Madison – the first week of July in the late 1960s.
On the balmy fourth of July 1965, a crowd of about 60,000 packs Vilas Park for the 14th annual Lions Club fireworks display. Three days later, the UW chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom stages the era’s first conservative political demonstration here, picketing during a dedication ceremony for the State Capitol in support of the federal law which allows states to enact antiunion “right-to-work” laws, section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act. Among the large crowd gathered for the dedication, Gov. Warren Knowles, the four other statewide elected officials and all legislators. YAF President David Keene and about a dozen YAF activists hand out a thousand leaflets in only two hours, denouncing efforts by Congressional Democrats to repeal 14(b).[i]
In 1966, A summer of vandalism besets the Monona Causeway, including destruction of $2,000 worth of sensitive gauges, used to measure when fill is compacted enough for further construction. In the construction area near downtown, swimmers and boaters have also broken down some of the diking material used to prevent erosion of the road that’s already there. On July 1, the city finally posts a notice: “Please don’t knock this dyke down because literally you could be instrumental in washing away part of the causeway.” The highway, long touted as the vital link between downtown and the southwest, is already a year behind schedule and a million dollars over budget.[ii]
Also on the July 1—South Madison native Richard Harris, twenty-nine, becomes director of the South Madison Neighborhood Center. Harris, UW class of 1961, has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois and has worked for the Hyde Park Neighborhood House and the Illinois Youth Commission.[iii]
On the fourth, The Committee to End the War in Vietnam tries to mix protest with patriotism in a two- pronged action under new cochairs Robin David and Lowell Bergman. While a group of about fifteen stages a 24-hour fast on the Memorial Library mall, graduate student Walter Lippman (no relation to the famous columnist) and a small group hand out and sell antiwar pamphlets in Vilas Park until a policeman orders them to stop. He claims – incorrectly – that they need a peddler’s permit. Then a handful of high school students heckle the protesters, and a parks worker who claims to be an Army veteran threatens to tip over the table where their literature is displayed. Finally, a sergeant on the scene says their presence is creating a dangerous disturbance and orders them to leave. UW Chancellor Robben Fleming challenges police priorities, writing Mayor Otto Festge that “their responsibility [was] to quell any disturbance rather than stop the distribution of this literature which may have been unpopular with some of the people at the park.” But Festge, whose “Bells for Independence” proclamation calling for church bells to chime during the afternoon was largely ignored, rejects the criticism. “Tension was building” toward a possible “riot,” he says, praising the police for “fulfilling their sworn duty to preserve the peace.” No such tension is evident that night, as 60,000 pack the park for the 15th annual Lions’ Club fireworks display. The council later enacts an ordinance prohibiting the sale, but not the free distribution, of literature in city parks.
And in an ironic bit of counter-programming, the Dane County Arena celebrates the Fourth by welcoming British Invasion pop stars the Dave Clark Five for what the Capital Times snidely calls a “throbbing, clashing, roaring” performance. Earlier in the day, the group was welcomed to the Madison municipal airport by Mayor Festge and about 500 excited young teen girls.
1967 also sees a mix of protest and traditional patriotism. At Vilas Park, Zach Berk’s so-called Open Arts group performs a play which praises North Vietnamese premier Ho Chi Minh as “the George Washington of Vietnam,” a comparison the largely student audience endorses. But a handful of antiwar activists who hand out literature at Westmorland Park have a tougher time as they’re challenged by young teens and accosted by some adults. As tempers flare, the protesters seek support from the lone policeman present; he advises them to leave, and they do.
It’s likely this is the last year the Lions’ Club will be able to use Vilas Park for its patriotic pyrotechnics. Henry Vilas Zoo Director Alvie Nelson says several animals, especially llamas and zebras, were so stressed by the explosions they went into shock and may die. The Madison Parks Commission had initially denied the permit out of just that concern, but later relented.
And the Madison public schools enters a new era as the Board of Education votes 4-3 to name West High School principal Douglas Ritchie the new superintendent. Mrs Ruth B Doyle, who cast the only vote against Ritchie’s appointment as principal in 1964, leads the opposition, saying Madison is too big and complex to be a starter district for a first-time superintendent. And she blasts the board’s hiring process as haphazard and without any established criteria.
July 1—McDonald’s opens near the corner of Lake and State Streets, falsely advertising the Madison franchise as its first with indoor seating.[iv]
As expected, the Lion’s Club leaves Vilas Park, taking its fireworks display to Warner Park on the city’s north side, where the promise of easier parking brings about 70,000 to the festivities. Activists follow with literature –members of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam and also group supporting NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller for President. There are no reported disturbances involving either group.
It’s a unique Fourth of July 1969 downtown, as about 200 residents of the Mifflin neighborhood gather to await the purported appearance of Bob Dylan. According to the Pterodactyl Transit Company, the folk-rock legend was to arrive by helicopter and sing a few songs on the steps of the Mifflin Community Co-Op. He doesn’t.
July 7—In the first action by a local chapter following the chaotic national SDS conference in Chicago earlier this month, Madison SDS votes by 66–35 to stay neutral in the struggle for control between the national office/Revolutionary Youth Movement faction (headed by Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and others) and the Progressive Labor Party/Worker Student Alliance group from Boston.[v]
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, listener-supported, independence celebrating WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan
[i] John Powell, “YAF Plans Right’s First Demonstration,” DC, July 2, 1965; Powell, “YAF Capitol Protest Supports Taft-Hartley,” DC, July 8, 1965; Powell, “YAF Plans Taft-Hartley Debate, Denies Ties with Radical Right,” DC, July 14, 1965.
[ii] Coyle, “Causeway Price Tag Doubled to $2 Million,” CT, February 18, 1966; “Causeway Dredged by July?” WSJ, May 2, 1966; “People Plague Causeway Work,” WSJ, July 2, 1966; Zweifel, “Says Causeway Is ‘Coming Along,’” CT, July 25, 1966.
[iii] “Harris Is Named Director,” CT, May 4, 1966; Pommer, “’Rights Hostility a Good Sign,’” CT, August 26, 1966; Harris, Growing Up in South Madison:Economic Disenfranchisement of Black Madison, (Madison: Roy Tek, 2012) [This is first citation of this work; please provide full bibliographic info.]35.
[iv] DC, July 2, 1968; https://www.thoughtco.com/the-first-mcdonalds-1779332
[v] Jim Hougan, “SDS Here Disaffiliates from National Group,” CT, July 9, 1969.