Radicalization in 1960s Madison, Wisconsin: One Participant's Reflection
February 27, 2012
by Patrick M. Quinn
The three most radicalized university campuses during the late 1960s were Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of California at Berkeley. What follows is an account of the radicalization in Madison during the years 1962 to 1971 based on the perspective of one participant.
Anti-war rally in Madison
I graduated from high school in a small town in
southeastern Wisconsin in 1960. I came from a working-class family consisting of myself, my grandparents and my bachelor uncle. My grandfather was a plumber and my uncle was a letter carrier. My grandfather died in 1957 and my uncle in 1959, leaving just my grandmother and me. I began working as a letter carrier at the U.S. Post Office in 1959 and continued to do so during the summers and school vacations until 1966. In 1960 I entered the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where I was won to socialism by political science professor James T. Flynn, who had been a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL) at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, along with the future U.S. Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, and a future leader of the International Socialist Organization, Joel Geier, among others. At the UW-Whitewater I joined the newly-formed Peace Studies Club (a ban-the-bomb group) and was the co-founder of the Socialist Club.
In 1962, I transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I quickly became aware of the “Left” on campus. The “Left” was small and primarily a social and cultural, as well as political, milieu. Most of the students in the Left were Jewish, from New York City, and were “red diaper babies,” i.e. they came from families which had been connected in some manner or another with the Communist Party. On Friday and Saturday nights I went (uninvited) to parties in apartments in the wooden buildings in the student “ghetto” just south of the University campus. To me, the apartments seemed virtually identical. All were filled with paperback books housed in wooden orange crates. Candles burned in empty straw-encased Chianti wine bottles. Burlap was hung on walls adjacent to prints of paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne, Monet and Manet. The music emanating from record players was Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Discussions at these parties rarely concerned political issues; rather, they were focused primarily on “foreign” films directed by Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), and Federico Fellini (1920-1993), among others. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and as I listened to them, I learned that many had attended the same high schools—Midwood and Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, Bronx Science and Music and Art, and Stuyvesant in Manhattan—and had attended the same “progressive” summer camps in the Catskills. I felt very uncomfortable and out of place. I was a fish out of water. I was, in fact, one of the very few “goys” in this Left milieu. As I glanced at the books and journals in the orange-crate bookcases, I saw some books by Marx and Engels, but none by Trotsky or Lenin or Stalin. Many students appeared to read the journal Studies on the Left or books by C. Wright Mills. Copies of the National Guardian were strewn about everywhere.
University students depart for the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” from the Memorial Union
In the fall of 1962, I joined the Socialist Club at the University. It was comprised mainly of Jewish students from New York. In my naiveté, it was only later that I learned that many of the members of the Socialist Club were clandestinely affiliated with or sympathetic to the Young Communist League or the Communist Party. Between 1962 and the summer of 1964, not much happened on the Left in Madison, but in 1964 the Civil Rights Movement in the South was heating up, especially after the murders of three Civil Rights workers—James Chaney (1943-1964), Andrew Goodman (1943-1964), and Mickey Schwerner (1939-1964)—near Philadelphia, Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” voter registration campaign. I joined the Madison chapter of the Friends of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a Civil Rights organization based in the South. Friends of SNCC organized small rallies in Madison and held forums on Civil Rights topics at the First Congregational Church in Madison. Many members of the Socialist Club were also members of the Friends of SNCC. In June 1964 I graduated from the University of Wisconsin and enrolled in the UW graduate school.
In 1964 I also joined SDS (the Students for a Democratic Society), which had been founded in Port Huron, Michigan, two years earlier. At the time I joined the Madison chapter of SDS, it was probably to the right of the UW Young Democrats, who were based at the liberal Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship on campus, but the SDS chapter soon moved more to the left by sponsoring an important event. We called the Communist Party in Chicago and asked them to send a speaker to Madison. Our intention was to break the ban on Communists speaking at the University. The CP sent to Madison one of its leaders, Claude Lightfoot, an African-American, to speak at a forum that we organized. We publicized Lightfoot’s speech widely, and on the night of Lightfoot’s speech, Tripp Commons in the Student Union was filled to capacity. Just as Lightfoot began to speak, State Senator Gordon Roseleip (1912-1989, Republican, Darlington) and a number of other right-wing state legislators, very drunk, burst into the room and began trying to shout Lightfoot down, screaming that he was a “Nigger” and a “Commie.” Roseleip and the other legislators were roundly booed by the audience and they left the room. After Lightfoot spoke, those of us in SDS who had arranged his speech were elated that we had succeeded in breaking the ban on Communist speakers at the University which had been in place since Senator Joe McCarthy had begun his anti-Communist ravings a decade and a half earlier. A few days later, a radical student, Jim H., climbed to the top of the stairs in front of the Student Union and shouted loudly to the small audience of students gathered below that they should “violently overthrow the government.” He was not arrested by the campus cops. The right of “Free Speech” had prevailed at the University of Wisconsin.
