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This month, nearly 1,000 former students met at an organized reunion on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where there were anti-war demonstrations and student strikes in the late 1960s. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield spoke with some of the attendees about their reflections, half a century later.
It has the look and feel of countless college reunions; the glimpse of a place, or a face, not seen for decades, the triggering of memories that stretch back the greater part of a lifetime. But this gathering of the long-ago young has a very different feel to it. Their memories of what happened here half a century ago are not bound up in traditional college nostalgia. They are rather memories unique to their times in this place. Here at the University of Wisconsin, the last half of the 1960s was a time of almost ceaseless turmoil, violent clashes between students and police at a sit in protesting military contractor Dow Chemical's recruiting on campus, a block party that turned into three days of rioting, and a fatal bombing of an office devoted to Defense Department research.
It really was a transformative experience.
David Maraniss, whose book, "They Marched Into Sunlight", chronicled what happened here as the war in Vietnam escalated half a world away.
Madison and probably Berkeley and Ann Arbor and a few other college towns were exaggerated representations of what was happening to our generation during that period where there was a sensibility that life was changing every day.
So what has brought nearly a thousand veterans of campus upheaval back here to Madison to sample dozens of panels, screenings, and musical performances, including one from a luminary classmate: Boz Scaggs.
Madison in the '60s was not just a time and a place, it was a state of mind.
The reunion was organized by noted jazz musician and life long Madison resident Ben Sidran and his wife, long time activist Judy Sidran.
I think anybody who came through here in the '60s got spun a little bit, because of this culture, the ecology of what Madison was.
If you left Madison in the first half of that decade, as I did, you lived through a time not that much different from the 1950s. The clothes, the hair, the mating rituals, the pill had yet to make its appearance. But just a few years later, passions of all sorts were on the rise, especially with an escalating war in Vietnam and the prospect of being drafted.
It was fraught.
Rena Steinzor was a freshman in the fall of 1967, she would later become editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal.
We were very upset about the Vietnam war. There were demonstrations against it all the time. And the campus was in an uproar. They were talking about declaring martial law.
For others, it's the memory of that block party in the heart of Madison's counterculture neighborhood that burns most brightly. A party that the authorities deemed too noisy. When they tried to shut it down, that led to three nights of chaos.
And suddenly police cars show up, and not just police cars, but guys as if it's Chicago '68 Convention.
Andrew Bergman, a doctoral student then, would later go on to write and co-write the screenplays for the hit films "The In-Laws" and "Blazing Saddles."
I remember running into a house to hide out. Guy who owns the house says, "I'm takin' out my gun, I got a rifle." At which point, I and another person who's now currently the Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, Paul Soglin, say, "We gotta get outta here."
In fact, Paul Soglin's political career began with his arrest that night. He has been Mayor of Madison three times through the 70s, the 90s and is once again the Mayor. For him, this gathering represents a political fight that never ends.
I think about the conversations I've had for the last couple days. And with one exception, every conversation I've had has been about a political event, has been about the Trump administration, and how something might relate about the concerns over war, reckless diplomacy. It's almost as though every conversation was focused on, have we as a nation learned anything in 50 years?
And that points to another powerful magnet for this reunion; the men and women who marched, who occupied buildings, who argued through the night about how to protest the war or racial injustice, did so with a powerful conviction that they were on the "right side" of history. Those on the other side felt the same way.
Even as the counterculture was blooming here and the antiwar movement, the largest organization on the Madison campus was the Young Republicans in 1967, when the Dow Chemical protest happened. There was a counter-reaction to the antiwar movement that was almost as strong as the movement itself.
And there is another, uncomfortable question that some of these dissenters face: were their tactics, at least some of them, neither justified nor effective? Rena Steinzor, then Editor of the Daily Cardinal, whose editorial page had endorsed militant anti-war tactics.
The Vietnam War, as far as I was concerned and my peers, was issue of the gravity of being a German who stood by when the Nazis took power. It was that profound a calling to us, in a moral sense. So we felt that it was critical to resist the war. The methods were escalating because the violence on the campus was escalating.
In August of 1970 a bomb planted in the office of the Army Math Research Center exploded in the middle of the night, killing a graduate student. The bomb was planted by four students protesting the research the University was doing for the U.S. Military. That event split people within the anti-war movement.
Did you regard that method of protest, at that time, as a legitimate form of resistance?
No. I didn't. But we had a big meeting that lasted for several hours in my apartment to discuss what we should say in our editorials. And we did not want to condone the loss of life. But we also did not want to turn our back on the people that did the bombing who were members of the Cardinal staff, two of them. So we wrote this anguished set of editorials that made everybody furious.
So how to square the idealistic impulses with the turn to violent rhetoric and even violent deeds?
It's a very contradictory period, where everything was happening, good and bad. I like to think that the generation or the activists of that generation were motivated by good instincts, and they still believe that. That generation might not have had the right answers, but they were asking the right questions.
Stu levitan was not even here in those times but was at the reunion as the semi-official historian of Madison in the 1960s.
People who look back on the '60s and think, "Oh, this was a great time," are missing the point. The sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll was great. But, the fighting in Vietnam, the fighting on campus, the fighting in the streets, we had riots in the streets of Madison. That's not a happy memory. But it's an important memory. And it's a very cautionary message to look back and say, "You know, we should do a better job of understanding each other and not getting into the rock throwing and the brick throwing and the tear gas, because once that happens it gets out of hand."
However misguided some of their tactics, however illusory their confidence that they could remake the world, the people who showed up for this event were caught up at the start of their adult lives in a whirlwind that would be as vivid as anything they lived through.
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