Last fall Margaret Miner was skimming a New York Times article about how the University of Wisconsin had changed the names of two university theaters, in Madison and Oshkosh, because they had been named for an alumnus associated with the Ku Klux Klan.
The name that had been removed from the theaters brought her up short: the renowned actor Fredric March. Miner had grown up near the New Milford home of March and his wife, actress Florence Eldridge. Their families were close friends, and Miner knew the couple to be lifelong, public champions of civil rights and racial justice.
“Freddie? Are they crazy?” is how she described her reaction. In an interview, she called the situation a “calumny,” a “scandal,” and a “complete injustice.” She described March as “the sweetest guy in the world.”
Miner, now of Roxbury, is a prominent environmentalist and longtime executive director of the Rivers Alliance of CT. And she is still “exceptionally annoyed” about the March matter.
She fired off protest letters to the Oshkosh student newspaper and chancellors of both schools, joining more than two dozen prominent civil rights activists, academics and performers who are asking the university to reconsider and put March’s name back on the theaters.
Officials of both schools, in emails to the Connecticut Mirror, say they are sticking with the decision.
Walked the Talk
The Marches were part of an early wave of “theater people,” as some locals called them, to move to rural Northwestern Connecticut, acquiring a 40-acre farm in 1939.
They were active in the town, among other things helping to found a community arts center. They opened their garden to 400 people in 1964 for a performance of “Jerico‐Jim Crow,” a play by their friend, the renowned Black poet Langston Hughes. It was a fundraiser for the NAACP. The New York Times news story about the event notes “most of its cast are Negroes.”
Margaret Miner recalls that the Marches refused to join a local country club because it did not accept Jewish members. “They always let it be known that they would not tolerate discrimination,” she said.
That March would be designated a racist is “the same kind of guilt by association that got people blackballed in the McCarthy era,” Miner said.
This is the association: A century ago, March was named to an undergraduate honor society called, oddly enough, the Ku Klux Klan. Neither a study group appointed by the university, nor anyone else, could find a connection between the honor society and the notorious Ku Klux Klan, America’s archetypal violent hate group. But his connection to the name, just the name, has gotten Fredric March posthumously pilloried.
What’s in a name?
The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, and the removal of Confederate statues in many communities, prompted some universities to examine their own historic relationships with slavery and racism. As at Yale and Georgetown, so too the University of Wisconsin.
Combing through the 1920 yearbook a few years ago, students found a photo of an undergraduate group called the Ku Klux Klan. And in the photo was Fredric March (nee Frederick Bickel). The news inevitably zipped across social media. Case closed, as many saw it.
At UW-Madison, the theater that was the Fredric March Play Circle is in the student-run Memorial Union. It’s governing body, the Union Council, which includes some faculty and alumni as well as students, held two forums about the KKK matter.
Students and others denounced March as a racist and white supremacist for his connection to the Klan and demanded that his name be removed from the theater. The Union so voted in 2018. The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh followed suit in 2020, removing March’s name from its theater.
Enter George Gonis, a journalist and local historian in Milwaukee, who knew enough about March to wonder why no one was defending him. He got on the case.
In short order, Gonis learned that rather than a night-riding, cross-burning racist, Frederic March was a “vocal and tireless soldier for world peace, free speech, racial equality, the defeat of anti-Semitism, and the end of fascism,” as he wrote in an extensive three-part series in the film journal Bright Lights.
“I was stunned at how easy it was” to research March’s life, said Gonis in a recent telephone interview. “He was in all these civil rights books, which I found in five or ten minutes at my branch library. The Frederic March papers, replete with admiring letters from civil rights leaders, are at the Wisconsin Historical Society, which is about 30 yards from the (Memorial) Union.”
He thinks the activists calling for March’s defenestration were well-intentioned but “woefully underinformed.”
Timing is everything
The real story, as Gonis tells it, is nuanced. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some college societies were wont to give themselves ghoulish or sinister-sounding names (e.g. Skull & Bones (Yale), Casque & Dagger (Rutgers) Raven’s Claw (Dickinson), or, often, Greek-sounding names.
In 1916, students at the University of Illinois started an honor society, to which each fraternity would nominate an outstanding junior for membership as seniors, and called it the Ku Klux Klan. They exported it to the University of Wisconsin in 1919. Gonis and everyone else thinks the name was stupid, naive and inappropriate, and no one is sure why the Illini students chose it.
Racism might seem an answer, but researchers have found no evidence of a racist origin, Gonis said. It could have been an attempt to out-sinister the Eastern competition.