In the early 1960s, students on the Left in Madison looked to three professors for leadership. One was Hans Gerth (1908-78), a German-born professor of Sociology who had been the mentor of C. Wright Mills at the University of Wisconsin in the 1940s; another was the famed professor of American history William Appleman Williams (1921-90), the author of the influential book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy; and the third was professor of history George Mosse (1918-99), a refugee from Nazi Germany who was a liberal, and decidedly not a socialist. The legendary Marxist history professor Harvey Goldberg (1922-87), a brilliant, spell-binding lecturer, did not arrive at the University until the fall of 1963.
In February 1965 the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam precipitated the beginning in Madison and elsewhere of what became the movement against the war in Vietnam. About twelve of us held a vigil against the Vietnam War at the southwest corner of the Capitol Square on a Friday evening. The ground was deeply covered by snow and the brutally cold temperature was well below zero. High-school-age Madison youth in cars drove around the Capitol Square and threw full cans of beer at us. Shortly thereafter the Madison Committee Against the War in Vietnam (MCEWV), of which I was a founding member, was organized.
Many of the students who founded the MCEWV—including a student who later became a professor at the UW School for Workers, Frank Emspak (1943- )—came from Communist Party backgrounds, although several of the founders were Trotskyists. A chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the (Trotskyist) Socialist Workers Party, had existed at the University since 1962. In September 1962 I had bought my first copy of the Militant, the weekly newspaper of the SWP, from Gerry Foley, who sold it every Friday afternoon in front of the University Library, and I had begun reading it regularly. Weekly vigils against the War in Vietnam were held at the Capitol Square on Friday nights during the remainder of the frozen winter of 1965, one of the coldest winters in memory. As the weather improved in the late spring, anti-war activities increased substantially and demonstrations against the war were held outside the Truax Air Force Base (today the Madison airport) and at the Badger Ordnance powder works northwest of Madison near Baraboo, Wisconsin, which made much of the gun powder for the U.S. troops in Vietnam. “Teach-ins” during which University faculty spoke against the war were held in buildings near the campus. The MCEWV began distributing thousands of copies of its weekly newsletter, The Crisis, which I helped to produce.
In early March 1965, Civil Rights protesters in Selma, Alabama, were brutally attacked by the police. I dropped out of graduate school, took a bus to Montgomery, Alabama, and became involved in the Civil Rights movement in Selma. After the mass March on Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965, I moved to New York City, where I participated in rather small anti-war and peace demonstrations. The pacifists who controlled the anti-nuclear bomb movement in New York strongly opposed us carrying signs specifically opposing the war in Vietnam at the demonstrations or marches that they sponsored.
I returned to Madison to find a letter waiting for me from my draft board instructing me to report for induction into the Army. I immediately returned to my old job as a letter carrier at the Post Office in my home town and on the day that I was supposed to board the bus to Milwaukee to be inducted into the Army, I instead went to work at the Post Office. That evening in a bar, a high school classmate who had gone on the bus to Milwaukee to be inducted into the Army, but had been rejected for physical reasons, told me that the County Sheriff had a warrant out for my arrest. The next morning I told this to my boss, the Postmaster, who called the head of the local draft board and informed him that postal employees, by law, were “essential to the National Defense,” and therefore could not be drafted. For the moment I was safe from the clutches of the draft.
