1967: The summer of our discontent

Monumental moments that riveted Madison in 1967
1967: The summer of our discontent
Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives

Madison certainly had its share of sex, drugs and rock and roll in 1967, and even hosted a Be-In on Picnic Point with beat poet Allen Ginsberg. But it also had riots, racial tension and a pivotal protest, plus governmental failure, labor strife and a tragedy of international note. And we lost 10 sons of the city to the war in Vietnam.

All in a much smaller Madison–a population of 170,225 (it’s about 250,000 today) in a little over 45 square miles (we’re now close to 77). But the city was about to have its biggest growth spurt since 1962, including the annexation of American TV’s property and the farm later developed as West Towne Mall.

It was a much less diverse Madison, about 98.5 percent white. Which made the city’s historic expansion of its fair housing code, and its harsh assessment of race relations, so important.

It was two years before the State Street mall was even proposed, and cars still ruled from Capitol Square to Park Street and on East and West Washington avenues, where townies cruised. John Nolen Drive opened, offering a stunning new view of the Madison skyline. Construction of Campus Drive was about to start. Our transportation needs were met (or not) by three railroads, four airlines, five intercity bus companies, five taxi services and the private Madison Bus Company (except during a two-month strike).

We listened to Clyde Coffee on WISM 1480 for Top 40 and Papa Hambone (George Vukelich) on WIBA 1310 for jazz, poetry and politics.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison got a new chancellor, the city a new public schools superintendent. Failure stalked and tragedy struck the Badgers football team. Five years before Title IX ensured women some semblance of economic equality in federally funded educational activities, women’s intercollegiate athletics were under the Women’s Recreational Association.

Plagued by stores that inflated their campus-area prices, students sought a bit of economic self-control this year, organizing the UW Community Cooperative to sell books and supplies; co-op president Robert Zorba Paster–yes, that Zorba Paster–hoped to have the store up and running in early 1968.

Musicians Ben Sidran and Tracy Nelson graduated from UW-Madison; future two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss graduated from West High and enrolled at UW-Madison, where he watched the Battle of Dow from the edge of the crowd.

The legal age for drinking beer was 18, and almost all of Madison’s 23 beer bars were in the general campus area, some within a few blocks of State Street. A campus survey showed one in five undergraduates went to a beer bar several times a week, most likely the KK (Kollege Klub), Chesty’s and the Pub. But it was last call for the Varsity Bar (where future Gov. Tommy Thompson had been a bartender and bouncer), replaced by Gino’s Restaurant (one of a plethora of Italian eateries). The Pad Man made late night deliveries.

Nineteen sixty-seven was quite a year, with effects still felt today.

Stop That Bus1967: The summer of our discontent

Too many campuses to note had demonstrations against the war, the draft and the CIA. But only Madison had a disruptive protest over a wrong-way bus lane.

It was in November 1966 that University Avenue became one way outbound–except for an inbound bus lane on the south side of the street, separated from other traffic by a cement divider a few inches high. University officials warned that this was a potential hazard, especially since several intersections didn’t have traffic lights. They worried students would focus on crossing the four lanes heading west and not check the one lane heading east against the flow of traffic. Their fears were confirmed in March 1967 when campus beauty queen Donna Schueler walked into the side of a bus and was injured so badly her left leg was amputated. Still, city officials refused to move the bus lane over to the newly expanded one-way eastbound Johnson Street, as students, faculty, administrators and regents were all pleading with them to do.

So the students took to the streets–even after Chancellor Robben Fleming warned them that challenging the city’s authority “will encourage retaliatory measures.”

Actually, it was a professor–computer science professor Leonard Uhr–who planned the May 17 protest on behalf of “The Committee to Save the Bus Lane for Bicycles.” It was to be a lawful demonstration, with students massed at the intersections without a traffic light, where they had the right-of-way. When a bus approached, they’d pack the crosswalk.

But when 3,000 students showed up at 3 p.m. that Wednesday, and police tried to block the protest, things quickly got out of hand. Shouting “illegal and immoral,” about two dozen protestors sat down to block an eastbound bus. And things took off from there.

