More than one thousand University of Wisconsin alumni returned to Memorial Union from June 14–16 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their time on campus. Many of them were activists in Madison in 1968, one of the most turbulent years of student protest in American history.
The three-day Reunion weekend featured tours, live music, and film screenings, in addition to a sold-out conference. Conference panel topics included civil rights activism, the Dow Chemical protests, the LGBT movement, and The Daily Cardinal, the UW student newspaper known for its left-wing politics during the 1960s. One of the panels, called Radical Pedagogy, focused on the 1965 teach-in protesting the war in Vietnam, the founding of the Teaching Assistants Association in 1966, and various student movements, including the 1969 Black student strike.
Though the panelists focused on different events, each of them expressed the personal and social impact of their experiences on campus in the 1960s. Christine George, now a research director at Loyola University, reflected on her formative undergraduate years at UW–Madison. “I came out with a new mission, a new goal … which was to change society and to be an organizer, to empower the people—all of those idealistic things. I wanted to somehow connect what I had become back to the neighborhood and community that I came from.”
Ann Gordon, a historian and professor emerita at Rutgers University, discussed the difficulty of being a female graduate student at UW–Madison in the ‘60s. “When they built the Humanities building—while I was a graduate student, so they’re collecting my tuition—they created one wing of it … where the faculty offices [were]. And guess what? There were no women’s bathrooms in that whole part of the building. So that gives you an idea about what it was like to be a [female] graduate student in the history department. I would call that a form of radical pedagogy: Collect [our] tuition and then make it really clear that we were interlopers.”
Gerald Lenoir, now a strategy analyst at UC–Berkeley, spoke about his involvement in the black student strike of 1969, which resulted in the establishment of the Afro-American Studies department at UW–Madison. At that time, black students made up less than one percent of the student population. That statistic remains relatively unchanged today. However, Lenoir made clear that the black student strike in Madison was about more than just diversifying the campus. “We were fighting not just for a black studies department or for hiring more black faculty or for increased black student recruitment and retention. We were literally fighting for our lives.”
The black student strike of 1969 at UW was part of a larger black campus movement, which included students on more than five hundred campuses across the United States. The campus uprising at South Carolina State University in 1968 was the first fatal confrontation between students and law enforcement in American history. Three black students were killed by the police and twenty-seven other people were injured.
The black student strike in Madison also had violent encounters between students and law enforcement, though it did not result in fatalities. Lenoir emphasized the importance of the student movements in critiquing war and racism and sparking activism across the country. “On this campus, we challenged the two main pillars of U.S. imperial rule: war and racism,” he said. “We were part of a self-conscious social movement that brought millions of people into the streets to challenge U.S. domination at home and abroad. We created new identities, new narratives, and new organizing paradigms that, for a time, altered the most powerful nation in the world.”
Lenoir ended his remarks by saying that the struggle continues. This was a theme throughout the Madison Reunion Conference, connecting the activism of the 1960s to the student-led political movements of today.
This story was reported by Richelle Wilson for WORT News.