I got married at the end of August 1965. Because school teachers were still exempted from the draft, I taught English and History at Racine Park High School in 1965-1966. The anti-war movement in Madison grew very slowly during that year, but I was, nonetheless, active in it on weekends. Several major events occurred. U.S. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon spoke against the War in Vietnam at Madison West High School. Morse (1900-74) was a native of Wisconsin who had graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was one of only two U.S. Senators opposed to the war in Vietnam. The other was Senator Ernest Gruening (1887-1974) of Alaska. The Young Socialist Alliance distributed leaflets at the Morse event criticizing the timidity of Senator Morse’s anti-war stand. He called only for “negotiations.” The Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party called for “immediate withdrawal” of all U.S. troops from Vietnam. The Communist Party supporters who then controlled the Committee Against the War in Vietnam called the police on the Young Socialist Alliance. Their actions prompted an emergency meeting of the CEWV the next day at the University YMCA. An intense debate was held at the meeting about the police being called. At the end of the meeting a new election of CEWV officers was held, and all of the Communist Party supporters were swept out of office and Robin David of the Young Socialist Alliance was elected chair of the CEWV. The debate convinced me of the correctness of the Young Socialist Alliance’s position on the war, and I became a supporter of the YSA, although I did not join it immediately.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organize a protest against the draft May 14, 1966
In the spring of 1966 the U.S. government removed the 2-S provision of the military draft code that exempted students from the draft. On the UW campus, this development prompted the seizure and occupation of the A.W. Peterson Administration Building on Murray Street. One of the central leaders of the occupation, a young student from New York, Lowell Bergman (1945- ), later became a well-known journalist and television producer for ABC, CBS, and PBS. As the building occupation continued, the socialist history professor William Appleman Williams arrived to speak to the students occupying the building and admonished them to stop their “silly occupation” and leave the building. The students ignored Williams. He lost his credibility as an icon of the Left on campus and was shortly replaced by Professor Harvey Goldberg, whose popular history courses had a fiercely anti-war content. Williams soon left Wisconsin for the University of Oregon. The occupation of the Peterson building in May 1966 was personally significant for me because during the occupation my older daughter Abra was born on May 21 in the University Hospital a few blocks away.
A short time later, Senator Edward Kennedy, who supported the war, came to the University to speak at the large stock pavilion on the University’s agricultural campus. As he began to speak, hecklers in the audience shouted against Kennedy’s pro-war position. Kennedy finally invited Robin David, chair of the CEWV, to the podium to debate the war with him. He asked Robin how he would end the war and Robin, to a standing ovation, said simply that he would load all the U.S. troops on boats and sail away from Vietnam. This event was captured in “The War at Home,“ the documentary made about the anti-war movement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
I became a member of the Steering Committee of the CEWV and worked closely with members of the YSA on the Steering Committee. The YSA then had only about 6 or 8 members, primarily Jewish students from New York City, but it exercised an influence on campus far beyond its numbers. During the balance of 1966, the anti-war movement in Madison did not grow appreciably. At the beginning of 1967, members of the CEWV spent their time building a contingent from Madison to go to the national anti-war demonstration in New York City on April 18th. By the middle of April we had filled 13 buses bound for the New York demonstration, including quite a few high school students. The demonstration was held at the UN building. Construction workers pelted anti-war marchers with iron bolts that they threw down on them from the tops of buildings under construction. The April 18th demonstration in New York City marked the real beginning of the mass anti-war movement nationally. The Madison CEWV’s activities accordingly accelerated. On the Fourth of July, the CEWV distributed anti-war leaflets in all of Madison’s parks. Several CEWV leafleters were beaten up. Members of the CEWV spent the early fall of 1967 building for the next mass national anti-war demonstration, scheduled for the Pentagon on October 18, 1967, but just prior to the departure of the Madison buses for the Pentagon demonstration, a major event occurred in Madison that would have a profound effect upon the growth both of the anti-war movement and of the Left in Madison.
Chancellor Sewell calls in police who use tear gas to clear protestors against the Dow Chemical Co. from the Commerce Building on October 18
The Dow Chemical Company of Midland, Michigan, which made the napalm that was being dropped on the people of Vietnam, was coming to the UW campus to recruit management employees. Dow was scheduled to interview potential employees in the School of Commerce building. A day before the Dow recruiters were to arrive, the Madison Committee to End the War in Vietnam held a mass meeting in the Social Science building to decide what to do about Dow’s recruitment on campus. At the meeting a fierce debate occurred over whether to stage a sit-in against Dow in the Commerce building. The Young Socialist Alliance was opposed to holding a sit-in because it was convinced that the cops would attack it. At the close of the debate, a vote was taken on whether to hold a sit-in. By a show of hands, the sit-in was narrowly defeated. But one of the supporters of the sit-in made a motion for a re-vote and a division of the house. When the house was divided, the sit-in won by one vote.