Another possibility has to do with timing. The Klan was on a sort of hiatus from the 1870s to the 1920s.
The original Ku Klux Klan, the Invisible Empire of the South, was founded just after the Civil War by Confederate veterans bent on restoring white supremacy in the South. Their costumes were said to represent the ghosts of Confederate dead returning to terrorize Blacks and their supporters. But it had disbanded by the early 1870s, due to federal enforcement, poor leadership and other factors.
But in 1915, after release of the racist film “Birth of a Nation,” William Simmons, a Georgia preacher and promoter of fraternal organizations, revived the Klan.
However, said Gonis, the Second Klan, or the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, wasn’t known outside of a few counties in Georgia and Alabama until the 1920s, when it cranked up its public relations and fundraising efforts and added Catholics, Jews, immigrants, evolutionists and labor unions to the Blacks on its hate list. It is possible that students in the 1910s thought the Klan was far enough in the past that they could appropriate the name.
In any event, Fredric March was a junior in 1919 and was nominated by his fraternity to the new interfraternity honor society, one of several he was invited to join. There is no indication that March sought the distinction, or that the campus KKK had any connection to the Second Klan.
Indeed, the members of the actual Second Klan showed up on campus in late 1922 and formed a fraternity. They would not have had to do this if they already had a campus affiliate, Gonis said. Soon thereafter, as campus newspapers from the time indicate, students at Illinois and Wisconsin finally got the picture and were mortified that they were sharing a name with an organization of racist thugs and killers. They changed the name.
But in that brief window, Fredric March was tied to the name Ku Klux Klan.
The rest of his life
Okay, said Gonis, he was a member of the new and unfortunately named honor society for nine months, until his graduation in 1920. That is regrettable, but what about the next 55 years of his life?
After graduation March moved to New York and became one of the country’s most celebrated stage and screen actors of the mid-20th century. He won two Academy Awards and two Tonys as best actor. Films such as “Inherit the Wind” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” are classics.
He also became a champion of civil rights. For example, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the great Black contralto Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall in 1939 because of her race, March was one of the few Hollywood stars to put his box office draw on the line as a public sponsor of Anderson’s soon-to-be legendary performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people, including the Marches, according to Gonis’s research, which drew on two biographies of March, “A Consumate Actor” by Charles Tranberg (2015) and “Fredric March, Craftsman First, Star Second” by Deborah Peterson (1996), as well as the March papers and other sources.
The Marches became good friends with Anderson and her husband, and were frequent guests at cookouts at their Danbury home.
March’s commitment to liberal causes drew the attention of the Red-hunters during the anticommunist hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s, spawned by fellow Wisconsinite Sen. Joseph McCarthy. With his career on the line, March fought back, notably supporting Black performers such as boxer-actor Canada Lee.
In 1963, March was present at a strategy session for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Harry Belafonte’s New York City apartment on the eve of MLK’s trip to Alabama and his sojourn in a Birmingham Jail.
A longtime supporter of the NAACP, March was asked by the organization’s executive secretary, Roy Wilkins, to deliver a keynote address in 1964 on the live television program celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education court decision.
Hoping that such biographical data would convince university officials to reverse their decisions, Gonis worked with Karen Sharpe-Kramer, widow of director Stanley Kramer, to interest others in the cause. Others were interested; they assembled an all-star cast of 28 civil rights and faith leaders, academics and performers.
The group includes NAACP chair Leon Russell and President/CEO Derrick Johnson; Stanford Professor Emeritus Arnold Rampersad, a highly regarded civil rights biographer of, among other, Langston Hughes; civil rights icons Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. and Dr. Clarence Jones; performer/activists Louis Gossett Jr., Glynn Truman and, just before he died, the actor Ed Asner.
They sent a letter to officials of both schools in September saying, in effect, if you are looking for a racist you got the wrong guy. The letter rebukes the notion that March was a KKK member and white supremacist, which it describes as “off by 180 degrees,” posits that his was a life worth honoring, and urges the restoration of his name on the theaters.
Others who’ve supported the effort include Mr. Belafonte, historian Raymond Arsenault and Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
The issue got national attention in September when columnist and Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter brought it to the pages of the New York Times — the article that alerted Margaret Miner.
McWhorter called the removal of March’s name a “resounding wrong,” and called on university officials to apologize to March’s family and restore his name to the theaters.
They have done neither.
The position of university administrators is that even though the honor society had no connection to the Second Klan, and did not engage in racist activities, March’s connection to the name Ku Klux Klan is so “toxic” that it “cannot merit a named space in our student union.”
