Wisconsin Historical Society
The first Mifflin Street Block Party on May 3, 1969.
Every year in Madison on a Saturday in early spring, there is a huge outdoor beer bash for UW students in a neighborhood southeast of campus. This year the officially organized and heavily policed bash, known as the Mifflin Street Block Party, is taking place on Saturday, April 30. And most of the thousands of undergraduates who go there to get publicly drunk know nothing about how the party came to be.
The first Mifflin Block Party, on May 3, 1969, turned into a three-day riot that irreversibly changed the course of Madison politics. The riot is captured in the award-winning 1979 documentary, The War at Home, which recounts how the growth of the Vietnam antiwar movement at the UW-Madison led to polarization between radicalized students and Madison police.
In a right-wing backlash to early student protests, Republican Bill Dyke was elected mayor of Madison in April 1968. A year later Mayor Dyke and his hard-line police chief refused a permit for a block party in the Mifflin Street neighborhood, then a mecca for the student and hippie counterculture. They called it "Miffland."
Paul Soglin was also elected in April 1968 as the alder for the district including Miffland. Soglin, a liberal Democrat, was a moderate voice attempting to head off a confrontation between police and the student community. But a deliberate police attack on the first Mifflin Block Party led to Soglin's arrest and touched off a community uprising.
The battle raged on far into the night of May 3 in innumerable acts of "guerrilla" resistance throughout a ten-block area. In the early hours of Sunday, May 4, the battle spread to the UW's southeast dorms and later on Sunday and Monday to Langdon Street, where fraternities and sororities got into the act, and police teargas canisters were hurled into Hillel and the Memorial Library. Rioting spread to State Street and the Square, causing extensive property damage.
While Madison police would use forceful means during the next two years to contain huge student antiwar protests, the brutal arrogance and gratuitous violence they displayed at Miffland in May 1969 was rarely repeated.
A few years later, when young people and university students acquired voting rights, the city's ruling powers tacked leftward. Ald. Soglin became an indispensable mediator between an alienated and radicalized counterculture and a more flexible city power structure.
In 1973 Soglin was elevated to the pinnacle of the city power structure when he was elected mayor, a position he held until 1979, and again in 1989-97.
Political adjustments in governance under Mayor Soglin included police department reforms implemented by liberal police chief David Couper. He curbed police brutality and educated his cops in a new argot of human relations and police-community dialogue. We see some of the legacy of that training in Madison's police force today.
Ironically, Paul Soglin's third stint as mayor is taking place in the very long shadow of a right-wing Republican governor, an ideological descendant of Bill Dyke, whose draconian fiscal and political measures are fueling labor and community protests.
The recent outpouring of street protests at the Capitol conjure visions of what could happen if the more pacific recourses of legal challenges and recall elections do not restore the rights of Wisconsin workers. Mayor Soglin could be caught in the uncomfortable position of having to order police to quell renewed street protests against a governor he detests.
The battle of Miffland is the subject of an event in the UW Humanities Building, Room 1131, on Tuesday, May 3, beginning at 7 p.m. The forum is cosponsored by the Peregrine Forum and Madison Infoshop. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-442-8399.
David Williams is a retired librarian and UW-Madison alumnus. He was present as a UW freshman at the Battle of Miffland.