Observation of 1964 Civil Rights Act to showcase Wisconsin civil rights history

The Office of the Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer will host a daylong seminar focusing on the past, present and future of civil rights for its premiere spring event this semester.  “A Nation Still Under Construction: Observing the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act” will be on Wednesday, March 26, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Union South’s Varsity Hall.

Wisconsin Civil Rights Pioneer Vel Phillips (LLB '51)
Wisconsin Civil Rights Pioneer Vel Phillips (LLB ’51)

The featured keynote speaker will be Wisconsin civil rights pioneer Vel Phillips, a native of Milwaukee and the first African American woman to graduate from the Wisconsin Law School, (L.L.B ‘51) and serve as Wisconsin Secretary of State. The Wisconsin Alumni Association will honor Phillips with the prestigious Distinguished Alumni Award at this event. Phillips attended North Division High School in Milwaukee and won a national oratory scholarship sponsored by the Black Elks before attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. She moved to Milwaukee with her husband and fellow attorney W. Dale Phillips in 1951 and together they became the first husband-wife team of any race admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee.  Phillips recently celebrated her 90th birthday.

A UW-Madison  residence hall is named in Phillip's honor.
A UW-Madison residence hall is named in Phillip’s honor.

In 1956, she was elected the first woman ever to sit on Milwaukee’s Common Council. During her tenure on the Common Council, she introduced the city’s first open-housing ordinance 1962. In 1967, Vel joined Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council in leading marches for fair housing, enduring the city’s race riots, hostility and violence. She finally saw Milwaukee’s open housing bill passed two weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Phillips also distinguished herself on a national level in the civil rights era, becoming the first African American in the United States elected to the National Committee of either of the two major political parties, and knew three presidents on a first-name basis: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. In the 1970s she became the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary. And in 1978 she was the first woman and African American elected to a statewide constitutional office as Secretary of State.

Roberto Rivera
Roberto Rivera

Also keynote speaking on March 26 will be UW-Madison alumnus Roberto Rivera, a Chicago-based contemporary youth development, social justice and hip-hop culture specialist. Rivera is an award-winning artist, educator, and change agent who specializes in applying best practices in engaging youth using practical and relevant methods. He is also the President and Lead Change Agent of The Good Life Organization. Rivera earned his undergraduate degree at UW-Madison, where he created his own major entitled “Social Change, Youth Culture and the Arts”. He earned his master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago in Youth Development with a focus on Social Justice, Urban Education, and Hip-hop. He currently is the President and Lead Change Agent of the Good Life Org., an organization that publishes multi-media educational tools and trains educators, youth workers and parents in connecting positive youth development to community development.

 Rivera’s experience in the field of community-based popular education over the last decade has won him awards from former president Bill Clinton, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, and others. Despite these accolades, Roberto sees his work as giving back, since being labeled “at-risk” and “disadvantaged” as a teen himself, his relationships with key educators and youth workers helped him to turn his life around.

 This daylong observation will cover the local, regional and national history of civil rights from the events leading up to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the social, political and institutional evolution that followed. Faculty experts will provide insightful historical overviews on the legislation and the University, city and state’s role in both the national and regional Civil Rights Movement with Prof. Brenda Gayle Plummer’s presentation “The Continuing Legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964”  and Evjue Bascom Professor Emerita Prof. Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis’ presentation  “Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Historical Impulse of Civil Rights.”

 The day also will offer interactive opportunities for participants of all ranks and ages to learn about the University of Wisconsin’s past and current role in civil rights history with a faculty-led expert discussion on the state of contemporary American civil rights moderated by Michael Thornton, Prof of Afro-American, Asian American Studies & Sociology. The panelists will include: 

  • Ellen Samuels, Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and English;
  • Will P. Jones, Professor of History;
  • Patty Loew, Professor in Dept of Life Sciences Communication;
  • Carrie Sperling, Interim Director of the Frank J. Remington Center and Co-Director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Professor in the Law School;
  • Steve Kantrowitz, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of History; and
  • Ben Marquez, Professor in Department of Political Science.

Please register today and plan to join us on March 26:


If you can’t break away and would like to join us online, go to:


Following the daylong forum, observation of the Civil Rights Act and how it has changed the nation will continue with a Spring Reception for the members of all UW-Madison Equity and Diversity Committees from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in Varsity Hall 1. The event will focus on the contemporary work of more than 300 members of these key equity and diversity committees, along with minority and disadvantaged student advocates, who are dedicated to providing access to higher education, support for student success at all levels, and the recruitment and retention of diverse staff and faculty.

“This is an opportunity to meet and network with colleagues who have accepted the important campus commitment to move the agenda of the Civil Rights Act from its pivotal place in history into contemporary practice and advocacy through their work in diversity, equity and inclusion at UW-Madison,” says Interim Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims.

*Our event is wheelchair accessible. If you require any accommodation, due to a disability, to attend this program, please call 608-265-5228 or email jscott1@wisc.edu to arrange access.

A Nation Still Under Construction: Observing the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

8:30–9 a.m.
Registration and Refreshments

9–9:15 a.m.
Welcome Remarks from Vice Provost Patrick Sims

9:15–9:35 a.m.
Afro-American Studies Department Presentation on History of Civil Rights Act by Dr. Brenda Gayle Plummer

9:35–9:45 a.m.
Comments from Chancellor Blank

9:45–9:50 a.m.
WAA President Paula Bonner Introduces and Presents Vel Phillips with Distinguished Alumni Award

9:50–10:10 a.m.
Vel Phillips acceptance and commentary

10:10–10:15 a.m.

10:15–11:00 a.m.
Musical Performances by Guitartist Andy Gricevich followed by Pianist Leotha Stanley

11:00-11:30 a.m
Gallery Walk with Civil Rights Poster Images moderated by Luis Pinero

11:30 am-12:45 p.m.

12:45-1:00 p.m.
Afro-American Studies Department Presentation on UW-Madison Institutional History by Dr. Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis, Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita

1:00–1:50 p.m.
Roberto Rivera Keynote and Q&A

1:50–2:00 p.m.

2:00-3:15 p.m.
Faculty Panel Discussion and Questions Moderated by Prof. Michael Thornton

3:15-3:30 p.m.
Closing Remarks from Vice Provost Patrick Sims