Madison in the sixties – Paul Soglin, the early years.
Paul Soglin’s public life in Madison begins in early 1963, the second semester of his freshmen year, when he becomes secretary of the local branch of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, the youth-oriented civil rights group dedicated to nonviolent direct action, led that year by future US Congressman John Lewis. He was not yet 18 years old. As a sophomore the following fall, Soglin is one of about 350 gathered on the steps and plaza of Memorial Union October 18, 1963 – the first major protest against the incipient war in Vietnam.
Soglin’s life in public office begins in November 1965, when he’s a senior majoring in history, running for the Wisconsin Student Association student senate. Pledging for “a radical approach to student government . . . one that challenges the decadent order” in which “the student joins with the administration in determining curriculum, tenure, and other major decisions.”[i] Soglin is narrowly elected to represent an off-campus constituency — after one of his two opponents is disqualified for an improper campaign poster.
Re-elected to the Senate as a graduate student, Soglin takes a radical tack in the late fall of 1966, after a Stock Pavilion political rally where members of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam heckle Senator Edward Kennedy so forcefully he gives up and leaves the stage. It’s a widely unpopular action, and the WSA moves to put the committee on probation. Soglin unsuccessfully opposes the punishment, telling the Senate that students should be proud the committee insisted that Kennedy honor the university rule requiring a question period and respond to demands he talk about the war.
Although he’s in his second term in the WSA, Soglin is still only in the second or third tier of student activists as 1967 beings. By year’s end, he will be among the movement’s leaders – thanks to two protests against recruiting efforts by the Dow Chemical Company, maker of the jellied gasoline Napalm.
On February 22, he’s one of about 350 occupying a hallway in Bascom Hall while eleven other protesters are arrested after they bring placards of napalm-scarred Vietnamese children into the Engineering Building. They want to shock – but not block – other students from going through with job interviews, part of a nationwide effort against the company led by the Students for a Democratic Society.
But the next day, Soglin is not among the 47 signatories to the full-page “We Won’t Go’ statement in the Daily Cardinal, announcing the start of the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union. The fact that he was unaware the petition was circulating rankles him for years.
A week later, the WSA considers a motion to ban SDS from campus until the next fall; Soglin argues against the effort, which the Senate approves, 19-11.
Soglin quits the Student Senate on April 1, but returns as a newly elected delegate to the National Student Association– unaware the NSA was secretly receiving funding from the CIA. In May, he wins overwhelming Senate approval of a resolution which “demands that the faculty take immediate and appropriate action” to stop cooperating with the Selective Service System.
In May, Soglin is one of 25 students arrested for blocking a city bus on University Avenue, part of a protest against the east-bound bus lane on the otherwise west-bound road. The protest causes so much chaos that Teamster officials pull their drivers off duty, but the city keeps the wrong way bus lane.
It’s the battle of Dow on October 18, 1967 that elevates Soglin into the top tie of antiwar activists. Four years to the day since a group of 350 gathered in front of the Union, he’s part of a group of about 250 packing the first-floor hallways of the Commerce Building to block fellow students from interviewing with the chemical company. He’s not arrested, but he is among the fifty-two dazed and bloody protesters sent to the emergency room after Madison police charge through the crowd with night-sticks flailing.
The next morning, after the university suspends protest leaders Bob Cohen, Evan Stark and 11 others, Soglin takes his first step into movement leadership, chairing a Library Mall rally of about two thousand, held by the newly formed Committee for Student Rights (CSR). But after helping lead a mournful march up State Street to tape a series of demands to the State Capitol doors on Saturday, Soglin quits the CSR because members want to focus exclusively on police brutality rather than the war.
Within a month of Dow, Soglin has significant political influence. Participating in a Union Theater forum on the CIA on with Chancellor William Sewell; professors Anatole Beck, Frank Remington, and Kenneth Dolbeare and a student from the pro-CIA Committee to Defend Individual Rights, Soglin suddenly declares the discussion a “dialogue of the absurd” and leads a walkout of about five hundred students. Sewell will harbor a grudge for the rest of his life.[ii]
As the broader Madison community yearns to learn more about the antiwar movement, and why local police were the first in the country to use tear gas to quell an on-campus demonstration, Soglin leads the charge off campus. In March, 1968, he’s part of a panel on student rights on the far north side. Also on the panel, Republican attorney Bill Dyke – the man Soglin will unseat as mayor just five years later.
[i] Eric Newhouse, “Opposition Doubts SRP Poster Claims,” DC, November 17, 1965; Paul Soglin, “WSA Candidates’ Election Statements,” DC, November 23, 1965.
[ii] Peter Greenberg and William Thedinga, “Five Hundred Walk Out of U Forum,” DC, November 14, 1967; Soglin OH #0102; Sewell OH #0101; Paul Soglin email[to author?], October 11, 2017.