The sit-in began the following morning. Just before noon hundreds of cops, mainly Dane County Sheriff’s deputies, appeared on the scene clad in riot uniforms and helmets with visors. The deputies began wading into the students conducting the sit-in in the Commerce Building and viciously clubbing them with their riot clubs. Among the many students who were clubbed and bleeding was future Madison mayor Paul Soglin (1945- ). Many students were arrested. No one participating in the sit-in or any of those observing the police attack on the students had ever seen such an expression of police brutality, except perhaps the police attacks on Civil Rights protestors in the South which had been shown on television. The vicious police attack on students sitting in to protest Dow Chemical galvanized the UW campus and immediately prompted a quantitative increase in the size of the anti-war movement and the Left in Madison.
The next day, as hundreds of us boarded buses to go to the anti-war demonstration in Washington at the Pentagon, the YSA was resolved to do everything that it could do to build and broaden the antiwar movement upon our return to Madison. Those of us who supported the Young Socialist Alliance knew that it was imperative that we reach out, build and extend the anti-war movement beyond the University’s campus. We knew that if we were ever going to convince a majority of Madisonians to oppose the war in Vietnam, we had to win the working class in Madison to an anti-war position. Such an opportunity to do so shortly presented itself. The Madison Firefighters Union went on strike and the entire mass media in Madison, including the three TV stations and the two daily newspapers, came down on the firefighters like a ton of bricks, accusing them of placing the lives of Madison citizens in danger with their strike. At a meeting of the Madison Committee to End the War in Vietnam, Jack Barasonzi of the International Socialists and I proposed that the CEWV set up a Labor Solidarity subcommittee to support the firefighters. (Jack had joined the Socialist Workers Party in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1951, and, as a result, had been expelled from the University of Minnesota.) After a short debate the CEWV voted to set up a labor support subcommittee. Members of the CEWV bought pizzas and six-packs of beer and took them to every fire station in Madison where we shared them with the firefighters, walked with them on their picket lines, and discussed the war with them. When the strike was over, Ed Durkin, the head of the firefighters union, came out publically against the war. He was the first major union leader in Madison to do so. My union, Local # 1 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME) became the first union in Madison to pass a resolutions opposing the war. Later, when the postal workers went on strike, the CEWV supported their strike and won many postal workers to an anti-war position. In another effort to reach the working class, members of the CEWV spent every Saturday distributing anti-war leaflets to busloads of National Guardsmen who stopped at the Wisconsin Union for lunch on their way to Camp (now Fort) McCoy 100 miles northwest of Madison.
At the close of 1967, Professor Maurice Zeitlin of the UW Sociology department, Lawrence Weinstein, who owned a liquor distributing company in Madison, and Gil Rosenberg, the owner of a real estate firm in Madison, among others, took the initiative to organize an effort to get a referendum on the war on the April 1968 ballot. (Weinstein and Rosenberg had been supporters of the Young Communist League at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s). The Young Socialist Alliance threw itself into the effort. In 1938 Leon Trotsky had made the demand to “let the people vote on war,” one of the central demands of his ”Transitional Program.” The winter of 1967-68 was once again a brutally cold winter. Anti-war activists in Madison spent a considerable amount of time gathering the thousands of signatures necessary to place the anti-war referendum on the April 1968 ballot. Several of those collecting signatures on the Capitol Square were beaten up by pro-war youthful town hooligans.
