Desegregation and Civil Rights in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Desegregation and Civil Rights in Wisconsin

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was one of the most dynamic periods of social interaction and change in the United States. Since the end of the Civil War, African Americans had struggled for the full recognition of rights accorded to them in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th (abolishing slavery), 14th (equal protection), and 15th (voting rights) amendments to the Constitution. Initially, many people in Wisconsin saw the boycotts, sit-ins, and marches occurring in the South as a southern problem that "couldn't happen here." But the civil rights movement spread northward to Wisconsin in the 1960s, where racial segregation was a matter of historical custom based on popular prejudice rather than on laws and statutes.

Early Civil Rights Efforts in Wisconsin

African Americans in Wisconsin had been struggling for their civil rights for more than a century before the movement began to attract headlines in the 1960s. In 1866, for example, Milwaukee's Ezekiel Gillespie successfully sued for the right to vote. In the 1930s, William Kelley of the Milwaukee Urban League began to fight for the rights of black teachers to work in the public schools. These early efforts were especially difficult because African Americans made up only a small percentage of the state's population. Large-scale migration of black citizens to Wisconsin only occurred after World War II.

Growth of African American Population

Between 1940 and 1960, Wisconsin's African American population increased by nearly 600 percent, from 12,158 in 1940 to 74,546 in 1960. Drawn to jobs in industrial cities like Milwaukee during World War II, many African Americans stayed in Wisconsin's cities to raise their families. Most of these new residents came from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. As more African Americans encountered segregation in housing, employment, and education in Wisconsin, they organized in greater numbers to remedy these injustices.

Civil Rights Movement Takes Shape

In the 1950s and 1960s, Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Large numbers of African Americans had moved to the city during and after World War II and by the 1960s they accounted for 15 percent of the population. Most of Milwaukee's African Americans lived in a near north neighborhood which, by the 1960s, had become a site of increasing volatility due to limited job opportunities, poverty, and segregation.

Frustration over these issues generated urban violence and inner-city riots across the nation in cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit. On July 30, 1967, riots broke out in Milwaukee after police attempted to stop fights at a downtown entertainment spot. Mayor Henry Maier declared a state of emergency and asked the governor to call out the National Guard. Eight days later, four people were dead and more than 1,500 had been arrested.

Desegregating Milwaukee Schools

Residential segregation inevitably produced school segregation. Despite the 1954 decision in  Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that declared racial segregation unconstitutional), school segregation remained widespread because of segregation in the city's neighborhoods. A 1960 survey of schools by the NAACP found that schools in Milwaukee's central city were 90 percent black. On August 28, 1963, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Milwaukee organized the first civil rights demonstration in the city. A year later, in May of 1964, they organized a boycott of predominantly black schools that drew the participation of more than half of the African American students.

In 1965, Lloyd Barbee filed a lawsuit that challenged segregation in the Milwaukee public schools, the first of its kind in the nation. The case, Amos, et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, filed on behalf of 32 African American and nine white students, charged that the board practiced and allowed discrimination in the public schools. Barbee demanded that Milwaukee end the illegal but real segregation of its schools. He argued that the Milwaukee School Board had drawn district boundaries based on segregated housing patterns and other discriminatory policies. He cited as evidence that most of the schools outside the segregated central city had less than ten percent African American students.

After more than a decade of courtroom confrontations, on January 19, 1976, Federal Judge John Reynolds ruled that Milwaukee schools were illegally segregated. Reynolds ordered the school board to take immediate steps to integrate the schools. The board appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial. Finally, in March 1979, the case was settled and the school board agreed to implement a five-year desegregation plan that, though not perfect, began to address some significant schooling issues.

The Fight to End Segregated Housing in Milwaukee

Housing patterns in Milwaukee, like other cities, had been shaped by real estate agents, city-zoning laws, and lending institutions that refused to loan money to African Americans wanting to move into white neighborhoods. Suburbanization also contributed to segregated housing as whites increasingly moved out of Milwaukee. That left the inner city to African Americans -- a trend that persists to this day.

Black alderperson Vel Phillips first introduced open housing legislation in March 1962. She continued to submit it to the council for approval despite being repeatedly voted down. In August 1967, after five years of inaction by city officials, the NAACP Youth Council marched to Kosciuszko Park (in a predominantly white neighborhood) to protest the Common Council's refusal to pass an open housing ordinance. The August 1967 march expressed the frustration of the black community. The march also drew the wrath of three to five thousand white residents, who shouted obscenities and threw objects at the marchers, particularly focusing on one of the march's leaders, Father James Groppi.

Groppi was a white Catholic priest and an important figure in the civil rights movement in Milwaukee. He played an instrumental role in dramatizing the segregated housing situation in Milwaukee through his frequent demonstrations and arrests. Daily demonstrations continued throughout the winter of 1967-1968.

In April 1968, the federal open housing law passed, preventing racial discrimination in 80 percent of the nation. The Milwaukee Common Council finally approved a desegregation law that was even stronger than the federal one on April 30. Milwaukee's law exempted only owner-occupied buildings with no more than two units. Adoption of this ordinance ended the more militant phase of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee, though loopholes in federal and city housing policies allowed segregation to continue.

Segregation in Madison

Segregation and discriminatory practices in Madison, though perhaps less publicized, were as common as in Milwaukee. While many white residents were proud that blacks were not discriminated against in restaurants, public transportation, hotels, schools, or hospitals, African Americans still faced discrimination in both employment and housing. Unlike Milwaukee, Racine, Beloit, and Kenosha, Madison did not have the industrial manufacturing sector to hire unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Many employers were reluctant to provide on-the-job training. While few businesses openly admitted to discriminatory hiring policies, these practices persisted throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, like Milwaukee, poor housing and residential segregation led African Americans to campaign for open housing laws in Madison.

Civil Rights Movement Inspires Gay Rights Movement

In the 1970s, the nation's attention shifted from the black civil rights movement to other issues, such as the Vietnam War and the environment. Other social groups also began to assert their civil rights. Inspired by the civil rights movement and demands for equal protection, the Gay Rights movement began campaigning against discrimination in jobs and housing. The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York helped to transform the movement from small, localized activism into a widespread protest for equal rights and acceptance. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Learn More

Sources[The History of Wisconsin vol 5 and 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Ranney, Joseph A. "Looking Further Than the Skin: A History of Wisconsin Civil Rights Law" Wisconsin's Legal History, part XIII (Madison: State Bar of Wisconsin), viewed June 5, 2012.

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