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A Star Is Shorn: Thanks to Woefully Underinformed Campus Activists, Acting Legend, Badger Alum, and Civil Rights Champion Fredric March Is Suddenly “Off Wisconsin”

HNN Note: This essay was published in BLFJ  in November 2020, and is reposted here this week in part because of recent controversies around efforts to rename facilities or remove public memorials, some of which have demonstrated little historical research, and partly because BLFJ permits reposting material after 12 weeks. 

BLFJ Note: 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.

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.

Read entire article at Bright Lights Film Journal