A Brief History of UW-Madison Student Activism

May 14, 2020
Photo: UW Archives – “Anti-war Rally at the Shell,” February 13, 1971

Over the time that UW-Madison has been an established institution, it has garnered a reputation as a place of social change and challenge. Though many know of the student activism here on campus in the 1960s and 70s, but activism has played a part throughout the entirety of UW-Madison’s history. Here is an overview of UW’s history of activism.

Photo: UW Archives

April 12, 1935: Over 800 students leave class for an anti-war protest in Music Hall.

April 12, 1937: 500 students take part in a rally organized by the All-Campus Peace Strike Committee .

December 3, 1945: Students rally against peacetime conscription on the Capitol steps.

Photo: UW Archives

February/March, 1960: 500 students hold a civil rights demonstration on Library Mall.

March 16, 1962: 300 Students hold a demonstration against U.S. nuclear testing.

April 1, 1965: 29 faculty members hold a “Teach-In” about the Vietnam conflict at the Social Sciences building, with an estimated 1500 students participating.

May 14-16, 1966: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) protest draft tests administered in the Field House.

February 1967: Dow Riot #1: SDS organizes a demonstration against recruiters from Dow Chemical Company, and students blockade offices in Bascom Hall

October 1967: Dow Riot #2: Chancellor Sewell calls in police, who use tear gas, to remove protesters against Dow Chemical Recruiters from the Commerce Building (now Ingraham Hall). Over 3,000 students rallied on Bascom Hill the following day.

Photo: UW Archives

September 1968: Freshman organize a week of protests against compulsory ROTC orientation.

February 1969: The Black People’s Alliance organize a strike to demand recruitment of more minority students and faculty and the creation of a Black Studies department.

May 3, 1969: The first Mifflin Street Block Party turns violent when over 80 people are injured and protests continue afterwards for days.

February 12, 1970: 2,500 people march from Library Mall to the Engineering Building to protest GE recruiters

May 1970: UW Students protest the killing of students on both the Kent State and Jackson State campuses

February 13, 1971: Wisconsin Student Association, United Front, and Madison Area Peace Action Council sponsor an anti-war rally in the Shell, followed by 2,500 people marching to the Capitol.

Photo: UW Archives

March 20, 1972: Around 3,000 students demonstrate, boycott businesses, and clash with police in a ten hour protest over making the lower part of State Street into a mall.

May 1-10, 1972: 10,000 people march from Library Mall to the Capitol to protest U.S. Mining of North Vietnamese harbors and continued bombing.

March 10, 1973: International Women’s Day Rally.

September 1983: 1000 people protest U.S. Intervention in Central America, especially Nicaragua.

April 1986: Students partake in anti-apartheid demonstrations, including building a shanty town at the Capitol.

October 15, 1987: Students rally against racism on Bascom Hill.

Photo: UW Archives

July 10, 1989: Around 1,500 students take part in a rally to support abortion rights.

November 16, 1990: 700 people march from Library Mall to the capitol to protest the buildup of U.S. troops in the Middle East.

January 15, 1991: Around 2,000 people rally against the Gulf War.

May 2, 1992: 2,000 people march from Library Mall to the City-County Building to protest the acquittal of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King.

October 12, 1992: Native American and Chicano students protest the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas.

April 2016: A large number of students protest the arrest of a black classmate and racism on campus

Photo: Madison.com

March 24, 2018: Students participate in the March for Our Lives Movement

September 20, 2019: Students partake in a large climate change march from the Capitol to Madison Gas and Electric.

For a more complete and thorough history of protests and social actions that have occured on UW-Madison’s campus, check out University Archives!

Olivia Poches

Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office