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Later 20th-Century Wisconsin

As Wisconsin's economy expanded in the 1950s and '60s, factories reopened, cities flourished, tourism increased, suburbs sprouted in farmers' fields and construction expanded. A steady stream of new conveniences, from aluminum Christmas trees to microwave ovens, flowed off assembly lines into Wisconsin homes. Yet throughout the postwar boom it became increasingly clear that such benefits were not equally accessible to everyone. Wisconsin's non-white citizens — whether Indian, black or Hispanic — had less access to the benefits of the expanding economy.

By mid-century, Wisconsin Indians had experienced nearly 100 years of post-treaty life — much of it contested. First, federal officials had confined them on reservations. Then, from 1887 to 1934, they had tried to assimilate Indians into mainstream society through schools and land allotments, which stripped 174,000 acres from Indians and gave it to lumber companies and white neighbors. In 1934 the U.S. admitted the failure of these programs and encouraged tribes to form tribal governments to conduct their own internal affairs. But in the 1950s, critics of Indian self-determination led an ill-conceived effort to dismantle the reservation system and free the U.S. government from the costs of protecting Indians and their property. Passed in 1953, this policy of "termination" and "relocation" encouraged Indians to move from rural reservations to urban areas. Many Wisconsin Indians who opted for relocation received only one-way bus tickets to Chicago, Milwaukee or St. Paul. Termination also ended federal recognition of more than 50 tribal governments, including the Menominee. The tremendous social costs that resulted ultimately led the Menominee to fight to return to reservation status in the 1970s.

Sidebar: Vel Phillips

Bridging the women's movement and the civil rights movement, Vel Phillips (1924-) made history for both her race and her gender, building a career full of "firsts." Read more...

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Besides termination, the most significant sovereignty issue came with the expansion of gambling in 1987, which inadvertently gave Wisconsin tribes the right to establish casinos. Many tribes, such as the Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Mohican and Potawatomi, have opened gambling establishments that provide substantial economic benefits to their communities. After a century of coercion, assimilation, allotment and relocation, the tribes' legal status has at last been more clearly defined and their economic base boosted by gaming and tourism. Today many Indian children are finally beginning to see opportunities in education, health care and other arenas of life.

Hispanic immigrants also struggled under restrictive government programs and inadequate community services. Under the Emergency Farm Labor Program of 1943, agricultural employers imported male workers from Jamaica, the Bahamas, British Honduras and Mexico. After the war, the federal "Bracero" program brought millions of Mexican farm laborers north until 1964. Mexicans arriving in the 1950s, drawn to industrial jobs in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine counties, found an established community. But in rural Wisconsin thousands of agricultural workers lacked the basic protection gained by factory workers in the Progressive Era: wages, child labor, length of workdays, and other basic concerns were unregulated, and standards of living fell far below the state average. A 1971 investigation of urban Hispanic communities found them to be among the state's poorest, with the least access to quality housing, education or health care. Racial discrimination and language barriers were not the only reasons for this situation, as investigators concluded that state and local agencies charged with advocating for Hispanic citizens had failed. Today Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in Wisconsin.

Because the nation as a whole faced civil rights issues during the 1950s and '60s, the experience of Wisconsin's black residents is better known, especially in Milwaukee. Civil rights efforts in Milwaukee focused primarily on segregated housing and schools. Despite the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, school segregation remained widespread, usually because the city was so segregated geographically: a 1960 survey found that schools in the central city were 90 percent black. In May 1964 more than half the students supported a boycott of these black schools. The following year, attorney Lloyd Barbee filed a lawsuit that challenged segregation in the Milwaukee Public Schools, charging that the school board knowingly practiced discrimination. In 1976 the courts finally ruled in his favor, and in 1979 the school board implemented a five-year desegregation plan.

