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Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century

Compiled by Tyler C. Kennedy and David Null

The student body of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a rich and diverse history of activism and protest. This site does not claim to be all-inclusive, but instead attempts to provide a representative selection of student protest throughout the twentieth century, using sources from the University Archives.

The University Archives has much more material on most of these events, including the full oral histories from which the sound clips were taken. The University of Wisconsin Collection includes digital copies of the 4 volume history of the university, plus many other useful sources. The Wisconsin Historical Society Archives also has strong collections on social action.

To see several hundred more protest images click on the link at the bottom of each of these pages.

For additional information, comments, suggested additions, etc., please contact the University Archives.



1910s-1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

1910 Sifting and winnowing plaque.
The Class of 1910 gives the "Sifting and Winnowing" plaque as a class memorial. The plaque has wording from the Board of Regents meeting of September 18, 1894 supporting Professor Richard Ely, who was accused of socialist, pro-union activities in 1894. The Regents, thinking students were influenced by radicals, reject it, and the class takes their case to the local newspapers. The plaque is not mounted on Bascom Hall until 1915. Read Theodore Herfurth's Sifting and Winnowing booklet in the Wisconsin Electronic Reader.
late January, 1910 Anarchist Emma Goldman visits Madison. Although her visit is not sponsored by the University, the Socialist Club, upon hearing of her visit, invites Goldman to a roundtable discussion at the student YMCA. Professor Edward A. Ross, a sociology professor who disavows any support of anarchism but defends Goldman's right to free speech in his class, was later censured.
1914Lockout flier.


In late 1913, over half of the student workers in the dining rooms in Lathrop (the University Commons), Barnard and Chadbourne Halls are threatened with dismissal due to budget issues. In January of 1914, students form the Wisconsin Student Workers Union and threaten a strike in protest. On February 1, the University closes the dining rooms, but reopens them and rehires the student workers later in the month.
April 6, 1918 Burning McElroy and Kaiser Wilhelm II in effigy.
Robert McNutt McElroy, a representative of the National Security League, speaks on campus. When he thinks the students, including members of the cadet corps, are not paying close enough attention, he calls them "a bunch of damned traitors." The students' react strongly, burning effigies of McElroy and Kaiser Wilhelm II.
April, 1919 The campus Suffrage League holds weekly demonstrations at the Capitol throughout the month. By May the University of Wisconsin Suffrage Association grows to over 300 members and holds weekly meetings in Lathrop Hall. On June 10, Wisconsin becomes the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which accords voting rights to women.
April, 1928 Students rally for and against David Cook Gordon, an Experimental College student from New York, who was arrested in that state for violating its law against literature "tending to arouse lascivious desire in the reader." The work in question, a poem entitled "America," was published in the Daily Worker, March 12, 1927.