For the next three hours, students used their bodies and their bicycles to block the buses. When the buses rerouted to Johnson Street, students followed. And back again. There were at least 50 active bus blockers, with the supporting crowd growing to about 5,000. Police made 25 arrests, including history grad student Paul Soglin, who had recently resigned from the Student Senate to focus on campus/community relations and write for the Daily Cardinal.

On Thursday, the city traffic commission voted unanimously to continue the bus lane, with new safeguards: two more traffic lights, a wider walkway and a barrier to prevent mid-block crossing. Madison Bus Co. President William Staub, a voting member of the commission, did not participate in the discussion or decision.

Unfortunately for the political demonstrators, another more traditional disturbance was soon underway–a spring water fight and panty raid Thursday night that grew into the biggest campus disorder in years. Police made six arrests as they battled 2,000 to 3,000 students who smashed lights on State Street and at the state Capitol, invaded women’s dorms and disrupted traffic throughout downtown. Although the warm weather frolic was entirely unrelated to the bus demonstration, neither the public nor politicians made any distinction.

When demonstrations and disruptions continued Friday morning, Teamsters union officials ordered the bus drivers not to drive through campus, and the company routed buses down Regent Street. But about 2:30 p.m., with chaos still raging, they stopped driving all routes–a complete shutdown of all bus service throughout the city until Saturday morning, when cops on every corner restored order.

“The people of the city are furious at the university,” Mayor Otto Festge declared. The Madison Common Council certainly was. It unanimously adopted resolutions that urged the university to “take direct disciplinary action with respect to students who deliberately and flagrantly violate state law and city ordinances,” and reimburse the city $2,717.36 for special police services. Reflecting the growing political threat from the state Legislature, the state Assembly jumped in, voting 86-9 for a harshly worded resolution condemning both students and the administration.

And at least one powerful regent wanted the administration to find “some way to reprimand” professor Uhr for his activism. “While we may not have the legal right to discipline,” said Dr. James Nellen, a regent and team physician for the Green Bay Packers, “we have the moral right” to do so. “A completely shocking concept,” replied regent Arthur DeBardeleben.

The mild-mannered Festge, a liberal reelected the month before by only 62 votes over conservative William Dyke, vowed that police would “crack their heads together” if necessary to restore order. Fleming, who had already announced he was leaving to become president of the University of Michigan, said he would neither discipline students for non-academic offenses nor crack their heads.

A week later, the council voted to retain the bus lane and implement the commission’s safety recommendations. In June–seven months after the wrong-way bus lane began–the city installed traffic lights at Charter and Brooks streets.

That same week, a legal challenge to the lane was filed by flamboyant attorney Ken Hur, who was finally ticketed after driving in it since it opened. Festge didn’t help matters, either legally or in his relations with the campus community, by issuing an executive order allowing cabs to use the lane as well. Despite several adverse legal rulings, the city maintained the system until 1979, when professor Uhr’s dream came true–the busses were moved to Johnson Street and the lane given over to bicycles.

The Battle of Dow
1967: The summer of our discontent

As the war in Vietnam escalated in 1967, Madison protests did too, culminating in a transformative event–the Battle of Dow on Oct. 18, when baton-wielding Madison police officers forcibly cleared UW-Madison’s Commerce Building (now Ingraham Hall) of about 250 antiwar activists who were obstructing job interviews with Dow Chemical Co. because the company made the flammable gel napalm for the military. The cops continued the clubbing outside, some protesters fought back with rocks, bricks and fists. As a few thousand stunned and increasingly angry students massed, police used tear gas for the first time on campus. It was the country’s first university protest to turn violent, and it had profound repercussions.

“Dow opened a lot of eyes, and a lot of minds,” Madison Mayor Paul Soglin recalls. A history grad student not yet in the top tier of activists, Soglin was among those beaten and bloodied in the densely packed hallway; he later concluded protester pain brought broader gain.

“There was an awful lot of politicization that took place when the cops just let go with everything they had,” he reflected in an interview for the documentary “The War At Home,” a radicalizing that “was to carry on for the next several years, and set the whole tone for politics.”

