Project commemorating Black Student Strike of 1969 inspires students to work for change


MADISON, Wis. - This month marks 50 years since black students and allies held a campuswide strike at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, referred to as the Black Student Strike.

In collaboration with University Communications and University Marketing, a student project is commemorating the strike and those who made it possible.

With thousands participating in the two weeks of protest, the Black Student Strike is one of the largest in the university's history, but it's one that might go under the radar.

“I would say to some extent, it is forgotten,” said Chelsea Hylton, who writes for the University digital publication The Black Voice.

Even today, the second-year UW-Madison student walks a tough road on campus.

"There's things that happened to me on campus that no person should have to go through,” Hylton said. “I was walking home from the library once with a friend we were approached by a man he referred to us as the 'N-word' out of nowhere. I was hurt, I did cry about it. In that moment, I’ve never felt more disrespected in my life.”

But as she looks back in time, she knows she’s not alone.

"I hadn't really heard much about the black student march on campus, but I was amazed,” Hylton said. “We were able to see photos, hear about the magnitude of it. I look back and think, 'Wow, I walk the same hallways, up the same hill on Bascolm as a lot of those students.' That’s crazy.”

She helped with the oral history project, hearing and transcribing a direct account from one of the lead protesters in the 1969 strike.

"Mr. Harvey has a character on him,” Hylton said.

Fifty years ago, Harvey Clay came to UW-Madison on a football scholarship, but his participation in the strike cost him that scholarship.

"I asked, 'Do you regret your actions?' He said, 'No, I don't regret anything at all,’” Hylton said.

Now running a barbeque restaurant in Louisiana, Clay said he’s still fighting.

“If I don't fight for my dignity, who's going to?" Clay said.

He was one of dozens to be arrested by police during the strike. He got hit in the head in the process.

"My whole life, I've always tried to help the underdog, so I felt really, really, really upset to get beat for nothing,” Clay said.

He went back decades in his memories to share his story with Hylton.

"It is my responsibility, and I just didn't do anything I felt was awful special, except try to be who I think I want to be, do what I thought was necessary to make it a better world, not just for me, but my family,” Clay said.

Fighting for more student and faculty diversity, he and other protesters got one of their demands met: the creation of the Afro-American Studies Department the university still has today.

"I don't even know that we made that big of a difference, because the same issues exist today,” Clay said.

Hylton agrees issues still exist, but she said people like Harvey paved the way for her to continue the fight, through cooperation that stands the test of time.

"(This project) just goes to show that I think collaboration can create something very important, just like how the strike needed students to collaborate together,” Hylton said. "They made a difference in the fact that we know people have fought before us, and we're not taking that lightly. We need to continue to fight for them."

"Those young students obviously made me feel good, because they're trying to move this thing forward,” Clay said. "They just were kind and interested, intelligent, and I could just see in their voices, the brightness of their voices, they're looking to see, 'How do we make a difference?' and that's what we all have to do.”

A discussion panel featuring several strike participants will take place Monday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Memorial Union. Free tickets are available to those with a state ID or Wiscard.