Rep. Myers’ Summer Reading Review: Selma of the North – Milwaukee Courier Weekly Newspaper

By LaKeshia N. Myers

Representative LaKeshia Myers

This summer, I have committed to reading at least five new books. While the assembly is on recess, I decided to share with the public a review of the books I have chosen to read. The first, is a book by Patrick Jones. In his book The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee, Patrick Jones gives a detailed history of the racial segregation in the city of Milwaukee and the struggle against housing discrimination in one of America’s greatest cities. Jones details the rise of the City of Milwaukee, from its beginnings as a city comprised of white, working-class, European immigrants, and the influx of African Americans who came to the city during the Great Migration.

Jones’ central purpose for authoring this text is to add to the body of research about the African American Civil Rights Movement north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Much of the narrative on Civil Rights has focused on the de facto segregation that was present in southern states and the seminal events, people, and struggles to gain equity in the south. Very little research has been done to bridge the gap and/or understand the fight for and response to the civil rights struggles of the north. As a history teacher, I have had to dispel the myth that racial segregation was a southern phenomenon. To many Americans, they have been programmed to believe racial segregation to be a “southern problem,” not fully understanding the complex dynamics of segregation in a northern industrial landscape.

According to historian Jeanne Theoharis, “foregrounding the south has constricted popular understandings of race and racism in the United States during and after World War II.” She further assuages, “this narrow perspective on civil rights activism made it seem as if the South was the only part of the country that needed a movement, as if blacks in the rest of the country only became energized to fight after their Southern brothers and sisters did, as if Southern racism was more malignant than the strains found in the rest of the country, as if social activism produced substantive change only in the South” (Theodoris, 2003).

The book’s introductory matter places Jones’s monograph in its secondary literature context. He locates his work within a growing scholarly emphasis on the long civil rights movement and civil rights in the North. Jones’ book is the only such study on Milwaukee, and he contextualizes his work with other local civil rights histories published within the decade. Within the text, he does not cite major secondary literature or interact with frameworks for historical analysis.

Jones chronicles the ghettoization of African Americans, as they were forced to live in Milwaukee’s “inner core.” These restrictions were further compounded by dilapidated housing, unemployment, and lack of political access or accountability. Jones’ critical study of the African American experience in Milwaukee is one that shines light on the north’s race problem, especially for ethnic working-class cities like Milwaukee (and its sister city, Chicago). He goes to great lengths to help readers understand that while other ethnic groups were allowed to grow and prosper, African Americans were never allowed opportunity for growth and upward mobility.

According to Jones, “Voter registration rates remained chronically low among Milwaukee African Americans, and Black electoral power in the city and state continued to lag well into the 1960s and beyond, despite rising population figures” (Jones, 2009). Compared to other cities that were destinations during the first Great Migration, a relatively small African American population lived in Milwaukee before World War II. As in other cities, Milwaukee’s African Americans experienced discrimination in housing, employment, and educational opportunities.

Episodic, politically moderate struggles marked the years before the 1960s. But a concerted campaign to overturn the segregation of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) began in 1962, when attorney Lloyd Barbee persuaded the Milwaukee National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to take action. Although Barbee’s efforts began within the legal sphere, with the assistance of the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC), he soon branched out into more direct protests against the school board’s segregationist practices. Most egregiously, the MPS board defied the essence of the 1954 Brown ruling with its practice of “intact busing,” in which entire classes of students and teachers from overcrowded, African American schools rode buses to segregated rooms in white schools, returning to their home school for the lunch period. MUSIC’s challenges to segregation included standing in front of the offending buses and organizing student boycotts of the schools.

Jones does draw parallels between the “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights to the March on Milwaukee for open housing. Comparing Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Father James Groppi, the religious leader of the Milwaukee movement. Jones’ work does not presume to be religious history, though his analyses of Catholicism and race plus the tensions between the Northern and Southern civil rights movements, particularly concerning religion, make a strong case for this book’s use as such. He adeptly characterizes the divide among Christians over political or social justice issues and weaves these concerns into his narrative well. The book assesses the role of Groppi’s leadership, offering complementary and critical analysis. Jones skillfully identifies major themes: ecumenism, the intersection of race and religion and of religion and politics, and the idiosyncrasies of the Northern urban movement.

Throughout the book, Jones documents the development of the relationship between Father Groppi and Dr. King based on their correspondence, Groppi’s personal papers, and Jones’ oral history interviews with him. Jones parallels the two figures in their respective regions. Jones does suggest that King’s late 1960s heightened rhetoric stemmed from Groppi’s “not violent” approach; this theory deserves further exploration than Jones gives and is likely far more complicated than Jones indicates.

Also present in the book is a critical review of the white community’s response to both Father Groppi and the open housing marches. Some clearly resisted desegregation of schools and integration of housing, but the sources of their racism and their means of organizing against the civil rights activists remain mysterious. Jones accounts for giving short shrift to this portion of the story by referencing a “relative lack of sources” and indicating that in the context of the twenty-first century, whites are reluctant to recount the shameful racism of their younger days (p. 234).

This is a point where use of secondary sources from other cities where the primary sources have been plumbed would have been enormously helpful. Although Milwaukee’s African Americans developed a distinctive local style of action and leadership, what Jones calls “an alternative vision of Black Power that emanated from unique local circumstances,” it is clear from other scholarship that whites around the United States formed their opinions about civil rights not only from local experiences but also from national ones (p. 212).

The violent response to Black marchers crossing the Sixteenth Street Viaduct was one that was heinous and steeped in hate. Jones draws parallels between the white response in Milwaukee and the police encounter with protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. What is notable is that it was common white citizens and not the police that engaged in “hate speak” and the throwing of projectiles at protestors. While the police were not always as understanding or noble in their actions (they are widely suspected of burning down the NAACP youth council meetinghouse), they did, in some instances try to protect the people from the riotous citizenry.

This text is paramount to implications for future research. For example, I would like to continue to study the effect of legislative policies that effectively secured the borders of the City of Milwaukee from annexing suburban townships and the restrictive housing covenants that were prevalent throughout the 1940s-1960s. When considering this aspect of segregation sanctioned by policy one must continue to research the effectiveness of such a tool. These restrictive covenants had implications that dictated social responses based on race—and its effects can still be felt today in the housing patterns throughout the city.

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