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Stu Levitan welcomes Matthew Levin, who scores a trifecta — he’s a PhD from the UW, and the author of “Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties” from our friends at the University of Wisconsin Press.
As to the topic – in the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin Madison was one of the four or five most important campuses for both antiwar and civil rights activism.
As portrayed on the cover of Cold War University, it was at the UW in May 1966 that hundreds, at times thousands, of students peacefully occupied the administration building for a week, in a popular protest against university compliance with the military draft. It was at the UW Stock Pavilion just five months later that a handful from the Committee to End the War in Vietnam heckled Sen. Edward M. Kennedy so relentlessly that he left that stage.
It was at the UW in February 1967 that hundreds of students occupied the offices of the president and chancellor – while they were there. It was at the UW on October 18, 1967, the Battle of Dow, that American police for the first time used tear gas to quell an on-campus antiwar disturbance. And it was at the UW at 3:42 on the morning of August 24, 1970 that the first fatal antiwar bombing took place – the New Year Gang’s attempted destruction of the Army Mathematics Research Center in Sterling Hall, which killed physics graduate student Robert Fassnacht.
In fact, Madison’s importance even predates the sixties. For a time in the early 1950s, the UW was the only campus in the country where the Communist Party’s Youth Labor League was still allowed. It was at the UW in 1959 that a group of graduate students started the journal Studies on the Left, almost three years before the Students for a Democratic Society adopted the Port Huron Statement. And it was Studies on the Left, not the Port Huron Statement, that would successfully define the New Left’s relationship with liberals.
Studies on the Left even had a major impact on race relations, publishing a 1962 essay that inspired Huey P. Newton and others to form the organization that was a forerunner to the Black Panther Party. One of many examples of UW-Madison’s significance in civil rights.
UW students were among the nation’s first in February 1960 to picket local chain stores in support of the lunch counter sit-ins at the southern franchises. In the Summer of 61, UW students joined the Freedom Riders, and some were jailed at Parchman Farm. In early 1964, UW students were part of the sit-in at Sears department store conducted by the Congress of Racial Equality.
A few months later, other students participated in Freedom Summer, registering voters in Mississippi and Tennessee – and starting an extraordinary collection of documents now held by the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives. In March, 1965, UW students joined the march from Selma to Montgomery. And in February 1969, black students coordinated the university’s most successful political protest of the decade, the strike that led to a full degree-granting Department of Afro-American Studies.
It is quite a history, historic at times, and Matthew Levin lays it out with precision and perspective in Cold War University – Madison and the New Left in the Sixties. The editor of the first book about Madison and the New Left agrees. Paul Buhle, editor of History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin 1950-1970 and the journal Radical America, says Levin has done “a masterful job,” and that he has. I know that when I was researching my book Madison in the Sixties, I relied very heavily on Cold War University for insight, accuracy and really good end notes.
As to Matthew Levin, he was born and raised in Seattle, came to Madison in 1998 for graduate work in the UW’s nationally renowned History Department. Which obviously worked out well because his doctoral dissertation — “The Sixties and the Cold War University: Madison, Wisconsin and the Development of the New Left” — essentially become the first draft of the book. His main gig is teaching history at McFarland High School, where he is also the faculty advisor to the Sign Language Club. He also volunteers at local food pantries and GSAFE, the gay straight alliance for safe schools.
It is a pleasure to welcome to Madison BookBeat Dr. Matthew Levin.