But March, to use our current art term, was a lifelong ally of black people par excellence.
Like the journalist George Gonis, who helped write the recent March support letter has discovered in his research about the actor, as a high school student, March held inaugural lectures on what we would now call anti-racism. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution banned black alto Marian Anderson from singing in Constitution Hall, he was not only a signer of the famous letter of protest, but attended Anderson’s protest concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, despite which means he took that night off from the Broadway play he starred in. When Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte in 1963 in the latter’s New York apartment strategizing civil rights efforts in Birmingham, March was there too (King wrote a certain letter from prison shortly afterwards). The following year, March was one of several whites to speak on a national broadcast sponsored by the NAACP in 1964 to celebrate Brown’s 10th anniversary against the Board of Education.
This is a Klansman???
Hardly. Coincidentally, in 1919 to 1920, March briefly belonged to an organization also known as the Ku Klux Klan.
Yes, I know – but wait. It was a student association. The Ku Klux Klan with a horrifying memory was first created during Reconstruction and then extinguished. The later 20th-century Klan gradually emerged in the wake of the racist film “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and did not become a national phenomenon until 1921. In Wisconsin in 1919, when March was inducted into his group, it was possible to have never heard of the Ku Klux Klan that later became so infamous.
We have no way of knowing if this group modeled this name after the Ku Klux Klan organization depicted in “The Birth of a Nation.” But what we do know is that there’s no evidence that their mission had anything to do with racism, and that when the “real” Klan made its way onto campus in 1922, the March organization had joined (but had left by 1920). ) immediately dissociated itself from that group and changed its name.
The name of the campus’s Ku Klux Klan seems to have been an accident. Awkward, probably. The boys may not have considered the “real” Klan important enough in 1919 to avoid the same name, and just liked the sound of it because of the successive k’s and the like. There is no record of this organization doing or supporting anything racist – and let’s not forget that in this era racism in conventional expression was considered so acceptable that one could casually refer in a newspaper to a large rock with a racist epithet for black people .
Some anti-racist activists may see this as nitpicking. They could argue that these young people must have known there was a racist Ku Klux Klan and didn’t care enough to change the name of the organization, and that in itself shows some kind of racism.
These are reasonable points. But to them, to seek an honest assessment rather than a Star Chamber, we should note that in addition to what I wrote above, March’s life also involved fighting McCarthyite red-bait (to which he was a victim) and anti-Semitism. His wife, the actress Florence Eldridge, was a lifelong prominent progressive. Throughout his adult life, he was friends with the philosopher Max Otto, who was a Unitarian-Unversalist, a group known to this day as one of the civil rights movements.