You are the owner of this article.


featured special report

50 years ago, 'Dow Day' left its mark on Madison

  • 6 min to read
Dow Chemical protesters on Library Mall (copy)

It was a turning point in Madison history. Fifty years ago next week, thousands of students on the UW-Madison campus — and the rest of the country via news photos and film clips — witnessed a protest-turned-riot that put the anti-war spotlight on the city, shattered the trust between the university and many of its students, sent nearly 70 people to the hospital and forever became known as the "Dow riot."

Oct. 18, 1967 was so dramatic that it became a centerpiece of Pulitzer-winning author and Madison native David Maraniss' 2003 book "They Marched Into Sunlight." It figures into the 1979 documentary film "The War at Home," the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning "American Experience" film "Two Days in October," and is part of the cultural backdrop to the new PBS series "The Vietnam War."

Nurse with baby and sign

A UW Hospital nurse and her daughter picket in October 1967. The Dow riot on Oct. 18 that year was followed by numerous marches and anti-war demonstrations in Madison and throughout the country. 

The day began with a student sit-in to protest job recruiting on campus by Dow Chemical. The company made napalm, a flammable substance that causes severe skin burns and was used as a weapon by the U.S. military in Vietnam. Hundreds of students marched up Bascom Hill to the Commerce Building (today Ingraham Hall), where a Dow recruiter was to be stationed that day, and packed a hallway that became a dense human wall of obstruction.

The university ordered the students to leave. They refused after their leaders' demands were not met. When Madison police charged in, swinging billy clubs, the stalemate turned violent.

"Demonstrators were whacked in the legs, prodded in the stomach or cracked on the head," eyewitness John Gruber reported in the next day's Wisconsin State Journal. "Many were bleeding, and all became violently enraged or totally hysterical."

Things escalated when the melee spilled out of the building, where a crowd of between 2,000 and 5,000 students had gathered. Police were pelted with "rocks and pebbles, a tomato, sticks, a brick" as students screamed epithets and chanted anti-war and anti-police slogans, Gruber wrote. Authorities set off tear gas.

The events of that day are so ingrained in the memories of some former students that when University Communications put out a call this summer for firsthand accounts, more than 440 alumni replied. Next week, UW-Madison Libraries and Madison Public Library are inviting the public to record their memories for a special oral history project about "Dow Day."

"The Dow riot of October 18 was the pivotal political event of the decade," said Madison historian Stu Levitan, whose book "Madison in the Sixties" is to be published next fall by Wisconsin Historical Society Press. "It had a profound and permanent impact on the city and the university."

The event "radicalized a great swath of the campus, not so much as to the war, but as to the students' relationship to the university and the university's relationship to the war," Levitan said. There had already been unrest, "and now we get to the point where the university is calling in police to beat students who are protesting an aspect of war material. The students were radicalized to the extent that, 'The university is siding with the people who make napalm, rather than us.'"

Running from tear gas (copy)

Students flee from police officers spreading tear gas outside the Commerce Building (now Ingraham Hall) at a protest against Dow Chemical.

That's what happened to Bob Grueneberg, who was 19 at the time and had recently transferred to UW-Madison. The college sophomore was walking his bike between classes when he came upon the crowd outside Commerce.

"I was shocked, actually, by the number of police" with badges removed and nightsticks in their hands, he said. A tear gas canister crashed into his front bicycle wheel.

"At that point I got out of there," said Grueneberg, now 69, who would go on to become a lawyer and an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.

What Grueneberg witnessed on "Dow Day" was the beginning "of what might be called my radicalization," he said. "It basically led me to become more involved" in the protest movement.

"It seems so recent in my mind."

An unexpected outcome

Peace and Love sign

Student demonstrations continued long after the Dow riot of Oct. 18, 1967, which marked a turning point in the relationship between UW-Madison, its students and the broader community. 

Neal Ulevich, a journalism student from Milwaukee, arrived at the Commerce Building before the protest wearing a suit, since he'd just covered a legislative event at the Capitol.

Although "everyone on campus" knew the protest was planned, "Nobody was expecting the confrontation that occurred," said Ulevich, who went on to a photojournalism career and won a 1977 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

On Oct. 19, the New York Times ran one of his photos from the Dow protests on its front page.

"It was a picture of students holding a sign that said 'Stop the police brutality,'" recalled Ulevich, now 71. "Very quickly the narrative changed from 'Bar Dow and stop the war' to police brutality. Because this outcome was totally unexpected."

Nineteen police officers and nearly 50 students were treated for injuries at hospitals. The Wednesday riot was followed by a mass meeting that night of 3,000 students on Library Mall, a student strike on Thursday and Friday, a tense meeting of faculty, a march up State Street on Saturday, and the university suspensions of 13 protesters.

