–submitted by Rich Leffler; photo by Will Anzenberger
Stu Levitan offered an impressionistic, kaleidescopic, sprightly, and, most importantly, insightful history of the UW in the tumultuous 1960s. He began with an aerial photo of the campus in 1962. No Humanities Building, no Elvehjem Museum, no Vilas Hall, Helen C. White, Sellery, Ogg, and Witte halls. All were added during the 1960s as the campus burgeoned.
He mentioned people who were students at the time: Dick Cheney, Tommy Thompson, Jim Doyle, Ed Garvey, Shirley Abrahamson, David Prosser, Barbara Crabb, Paul Soglin, David Maraniss, Andrew Goodman (for one semester), Steve Ambrose, Dave Zweifel, Ben Sidran, Pat Richter]and Joyce Carol Oates. They became leaders in their professions and some still are. Stu also spoke of the people who shaped the decade (and Stu holds a minority view among historians that it is individuals who make history): the aforementioned Soglin, the great Fred Harvey Harrington (who as president “super-sized” the UW), Robben Fleming, William Sewell, Ed Young, Milt Bruhn, Richter, Ron VanderKellen and Crazy Legs Hirsch.
But the sixties are remembered for one big thing: the student anti-war activism. The origins of that activism were, said Stu, in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when students went down South at considerable risk to fight against racial segregation. They demonstrated a deep “level of commitment and fearlessness.” Students who challenged the Klan were not intimidated by university administrators. Antiwar activism was, “to a considerable extent shaped” by the civil rights movement. When the first sit-in took place to oppose the draft, it was to protest student deferments that increased the exposure of non-students–the poor and minorities. Resistance to the war, though it had an element of self-interest, was also driven by principle. Peaceful resistance yielded to the Dow “riot” in fall 1967, which Stu called “the single most important political event of the decade. It marked the end of the summer of love and the start of the days of rage.” There was a cost to all this: the Regents, once defenders of the university, “took the lead in attacking” students, faculty, and administrators. The UW lost support among the people of Wisconsin, support that is still not recovered. When Stu asked an activist if the demonstrations were worth it, he answered that the more important question is were the demonstrations necessary? Stu is still working on the answer to that question. Watch for his conclusion in his book to be published next year by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Did you miss our meeting this week? Watch the video HERE.