by Deborah C. Peterson (1996); Fredric March: A Consummate Actor, by Charles Tranberg (2013); Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, by Taylor Branch (1988); Paul Robeson: The Man and His Mission, by Ron Ramdin (1987); Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art, by Lindsey R. Swindall (2013); The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault (2009); Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey, by Allan Keiler (2000); Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement, by Patricia Sullivan (2009); The Life of Langston Hughes, Volumes I & II, by Arnold Rampersad (1986, 1988); Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee, by Mona Z. Smith (2004); Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, by Donald Bogle (2005); Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer, by Nancy C. Unger (2003); Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer, by Nancy C. Unger (2015); Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, by Ed Sikov (2007); Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, by Emily W. Leider (2011); The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, by Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson (2012); Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical, by Judith E. Smith (2014); Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood, by J. E. Smyth (2018); The Ku Klux Klan in Madison, 1922-1927, by Robert A. Goldberg, Wisconsin Magazine of History (Autumn 1974); The Campus Klan of the University of Wisconsin, by Timothy Messer-Kruse, Wisconsin Magazine of History (Autumn 1993); Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, by Aram Goudsouzian (2004).