Segregated housing, legally sanctioned for most of the city's history, was the second major issue facing Milwaukee's black community. Alderperson Vel Phillips first introduced open housing legislation in March 1962 and continued to submit it to the city council despite being repeatedly voted down. In August 1967, after five years of opposition by elected officials, Milwaukee's NAACP Youth Council marched to Kosciuszko Park to protest the Common Council's latest refusal. They were met by thousands of white residents who shouted obscenities and threw objects, particularly at Father James Groppi (1930-1985), a white Catholic priest who had played a central role in dramatizing the segregated housing situation. In April 1968 the federal open housing law passed, and the Milwaukee Common Council, forced into acceptance by the national law, finally approved a local equivalent that outlawed segregated housing. In the years that followed, suburbanization and "white flight" left the inner city largely to African Americans — a trend that persists to this day.

Fear of communism in the 1950s led the U.S. into the longest and most costly war in its history. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson began a campaign of aggressively bombing North Vietnam, which sought to unify Vietnam under a communist government. He also sent large numbers of troops to defend South Vietnam. More than 57,000 Wisconsin soldiers served in Southeast Asia; 1,239 did not return. These soldiers were, on average, younger than those who had served in World War II, 19 years old as compared to 26. They also came disproportionately from rural and urban working-class backgrounds.

Most Americans initially supported the war, but anti-war sentiment increased when it began to claim large numbers of U.S. lives. The University of Wisconsin-Madison gained a reputation as one of the nation's most radical campuses. Students and professors began to organize "teach-ins" on the war in 1965, and students marched in protest, burned draft cards and confronted army recruiters. In October 1967 they protested against Dow Chemical, makers of the weapon napalm, which had been recruiting at the Madison campus, and the resulting police violence radicalized many apolitical students. On August 24, 1970, a bomb detonated at Sterling Hall, home to the Department of Defense-funded Army Mathematics Research Center, killing an innocent graduate student and discrediting the peace movement on campus. The war finally ended in April 1975 when communist forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon.

People from two of our Asian allies settled in Wisconsin in significant numbers after the war. In 1975 and 1976 Vietnamese who had sided with the U.S. fled by the thousands, first to neighboring countries and then to the U.S. The Hmong people of adjacent Laos, recruited during the war as guerillas, were left in the hands of the communists they had fought. Thousands escaped to refugee camps in Thailand, where resettlement organizations helped sponsor Hmong immigration to the U.S. Many settled in Wisconsin, with the largest communities in La Crosse, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Wausau and Milwaukee.

Sidebar: Gaylord Nelson

The sponsor of several significant environmental bills, Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005) is best known as the founder of Earth Day. Read more...

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As the war ended, oil-producing nations banded together and agreed to limit their sales to Europe and America, driving up the price of oil. This sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin. Prices and wages rose, and taxpayers who had funded two decades of liberal government programs revolted. President John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society had created expensive federal bureaucracies without entirely solving the problems they were meant to address. By 1980 taxpayers, alarmed at rising prices and frustrated by red tape, agreed with Ronald Reagan when he said, "...government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem." A half-century of liberal assumptions about the proper role of government in American life ended as a new generation of leaders dismantled federal programs and discarded government regulations on business.

In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson (1941- ) carried the banner of conservative revolt, winning his first term as governor in 1986. He became the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history, dominating state politics from 1987 to 2001. He championed the priorities of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and Wisconsin became a testing ground for several neo-conservative ideas. In 1996 he launched Wisconsin Works, or "W-2," which became a national model for welfare reform. The program required welfare recipients to find work, reducing state support for the poor by more than 90 percent. Thompson also established the nation's first school choice program in 1990, which allowed low-income Milwaukee families to use tax funds to send their children to a school of their choice. In legislation that foreshadowed the principles of "No Child Left Behind," he imposed high academic standards for schools in language arts, math, science and social studies. Finally, he invested large sums in the state's infrastructure through the construction of prisons, highways and university facilities. Early in 2001 Thompson resigned as governor to join the second Bush administration in Washington, D.C., as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services during its first term.

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