The Wisconsin Student Association, United Front, and Madison Area Peace Action Council sponsor an indoor anti-war rally at the Camp Randall Memorial Building (the Shell), 1971
1968, 1969, and 1970 were the key years of the youth radicalization in Madison as well as across the country. 1968 would prove to be an especially electric year for the rapidly growing Left in Madison. During the months of January, February and March, anti-war activists distributed thousands of leaflets throughout the city calling upon citizens to vote “Yes” for the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam on the referendum on the April ballot. Committees were set up to distribute “Vote Yes” leaflets in every Madison ward. Although the referendum’s wording called for a “ceasefire and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam,” it did not call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, which was a drawback that the Young Socialist Alliance criticized, but none-the-less worked assiduously in support of the referendum effort. The primaries election period saw the emergence of U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (Dem. Minnesota) as a leading contender for nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s support for re-nomination steadily declined because of his ardent support for and fervent prosecution of the war. As the April primary election in Wisconsin approached, LBJ announced that he would not stand for re-nomination as a presidential candidate. On the night of the April election, many of us who had worked in support of a “Yes” vote on the anti-war referendum gathered at the Madison City-County building to watch the election returns. As the final returns were reported we were elated to learn that 33% of the voters in Madison had voted “Yes” for withdrawal from Vietnam. This was a much higher percentage than we had hoped for. The national NBC correspondent, John Chancellor, who was in Madison to report on the election, cynically told us that the results of the election were irrelevant and would have no impact whatsoever on the war, but we knew better. We knew that our task now was to win at least 17% more of the Madison voters to an anti-war position.
The Young Socialist Alliance’s headquarters was in the first floor apartment in a wooden building at 202 Marion Street, just southeast of the campus. Three YSA comrades lived in the apartment. The YSA “local” (as the “chapter” was then called) had grown to about 17 members. We studied and discussed Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” during the summer of 1967 in addition to doing anti-war work, selling the Militant, and staffing Left literature tables at the Student Union, among numerous other activities.
On Sunday as we sat in the living room of the YSA headquarters prior to a meeting of the YSA local, brainstorming ideas for activities of the Madison Committee to End the War in Vietnam, one of us (probably me) came up with the idea of inviting the heavyweight boxing champion, Mohammed Ali, to come to Madison to speak. We knew he was living in Atlanta, Georgia, and one of us called directory assistance in Atlanta and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ali had a listed phone number. We called the number and were amazed when he answered the phone. We asked him to come to Madison to speak and he readily agreed to do so. Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight championship because of his outspoken anti-Vietnam war views. When he had been asked why he opposed the war, he famously replied, “No Viet Cong ever called me a Nigger.”
In the spring of 1969, I stood in front of the Wisconsin Student Union waiting for Ali to arrive from the airport. A limousine rolled up in front of the Union and Ali emerged from it. I shook his hand and introduced myself. I was shocked to see that he was shorter than I was. He spoke later that day to a capacity audience at the Stock Pavilion on the University’s agriculture campus. The CEWV charged only a small amount for admittance to Ali’s speech, but we made a considerable amount of money. Immediately after the event, however, the Black Students Association approached us and demanded that they be given all of the proceeds (even though they had done nothing to build the event). After some hard negotiations that I had with the head of the Black Students Association, we agreed to split the proceeds with them 50-50. With our share of the proceeds (about $300), we immediately bought a brand new automatic mimeograph machine to replace the old hand-cranked one that the CEWV had used since 1965. With the efficient new machine, we churned out hundreds of thousands of leaflets and flyers over the next five years. In 1974 we smuggled the faithful mimeograph machine across the Rio Grande River and donated it to the PRT (Revolutionary Workers Party), the Mexican section of the Fourth International.
As the summer of 1969 approached, the Young Socialist Alliance made a major decision. We rented the first floor and basement of a building at 202 West Gilman Street, just east of the University campus. We transformed the large basement into a hall for meetings, forums, the showing of films and a bookstore. We painted the basement, spruced it up, and purchased a large number of used folding chairs. Paul Hass painted a beautiful large (4’ x 6’) wooden sign, deep bright red with, in black, “The Che Guevara Bookstore and Movement Center,” an image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and of a chain being broken. Beneath the chain were the words, “If you know, teach. If you don’t know, learn.” We immediately began holding public forums on timely topics every Friday evening. The bookstore in the Che Guevara Movement Center became Madison’s leading source of radical books. The Che Guevara Bookstore and Movement Center served as the YSA’s headquarters and a center of Left politics in Madison until the end of the summer of 1971.