An increasing number of students now saw the university as clearly in league with the military and police. The state’s most powerful politicians, and many of its people, saw the university as out of control. Police and students saw each other as threats.

As planned by a broad coalition of leftists, the protest–part of a national anti-Dow effort leading up to that Saturday’s March on the Pentagon–began with a rally and non-obstructive picket of the job interviews on Tuesday.

But on Wednesday, protesters were going to break university rules and block the interviews, knowing they would likely get arrested by campus police. The plan was to obstruct, get arrested, go limp and be carried or dragged off, one by one. It would take all day.

“We must move from protest to resistance,” a leaflet from the local Students for a Democratic Society declared. “We must stop what we oppose.”

There was also the possibility of campus discipline, including expulsion, but attorney Percy Julian had that threat tied up in federal court, at least temporarily.1967: The summer of our discontent

Wednesday morning started with some revolutionary exuberance, courtesy of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, coincidentally booked by the poetry journal Quixote. The guerilla theater group endorsed the action after its performance Tuesday night in the Union Theater, then led the occupation procession up Bascom Hill the next morning with instruments and spectacle.

By late morning, more than 200 active obstructors and about as many supporters and observers filled the first-floor hallways, preventing anyone from getting through. After UW-Madison Police Chief Ralph Hanson failed in several attempts to get them to clear the building, he asked Chancellor William Sewell for permission to call for city police.

In only his second month in office, Sewell was the day’s most tragic figure. A noted sociologist, he was personally against the war, and as a faculty member earlier that year had voted against Dow interviewing on campus. But in his new post, Sewell felt obliged to use the means necessary to enforce the university rule against obstruction, which the faculty had reaffirmed after police arrested 19 people at a smaller and non-violent, but still disruptive, Dow protest in February. He told Hanson to make the call; about 25 policemen with protective helmets and riot sticks responded.

Then everything went wrong. The untrained riot squad had a confused mission and its command structure would break down almost immediately.

Their initial foray into the foyer at about 1:30 p.m. was repulsed; it’s unclear whether the crowd surge that pushed the police out was intentional or an involuntary reflex.

Police regrouped and charged back in. Outnumbered by about 10-to-1–many officers simmering with class and political resentment–the riot squad flailed away with 2-foot wooden nightsticks. They weren’t arresting students; they were beating them and throwing them out into the Commerce Building courtyard as the growing mob grew more and more combative. Some students were definitely fighting back.

A report from an undercover officer at one of the planning meetings–they were public and easily infiltrated–was borne out: “They were also told not to even accidentally strike a policeman, but that if they were struck first, they had every right to defend themselves.”

Police cleared the building in about 13 minutes, but they hadn’t yet won the day. The 1:15 p.m. classes were getting out, packing the hill with students who weren’t politicized–but were about to become so. “Sieg Heil!” cried the surging, scuffling crowd, as bricks and bottles flew. Madison Police Chief Wilbur Emery called for tear gas.1967: The summer of our discontent

Sewell watched from his Bascom Hall office, aghast, traumatized. “The police went nuts. The kids went nuts,” he recalled in a UW-Madison oral history. “It was just lucky that somebody wasn’t killed–really.”

There were 48 students and six non-students treated at the emergency room, mainly for scalp lacerations, and released; 18 policemen suffered injuries ranging from black eyes and broken bones to serious facial fractures and a permanently damaged larynx.

“The police took a beating on campus, one that was never forgotten,” MPD inspector Herman Thomas said later. “It was a very, very embarrassing thing for the Madison Police Department.”

Still, officers took pride in what they’d been through. They called the cops who stormed Commerce “the Dirty 30,” and some even wore uniform patches with that moniker.

The university suspended 13 protesters, pending further proceedings. Dane County District Attorney James Boll charged 10 of them with disorderly conduct. The faculty voted 681-378 to endorse Sewell’s actions. There was a short student strike and a mournful march to the Capitol, where a special state Senate committee would soon start an investigation.

The Battle of Dow left a mixed legacy. It made Madisonians more aware of, and interested in, issues surrounding the war and the university. But it also alienated many people. It caused Sewell’s resignation the following spring, ended the campus careers of protest leaders Robert Cohen and Evan Stark, and helped boost Soglin to new prominence.

