Madison in the Sixties – May, 1967
In a year when many campuses have demonstrations against the war, the draft, and the CIA, only Madison has a disruptive protest over a wrong-way bus lane
When the reconstructed University Avenue opened in November 1966, the entire university community warned that having one east-bound lane for buses running against the four westbound lanes was dangerous, especially since several intersections didn’t have traffic lights.
Their worst fears were realized on March 1, when campus beauty queen Donna Schueler walked into the side of a bus and was injured so badly her left leg had to be amputated. Everyone from student government to the regents pleaded with the city to move the bus lane over to the newly expanded, one-way eastbound Johnson Street. But the city refused.
It’s computer sciences professor Leonard Uhr, on behalf of the Committee to Save the Bus Lane for Bicycle, who plans the protest. It’s to be a lawful demonstration, with students massed at the intersections of University Avenue and Brooks and Charter Streets, where the lack of a traffic light gives pedestrians the right-of-way; when a bus approaches, they’ll pack the crosswalk.168
The demonstration begins as planned at 3 p.m. on May 17, with Professor Uhr and a few hundred students walking west on the University Avenue sidewalks, crossing— slowly—at every intersection to hold up traffic.
But then an advance squad breaks away and encounters an eastbound bus at Brooks Street.
Chanting “illegal and immoral,” several students spontaneously drop their bikes to block the bus and get on the ground themselves. Hundreds of reinforcements rush up in support, both on their feet and on the ground. Forcibly clearing a path for the bus to escape, police arrest fifteen, including the leading campus protester, Bob Cohen.
The crowd of participants and supportive observers is now about three thousand. For the next three hours, students use their bodies and their bicycles to block the buses; when the buses reroute to Johnson Street, students follow. And back again.
Police make twenty-five arrests, including Cohen (for a second time) and former history grad student Paul Soglin, who just resigned as a member of the WSA Student Senate. Some are arrested for blocking buses, some for cursing out the cops; a half-dozen are arrested after a group of three hundred surrounds a squad car and accosts the officer inside. Most end up paying small fines.
Late that night, an unaffiliated group of about three hundred boisterous young men stage a combination panty raid/march to the Capitol. They rock a city bus, break a window, and block University Avenue. There are no arrests.
On Thursday, May 18, the city traffic commission votes unanimously to continue the bus lane, with new safeguards—two more traffic lights, a wider walkway, and a barrier to prevent midblock crossing. Madison Bus Company president William Staub, a voting member of the commission, does not participate in the discussion or decision.
Unfortunately for the political demonstrators, another panty raid and water fight Thursday night grows into the biggest campus disorder in several years. Police make six arrests as they battle up to twenty-five hundred students who smash lights on State Street and at the State Capitol, invade women’s dorms, and disrupt traffic throughout downtown. Although this second disturbance is entirely unrelated to the bus demonstration, neither the public nor politicians make any distinction.
When the bus-based demonstrations and disruptions continue Friday morning, Teamster union officials order the bus drivers not to drive through campus, and the company routes buses down Regent Street instead. At about 2:30 p.m., with chaos still raging, they stop driving all routes—a complete shutdown of all bus service throughout the city until Saturday morning, when cops on every corner restore order.
“The people of the city are furious at the university,” says Mayor Otto Festge. The Common Council certainly is, unanimously adopting resolutions that the university “take direct disciplinary action with respect to students who deliberately and flagrantly violate state law and city ordinances,” and reimburse the city $2,717 for special police services.
Reflecting the growing political threat from the legislature, the State Assembly jumps in, voting 86–9 for a harshly worded resolution condemning both students and the administration.
And at least one powerful regent wants the administration to find “some way to reprimand” Professor Uhr for his activism. “While we may not have the legal right to discipline,” says Regent Dr. James Nellen, team physician for the Green Bay Packers, “we have the moral right” to do so. “A completely shocking concept,” replies Regent Arthur DeBardeleben, an attorney from Park Falls.
Festge says police will “crack [students’] heads together” if necessary to restore order and demands the university “obtain copies of the police arrest reports and call these students in” for discipline. Fleming, who’s already announced he’s leaving to become president of the University of Michigan, says he will neither discipline students for non- academic offenses nor crack their heads.178
A week later, the council votes to retain the bus lane and implement the commission’s safety recommendations. In June—seven months after the wrong-way bus lane opened— the city installs traffic lights at Charter and Brooks Streets.179
And the weekend before the protest – Quixote literary journal jump- starts the Summer of Love. On Saturday, journal founders Morris and Betsy Edelson bring Allen Ginsberg and the Fugs to the Stock Pavilion, where they entrance and excite a near capacity crowd of seventeen hundred with “Third Coast Sutra.” It’s an evening of profane and profound beat poetry and avant-garde rock; Ginsberg reads “Kral Majales (King Of May),” his ode to Beatlemania “Portland Coliseum,” and “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels,” and the Fugs perform “Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side” and “Wet Dream over You.” The next day, a chanting Ginsberg dressed in white, the Fugs, and a crowd of hundreds venture to Picnic Point to dance, sing, eat, love, and get high at Madison’s most successful be- in of the season, sponsored by Quixote, the Wisconsin Film Society, and Zach Berk’s Open Arts Group.199
And here’s what ROUNDY SAYS in the State Journal of May 25. “Bobby Hinds showed the old time University boxing pictures the other day. I want to see them again. When boxing was at Wisconsin you didn’t see no demonstrations then.”
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, listener-sponsored WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan
Skip Heine photo of the start of the protest, May 17 1967. Courtesy Capital Newspapers