The telling of some historical events can be as contentious as the events themselves. Consider the historical marker erected last summer in Peace Park on State Street, recounting clashes between protesters and police during the Vietnam War.
The marker, one of 12 funded by the Madison Community Foundation and placed throughout the downtown (see www.ci.madison.wi.us/planning/pdf/markers.pdf) states that "radicals took control of the student movement" and vandalism became common. It says the anti-war movement "turned violent" during a 1967 protest against Dow Chemical. And while police "sometimes responded with tear gas or even beatings," they are credited with enforcing laws and later developing "cooperative approaches to law enforcement, becoming a model for other cities."
Rick Voland, a UW-Madison medical researcher, thinks the marker implies that student protesters "caused all the violence and police were just protectors of the peace who developed their peacekeeping craft through these events." He wonders what former Mayor Paul Soglin, who as a student was clubbed by cops at the Dow protest, thinks of the marker.
"It is not accurate," says Soglin, after reviewing the text. "It unfairly and incorrectly describes a turning point in 1967. The Dow demonstration was a peaceful sit-in until the police decided to clear the Commerce building with force." He pegs the police violence as deliberate and premeditated.
Michael Bridgeman, chair of the sesquicentennial subcommittee that created the markers, says the text for all "was reviewed and considered very carefully and went through several rewrites." The six-member committee, which included local historian David Mollenhoff and Historic Madison Inc. president Mark Gajewski, realized this marker was a special challenge: "We tried hard to make it fair and reasonable."
Still, Bridgeman believes "it's always a valid point to raise questions about history." He says if a marker were demonstrably inaccurate, making changes might be in order, but he's not sure who would foot the $2,500 to $3,000 cost.
Soglin's take? "Some changes would be nice."