And it had implications for demonstrations to come.

“From that point on,” Thomas said, “we would take a sterner approach coping with the riot problem we were facing.” Which would prompt a similar response from protesters. And so on.

The Summer of Love was over.

Civil Rights in ’67

The year 1967 was big for the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission, which secured passage of a historic expansion of the fair housing ordinance. It conducted powerful public hearings into the state of police-community relations and issued a disturbing report. But it lost its chair, Rev. James C. Wright, who left for a planned two-year stint at a seminary in Illinois.

It was not racial demographics that drove the civil rights debate. More than 98 percent of 1967 Madison was white, both adult and school-age. But something had changed; race relations were getting worse.

In 1966, a Madison Urban League survey had said things were good. “There is no prevailing atmosphere of racial conflict in Madison,” it concluded, with a majority of whites and blacks feeling “that the climate of race relations was good.”

A year later, the EOC saw things differently, declaring after its public hearings that “racial discrimination undeniably exists” and that “a serious lack of rapport exists between Madison minority group members and the police. There is real fear of harassment and retaliation.”

“The summer of 1967 was a jittery one in terms of race relations,” it recounted, citing “the increased number of neighborhood clashes with racial overtones in several areas of the city. It would seem that the problems of housing, disbelief in employment possibilities [and] hostility focused on police are the peaks of an iceberg of deeper problems. Their causes lie in the long years of overt and covert discrimination.”

And there were still vast economic disparities, with the housing market remaining largely off-limits “as far as low-income nonwhites are concerned,” the report stated.

Madison was proud it passed the state’s first open housing ordinance in December 1963. But Mayor Henry Reynolds had to accept significant exemptions to get it passed, including all single-family homes and owner-occupied apartment buildings of four units or less. This left the landmark legislation covering only about 40 percent of the housing units in the city.

Four years later, Wright and the EOC got coverage extended until it was essentially universal. Madison again had the most comprehensive measure in Wisconsin, but still no professional staff.

In March, Wright had the commission reaffirm its position for totally open housing–while warning that the matter “should not become a political issue” before the April election. Wright also decided not to challenge the ban on testing for housing discrimination, which the council had imposed during the original enactment.

In August, the day after explosive hearings took place, the Madison Police Department published its first-ever employment ad identifying itself as an equal opportunity employer.

In September, the commission adopted a report by its vice chair, future Dane County Board chairwoman Mary Louise Symon, on the “imperative” need for an ordinance amendment to eliminate all exemptions.

“It is appalling in this day and age,” Wright declared, “that in the matter of basic shelter, a Negro’s choice is restricted.”

On Sept. 26, a crowd of more than 250 packed the council chambers for a public hearing; 213 registered in support, 17 against. But Wright wasn’t there–he had been rushed to the hospital the day before with an undisclosed ailment. So Festge, who co-sponsored the amendment, played the sympathy card, urging adoption in his honor.

Alderman Harold Rohr, longtime EOC enemy who bitterly opposed its creation in 1963, did all he could to delay and annoy. But after two minor exclusions were added–housing of religious organizations, and owner-occupied residences with no more than four roomers–the council in committee endorsed the amendment eliminating all other exemptions, 16-6. Two nights later, the council passed the amendment, ignoring a warning from alderman Pete Schmidt of the Marquette neighborhood, who said the city might be liable if welfare recipients damaged the apartments. It passed by the same 16-6 margin.

Wright, associate minister at Mt. Zion Baptist Church since 1960, remained hospitalized for more than a month and was too ill to attend a farewell service in his honor in early November. The following spring, he would cut his seminary studies short to return to Madison as the EOC’s first paid executive director, serving until his retirement in 1992. Wright died in 1995 at age 66.

For more about the summer of 1967, find our web extras here.

Plus 4 other memories and milestones.

Historian Stu Levitan is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and a mainstay of Madison media and government since 1975. He is author of “Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Volume 1,” and the forthcoming “Madison in the Sixties” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press 2018), from which this story is adapted.