At the beginning of the 1969-1970 academic year, we held our usual “Join the YSA” meeting in the Wisconsin Union. To our amazement over 250 people came to the meeting and over 100 signed up to join the YSA. They were from home towns throughout Wisconsin. We now knew what a mass radicalization was all about. The YSA local quickly grew to 39 members. As a result of our “trail-blazing” trips to college campuses throughout Wisconsin, we soon had YSA “locals” established in Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Beloit, Kenosha, Eau Claire, Superior and La Crosse.
With our new headquarters in the Che Guevara Bookstore and Movement Center and our new members, the YSA was able to greatly expand its activities and arenas of political work. Although we continued to focus on building the anti-war movement, we also organized a women’s liberation organization—the Women’s Action Movement (WAM), which launched a city-wide campaign for free 24-hour childcare centers; and we greatly expanded our trade union work. Soon 23 of our 39 members were very active in Madison trade unions, including numerous AFSCME unions and the Madison (now South-central Wisconsin) Federation of Labor.
Among the speakers that we brought to Madison to speak at the Che Guevera Bookstore and Movement Center and on the University of Wisconsin campus were many well-known Marxists, including Fred Halstead (1927-1988), Paul Boutelle (born 1934, who changed his name to Kwame M. A. Somburu in 1979), George Novack (1905-1992), Ernest Mandel (1923-1995), Peter Camejo (1939-2008), Hedda Garza (1929-1995), Harry Ring (1918-2007), and Mike Garza, Charlie Scheer, and Fred Ferguson, among others.
During this period the Madison chapter of the SDS—which on occasion drew thousands of students to its meetings in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union—was preoccupied with the internal fights raging within National SDS, and a Maoist political tendency began to gain considerable influence in the Madison chapter. When YSA members entered SDS meetings, the Maoists initiated the chant “ice pick, ice pick,” a reference to the ice axe which the Spanish Stalinist Ramon Mercader (1913-1978) had used to murder Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940. SDS continued to be the largest and most influential organization on the Left in Madison, but was becoming increasingly “ultraleft” in its tactics, which included rampages on campus and the “trashing” of Madison stores. Another Left organization, the Wisconsin Alliance—which had been formed at the initiative of three Madison radicals, Dick Krooth, Lester Radke, and Adam Schesch—opened a headquarters on Williamson Street in Madison’s working class eastside neighborhood. The Wisconsin Alliance quickly became the second largest and most influential organization on the Left in Madison. Among its key supporters was Paul Buhle, the editor of the journal, Radical America.
In 1969, the YSA national leadership insisted that we transform the Madison Committee to End the War in Vietnam into a Student Mobilization Committee (SMC) Against the War chapter, which we dutifully did. However, by that time the MCEWV/SMC had largely become a hollow shell. It was accused (especially by the Maoists in SDS) of being merely a “Trot front.” So, following a discussion in the YSA local, we took the initiative to form a new city-wide anti-war organization, the Madison Area Peace Action Council (MAPAC). MAPAC (I borrowed the name from the Cleveland Area Peace Action Council) immediately became much broader and much more representative than the old Madison Committee to End the War in Vietnam had been. The first activity that MAPAC did was to build what it hoped would be a massive rally and anti-war march on “Moratorium Day,” October 15, 1969. Indeed, a huge anti-war rally was held in the UW Field House and, following the rally, 25,000 people, led by the Veterans for Peace contingent, marched to the State Capitol. MAPAC followed up the Moratorium Day rally and march by sending 25 busloads of anti-war protesters to the momentous march against the war in Washington, D.C. in November.
Several other activities warrant mention. During the summer, the Madison police had attacked a block party in “Miffland,” the student “ghetto” located along Mifflin and adjacent streets near the Mifflin Street Co-op grocery store. The YSA organized a fightback/defense against the cops, erected a barricade across Broom Street, and repulsed the police’s charge with a barrage of stones, in emulation of a Revolutionary War military tactic.
On the campus right-wing students organized the “Hayakawa” group (named after S. I. Hayakawa, the rightwing president of San Francisco State University, 1968-1973; and later a U.S. Senator from California, 1977-1983). Members wore white armbands with a blue “H” emblazoned on them. Among its members were white players on the UW football team. The “Hayakawas” began ambushing Black students, especially Black women students, at night, on campus and beating them up. I met with the head of the Black Students Association and we organized teams of YSAers and BSA’s who positioned themselves along the route where the “Hayakawas” were beating up Black students. When we encountered “Hayakawas” beating up Black students, we beat the shit out of the “Hayakawas” and their attacks quickly stopped.
