Historian Stuart D. Levitan's 'Madison In the Sixties' extends beyond Wisconsin's state capital and the time period depicted

November 18, 2018

  (Wisconsin Historical Society Press)

 

Pulitzer Prize David Maraniss, himself a 1967 graduate of Madison West High School, writes in his book jacket quote for Madison in the Sixties that the Madison, Wisconsin of the 1960s was “at once the story of a unique time and place and a revealing slice of modern American social history.”

 

Penned by Madison historian Stuart D. Levitan and using narratives, short profiles, timelines, sidebars, illustrations, photographs and maps, the comprehensive 432-page book (just published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press--the state's oldest publisher) relates a year-by-year account of the tumultuous and transformative decade in the state capital that spans its politics to public schools, construction and crime.

 

Prominently covered are Madison's often violent anti-war campus protests, civil rights marches, urban renewal challenges, the expanding influence of its sprawling University of Wisconsin, the historic downtown/campus area Mifflin Street Block Party culminating in a three-night riot, and controversial Frank Lloyd Wright building designs.

 

An award-winning print and broadcast journalist, Levitan previously authored Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Vol. 1. His articles on the history of Madison have appeared in Madison Magazine, On Wisconsin, Isthmus and The Capital Times, and he has been a mainstay of Madison media and government since 1975.

 

Levitan answered questions regarding Madison in the Sixties via email.

 

 

Where are you from originally?

 

The North Shore of Long Island.

 

Where did you go to college?

 

New College in Sarasota, Florida--same school that [Florida‘s Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor and gun control activist] Emma Gonzalez is now attending. I graduated in 1975.

 

What brought you to Madison?

 

Right after I graduated from college, I started following Senator Fred Harris [U.S. Senator, Democrat from Oklahoma] around while he started his campaign for president. He was in a Winnebago, I was driving a little orange Datsun 240-Z. My plan was to write Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1976, sell it to Rolling Stone, and become the next Hunter Thompson. But I figured I needed a back-up plan, so each city I went to, I tried to arrange a job interview with the local paper.

 

When I hit Madison in early August, I paid a call on The Capital Times, which I knew to be a venerable liberal paper. City editor Dave Zweifel said their Washington correspondent, Erwin Knoll, had recently resigned, and offered me a gig as their stringer. I reminded him I was just 21, and fresh out of college. He assured me I‘d be fine, and off I went.

 

I came back to Madison in 1977 to work under the Newspaper Guild contract, then was sent back to Washington in the fall. When the five unions that put out the paper and [Madison‘s other daily at the time] The Wisconsin State Journal went on strike at the end of September, I quit the paper and joined the strike newspaper, Madison Press Connection, then moved back to Madison in 1979.

 

When the Press Connection folded in January 1980, I put out my own newsletter for a while, started freelancing, drove a cab, got involved in neighborhood politics, got a job with a legislative committee, got elected to the County Board of Supervisors, went to law school, got involved with the listener-sponsored radio station, got a job with the state labor relations agency (implementing a law [current Governor] Scott Walker later abolished), started a radio show on a progressive radio station owned by Clear Channel, chaired a bunch of city commissions, wrote a book on the early history of Madison, retired (after 27 years) from the state job, wrote this book.

 

With so many opportunities, and such a high quality of life, why would I leave?

 

The book must have required an exhaustive amount of research. How long did it take to write?

 

Research was about 18 months, writing another 12, editing and proofing six months. I read every day‘s newspaper for all three dailies (the two above, plus the UW‘s Daily Cardinal), then went into the University and Wisconsin Historical Society archives for oral histories, correspondence, reports, etc. What a great resource those two archives are:  I had as much fun researching as I did writing, and I had a ton of fun writing.

 

Is it a random case study of an American city in the ‘60s, or is there something special and distinct about Madison--as Maraniss suggests, representative of the U.S. as a whole?

 

As a state capital with a leading Big Ten university, there’s always been something special about Madison. And the city certainly did make history in the ‘60s--adoption of the first fair housing code in the state of Wisconsin, first use of tear gas to quell an on-campus anti-war protest, first white urban riot of the era (the Mifflin Block Party Riot was two weeks before People’s Park in Berkeley).

 

Madison was where Bob Dylan met Eric Weissberg years before [he appeared on Dylan‘s 1975 album] Blood on the Tracks, and the city Bob left from in January, 1961, to go to New York for the first time. It’s the city where Otis Redding died in a plane crash in December, 1967. And consider some of the UW students--entertainers Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, Ben Sidran, Tracy Nelson, Daniel J. Travanti, Andre de Shields; journalists Jeff Greenfield, Walt Bogdanich, Lowell Bergman, Peter Greenberg; athletes Pat Richter and Ron Vander Kelen; even Dick and Lynn Cheney. A young member of the Student Senate named Paul Soglin, who has since been elected/re-elected as mayor eight times. Lots of boldface names reminding us that there are students on campus today who will be important for the next 50 years, as well.

 

Maybe when people think of Madison in the ‘60s, they think of the big anti-war protests/riots at the UW. Are there other events that you would point to as also significant that might be overlooked?

 

There was so much more to Madison in the sixties than just the anti-war protests. The city tore down a 60-year-old intergenerational neighborhood of immigrant Italians, Jews and African-Americans for urban renewal--and did such a bad job of it that voters very nearly passed a referendum abolishing the redevelopment authority. We spent the whole decade fighting over plans to build a civic auditorium designed or inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright (an issue not resolved until the mid-1990s). We passed the state’s first fair housing code in 1963, and improved it in 1967--and still struggled to deal with racism. University expansion--enrollment doubled from 18,000 to 36,000--was a constant subtext to city politics and land use.

 

Does the Madison of the ‘60s exist today in any way--physically or spiritually?

 

To the extent that the ‘60s exists in Madison today, it’s on campus--both in terms of the Brutalist buildings of the era, and in the political fervor of the students. When Antifa, Black Lives Matter, or other activists heckle speakers or block streets, they’re using the very same tactics the New Left used in the late ‘60s. And the Republican-dominated state government and university are responding in the same way as they did then--cutting the budget, imposing new rules and regulations, and threatening discipline up to expulsion.

 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

 

 

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