Arrest during Dow riot (copy)

Vicki Gabriner, in costume as part of a protest, was one of the first people arrested during the Dow riots on the UW-Madison campus in 1967.

Though anti-war protests in Madison started in the early 1960s, after "Dow Day" their numbers increased — until the bombing of Sterling Hall in 1970, which shocked the nation and served to dampen the anti-war movement.

Register for more free articles
Stay logged in to skip the surveys

"Sometimes people talk about these big demonstrations as if they happened in a vacuum. There had been so many anti-war demonstrations that had gone on for years before this," said Janis Wrich, 74, an undergraduate in English who took part in the Dow protest.

But the Oct. 18 event, with its headline-making violence, "alerted" the broader Madison community to "how deeply some students felt about the war," and triggered deep questions about the nation's priorities, Levitan said.

The growing movement invigorated, enraged, and sometimes divided communities.

Paul Buhle, a graduate student in history and member of the "fledgling" chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at UW-Madison, found it also led to a sense of engagement.

"As angry as people were, there was an enormous amount of good humor," said Buhle, now 73. Students "were more eager to learn than they ever were before, because they thought young people could change the world, as opposed to just getting in line for a job."

After receiving his PhD, Buhle went on to become a senior lecturer at Brown University. But it was as a teaching assistant at UW-Madison from 1968 to 1971, he said, "that I experienced young people seeking to learn as I had never seen before, and would never actually see again."

Looking back

The celebrated musician Ben Sidran, who arrived in Madison in 1961, likens the Dow riot to "a stone thrown into a pond."

"You can see these ripples that went out. It wasn't just an event that happened in the corridors of the (Commerce) building," he said. "It was a very pivotal event that happened to the campus, and in some ways to the country."

Sidran and his wife Judy were in England at the time of the riot. Fifty years later, they are organizers of "The Madison Reunion," a paid conference with free public events set for June 14-16, 2018, designed as "a cultural Woodstock" to celebrate and reflect on the 1960s. Among panels with titles such as "Conscientious Objection" and "What's Left of the Wisconsin Idea" is "The Day of DOW."

Broken window

A broken window frames police and others who assembled near the Commerce Building on the UW-Madison campus during what became known as the Dow riot on Oct. 18, 1967. 

Mayor Paul Soglin will be one of four panelists discussing "The Day of DOW." Soglin, a graduate student in history and "Daily Cardinal" columnist at the time of the Dow protests, was among those beaten by police inside the Commerce building. Soglin emerged from the fray as a student leader, winning a city council seat the following spring and eventually serving as the city's 51st, 54th, and now 57th and current mayor.

Probably the most profound impact of the Dow riot "is that it expanded the discussion about the war in Vietnam into the city," Soglin said. "It would then dominate city political discussions for the next half-dozen years.

"At that time, while it's hard for people to comprehend it, knowing why we were in Vietnam, the history of the war, and where it was leading was a discussion that involved very, very few Americans," he said.

"And because of the explosiveness of the demonstration, it took the conversation about Vietnam beyond the boundaries of the campus into the rest of the city. And the rest of the state."

Paul Soglin and Ira Shor

UW-Madison graduate student Paul Soglin, left, and Ira Shor tape a list of student demands on a door of the state Capitol in the days following the Dow riot in 1967. The demands asked for no more Madison police interference in campus protests, and that no legal or disciplinary actions be taken against student demonstrators. 

'Duty to protest'

The events that led up to and comprised the Dow riot were so complex that Maraniss' book "They Marched Into Sunlight" devotes hundreds of pages to them. That protest was just one of countless demonstrations taking place on college campuses around the country; while a defining moment in local history, it was just a blip on the national scene, Buhle said.

Cops sign

Student protests against the Vietnam War and Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, occurred throughout 1967 on the UW-Madison campus. 

Today, students have a wide range of views of the 1960s, said Pamela Oliver, Conway-Bascom Professor of Sociology at UW-Madison and an expert on collective action and social movements.

"There's certainly the cultural memory of the (anti-war) protests and the civil rights era," said Oliver, who in 1967 was a college freshman at Stanford. "The vague cultural memories of that are pretty much universal, but the lessons people draw from it and what they think actually happened vary greatly."

People tend to forget that in the 1960s "everybody was talking about the Nuremberg Trials" of Nazi war criminals held just two decades earlier, Oliver said.

"And the duty of citizens to resist their government when the government was engaged in unjust policies. So it's sort of interesting that Nuremberg and the duty to protest has sort of disappeared from American political discourse," she said.

In talking about the Dow protests, Sidran likes to quote the legendary UW-Madison professor Harvey Goldberg.

"One of the things he always said was, 'This is what history feels like. Right here, right now,'" Sidran recalled. "'We're all living in history.'"

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.