In 1969, I co-led with Fred Hampton, the legendary head of the Black Panthers in Chicago, an anti-racist march from the University campus to the state capital. Shortly thereafter Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were brutally murdered by cops in Chicago.
On January 25, 1970, my second daughter, Rachel, was born. The year 1970 turned out to be the zenith of the radicalization of the 1960s. The YSA took the initiative in founding two other anti-war organizations, Public Employees for Peace and the Madison Library Committee Against the War, and was active in Labor Voice for Peace, but its major area of concentration remained working to build MAPAC.
Riots erupt following the Kent State killings
At the beginning of May 1970, the U.S. began bombing Cambodia. At an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, the Ohio National Guard fired on the demonstrators, killing four students. On campuses throughout the country, including the University of Wisconsin campus, pent-up anti-war rage exploded. Hundreds of campuses were shut down by student and faculty strikes. In Madison, a virtual rebellion occurred. At night fires were set in the streets all across central Madison and barricades were erected, blocking the streets. The Che Guevara Bookstore and Movement Center was used as a medical refuge where students injured by the police were treated. “Affinity Groups” of students roamed the streets causing havoc. The events of May 1970 constituted the greatest single uprising of the 1960s radicalization.
Riots erupt following the Kent State killings
Because 1970 was an election year, the YSA decided to place on the Wisconsin ballot a full slate of Socialist Workers Party candidates. We spent most of the weekends in June petitioning in the Black community in Milwaukee in order to gather the 60,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot. We ran Sam Hunt, a Vietnam-era vet for Governor, Peter Kohlenberg for Lieutenant Governor, Martha Quinn for U.S. Senator, Peter Manti for a State Assembly seat in Milwaukee, and me for a State Assembly seat in central Madison. The UW student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal, endorsed my candidacy.
During the summer of 1970, however, a momentous, tragic event happened. Four ultra-lefts, who called themselves “The New Years Gang,” placed a van loaded with explosives next to Sterling Hall, the UW physics building, and blew it up, killing a researcher inside the building. They had intended to blow up the U.S. Army Mathematics Research Center located adjacent to Sterling Hall. The blowing up of Sterling Hall cast a pall over the entire radical movement in Madison from which, arguably, it never fully recovered.
Sterling Hall bombing
The YSA spent the fall of 1970 doing election campaigning throughout the state. When the November election occurred, we did not, of course, win, but were nonetheless quite satisfied with the excellent campaigns that we had run. As 1971 began, the YSA decided that it was time to place another referendum against the war on the April ballot. Accordingly, we organized the Madison Citizens for Immediate Withdrawal, which secured an office on University Avenue across the street from the campus and we began raising funds and organizing support in the Madison wards for a ”Yes” vote on immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. The Madison City Council had placed the referendum on the ballot without requiring us to gather thousands of signatures. We worked very hard during the months of January, February, and March distributing anti-war literature in every Madison ward. On the evening of the April election, we gathered at the Madison City-County building to watch the posting of election returns. Shortly before midnight, as the final returns were reported, we saw that 66% of the Madison voters had voted for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. We knew that our efforts over the past six years had not been in vain.
In the fall of 1971, the Madison YSA, which had overwhelmingly supported the losing side in an internal Socialist Workers Party dispute, was compelled by the national YSA to close the Che Guevara Bookstore and Movement Center. The halcyon days of the Madison YSA were over—as were the halcyon days of the Left in Madison. The 1960s youth radicalization was on the wane. The political atmosphere in Madison in the fall of 1971 was like being in a morgue. The electricity that had filled the air in 1968, 1969, and 1970 had dissipated. The fall of 1971 marked the beginning of a long decline of the Left in Madison and elsewhere that would last for the next 40 years until the explosive fight back of the working people of Wisconsin against Governor Scott Walker at the State Capital in the late winter and early spring of 2011. Probably only a few of them were aware that there had been a radicalization of youth in Madison and throughout much of the U.S. in the 1960s. The above account of one participant in that radicalization is intended to salvage it from the mists of history.