That’s from a letter sent by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank to the Times in response to McWhorter’s essay. She said the action was “part of a larger effort to research, acknowledge and, to the extent possible, rectify the often painful history and impacts of racism … many of which still affect our campus today.”
She said it reflects the university’s commitment to “the fearless sifting and winnowing to find the truth.”
“While it is good that March went on to become a fighter for civil rights and equality, the fact remains that while a student here he aligned himself with a student group that echoed the KKK name.”
Gonis, in an open letter to Blank, found very little sifting and winnowing to find the truth. He later said no one in the administration appeared to have done elementary research into March’s life before striking his name.
As for fearless, McWhorter said university leaders “caved to weakly justified demands, seemingly too scared of being called racists to take a deep breath and engage in reason.”
Over in Oshkosh, UWO Chancellor Andrew Leavitt also acknowledged March’s civil rights activities, but said his connection with the KKK name could not be overcome.
“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,” he wrote in 2020, announcing his decision to remove March’s name from the UWO theater.
Finally, at the Memorial Union in Madison, which actually voted March off the island, communications director Shauna Breneman said March’s “contributions to the civil rights movement have long been known and were considered by Union Council” as it mulled the renaming decision.
But she said the students, faculty and others who attended the public forums “overwhelmingly expressed strong objection to naming a student performance space after any individual connected with a group bearing the name Ku Klux Klan, regardless of the group’s function or actions.”
Gonis objects. He said nothing of March’s civil rights record came up in the two sessions the Union held on the subject. He said students and others supported the removal of March’s name from the theater because they had “zero awareness” of the nuanced story of the KKK honor society or of March’s “towering 55-year racial-justice record. “
Nonetheless, Breneman said there are no plans to revisit the naming decision, but added that March’s “legacy and contributions are highlighted in an interactive display elsewhere in Memorial Union.”
An interactive kiosk in the Union has about two dozen entries relating to the history of the institution, and one is dedicated to Fredric March. Gonis finds this curious: If March is so tainted by his induction into the KKK honor society that his name had to be removed from the theater, is he not also too tainted for the history kiosk?
The kiosk entry mentions March’s theatrical accomplishments, military service, and that he was a co-founder of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, another of his causes, but not his civil rights advocacy.
Gonis stressed that he is not trying to downplay the racism that existed a century ago, or that continues to exist today.
“It should be explored, aired and dissected in as many public exhibits and forums as possible,” he said.
Rather, he said, he is trying to clear the name of someone who is being smeared as part of the problem when he was manifestly part of the solution. He thinks rigorous research, nuance and all, is an obligation of a school — his alma mater — long considered one of the country’s top public universities. He thinks the truth would dictate that more things be named for Fredric March.
Though they have yet to have the desired effect, the efforts of Gonis, Miner and the ensemble of supporters have gotten some attention in the state. The independent student newspaper at UW-Oshkosh, the Advance-Titan, ran a story in September headlined “Fredric March have we misjudged you?” The Journal Times in Racine, March’s hometown, opined “UW Schools Dishonor Fredric March with Shoddy Research.”
Gonis will continue to push for a theater or an equivalent recognition for March, and said he is attempting to enlist more civil rights leaders and others in the cause, including Turner Classic Films. Miner has sent another letter to the Advance-Titan.
The Marches continued to live in New Milford until the early 1970s, when Fredric’s health began to deteriorate. They moved to Los Angeles for the climate. Frederic died there of cancer in 1975. He and Florence are buried under a favorite tree on the New Milford farm, which is no longer in the family.
“I can’t emphasize enough what a sweet man he was,” said Miner. “He also was modest, he had no movie star aura about him. If you met him you wouldn’t know what business he was in. Florence was a bit more outspoken.”
Many of their causes ended as they hoped. Marian Anderson eventually got to sing in Constitution Hall. The country club they refused to join now welcomes Jewish members. The Nazis were defeated; the Hollywood Blacklist has been tossed into the dustbin of history along with Sen. Joe McCarthy.
But challenges remain; racism persists. The Klan is diminished and fragmented, but other racist hate groups have arisen. If Fredric March were alive today, Gonis said, he’d be on the front lines fighting them.
“The central irony of all this,” Gonis said, “is that Fredric March’s racial justice and civil rights record … monumentally dwarfs that of all those who were responsible for identifying him loudly and falsely as a white-supremacist, who were responsible for removing his name from the two theaters dedicated to his memory and who are responsible now for making sure his name stays off any campus building…”
This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.
A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the name of a Yale college society. It is Skull & Bones, not Skull & Crossbones.