‘A direct product of what we’re not teaching them’
A high school student glanced down at the rainbow shades of sneakers in the center of the circle – where an old man enthusiastically detailed his heroic story of helping to lead marches for civil rights in Milwaukee – as if realizing that he and his friends had big shoes to fill.
Prentice McKinney, 70, paced in an all-black ensemble with a studded leather jacket, his arms seeming to jolt with every word. He told stories of the racism and discrimination experienced as a teenager, the anger he felt, the kind of life he wanted his mother to have, and his hopes for future generations to have more opportunities.
“I’m going to protest and protest until you stop – and you acknowledge me as a human being, as you’re a human being,” he said of his attitude years ago.
McKinney was one of the original Commandos who helped orchestrate the Milwaukee fair housing marches in 1967-68, usually with a cigarette in hand. The Commandos were a militant, but peaceful group of young black men who lead demonstrations and protected the marchers and spokespeople as part of the local NAACP Youth Council.
This project looks back on the 200 days of marches – from August 1967 to April 1968 – across the 16th Street viaduct by residents demanding an open housing ordinance in Milwaukee. It involves interviews of witnesses and data analysis in an effort to determine what progress has been made 50 years later.
He stood before 20 teenagers at Urban Underground, a local nonprofit youth leadership center, one recent evening in hopes of emboldening them to take his torch and become the next generation of youth activists in Milwaukee. He spoke passionately about his fight and of the extent of segregation in the 1960s. “It still is segregated,” said Vondell Moore, a 15-year-old Urban Underground member and freshman at Marshall High School. McKinney nodded solemnly in agreement.
While McKinney lamented his struggle 50 years ago, a different student described how he feels like a “second class citizen” in his own city in 2017. The student was the same age as one of McKinney’s grandchildren, the ones who the man said he marched on behalf of years before they would even be born.
“What do you all think about when you think about Milwaukee?” McKinney asked.
One by one, statistics were rattled off. Their city has been called the worst place to grow up black. It has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. It is one of the more violent – and most segregated – cities in the country.
Not a single Urban Underground member had heard of the Commandos before that night.
These are passionate student leaders who are artists and athletes, poets and school mascots, all of whom hope to become elected officials and archeologists, occupational therapists and entrepreneurs, yet the narratives they hold about their city don’t reflect the legacy of the young change makers who fought to defend dignity five decades ago.
“Back then that a group of kids could get together and settle their differences,” said Daryl Fields, 17, a junior at Washington High School. “They were going through a lot of the same things we are now. It was a whole bunch of people of color, and instead of doing what a lot of people do now – either fight or shoot at each other – they just came and said, ‘We’re going through this, that or the other, let’s do what we have to do to make sure we get where we want to and get equal rights.’”
Rob Smith, associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said it’s important for today’s generation to recognize and learn from people like McKinney.
“We have a tendency to wait until we’ve lost folks to then talk about their significance,” Smith said, “and that’s problematic because then we’re not valuing the experience, the expertise and in some ways the vision that folks had in mind as they embarked upon these important challenges to various forms of oppression.”
“We don’t teach young people how to directly impact society on their own behalf for their own benefit,” Smith added. “How and why those young people recite those realities and then don’t necessarily provide counter arguments or shape strategies in opposition is a direct product of what we are not teaching them.”
“Young people can have an impact on society,” Smith insisted. “They can have a direct impact on change, because they always have.”
A history worth sharing
The enthralled faces of my students and the enraged but encouraging one of McKinney clearly illustrated why these stories still need to be told, why it’s crucial for us as a community to pause at this moment of the marches’ 50th anniversary.
Naturally, it also begs more questions: Is it better? Do young people have more opportunities and a more supportive community than the generations before them? What do we need to do as a community in this moment to truly move forward?
“A lot of the problems we’re dealing with today are very similar to problems that we were dealing with then,” noted Milwaukee historian John Gurda. “I think the only place that the future has to come out of is the past.”
“Things that happened before (these students) were born are still impacting them today,” Jackson said. “You really have to look at it in context. I think that young people don’t recognize that Milwaukee hasn’t always been this way.”
There are several reasons that my students don’t know about the Commandos, including that what the activists pushed for has yet to be realized. Stories of their resistance and resilience are often clouded and overshadowed by the segregation and inequality that continues to dominate the story when we think of Milwaukee.
“It wasn’t just that people were fighting for equal housing,” said Martha Barry, racial justice director at the YWCA of Southeastern Wisconsin. “It was a bigger system that they were fighting that they probably couldn’t even identify at the time. We haven’t overcome it.”
Jamaal Smith, racial justice community engagement manager at the YWCA of Southeastern Wisconsin, put it this way: “We didn’t focus on the mental development of people, and put them in positions where you had to learn each other’s cultures and backgrounds, and become acclimated with someone who doesn’t look like you.”
Barry took it a step further: “Because we don’t change those mindsets, then when we say we want to end racism people say, ‘But I’m not racist.’ We go to a binary, that it would mean I’m a bad person. No, it means that you’ve been imbued with a system that wants you to not look at and not notice race or notice that this community is not doing as well as mine. If we’re going to change things, it’s going to be because people’s mindsets changed to believe we can do something about racism.”
“It’s not easy work,” she added. “It’s actually really hard.”
Stories continue to separate us
When we live in a state of separateness preserved for decades, we dilute the stories we know and tell about each other, and reduce people in different places to less than human.
“There are stereotypes that will continually be passed on throughout generations,” young Vondell said. “I mean, you can try to change that, but there will always be people who will think this way about a certain race based on what they’ve heard, or what they’ve seen on social media or from a small group of people.”
Jackson attributed Milwaukee’s segregation and this attitude of separateness to white flight from the city and its public schools, the failure to enforce fair housing ordinances, and economic conditions that disproportionately affected certain groups of people.
“(Segregation) leads to misinformation, which develops a lack of empathy for people in the city of Milwaukee,” he said. “We maintain these same mindsets about other communities because we haven’t reached across barriers to build those relationships. The best way to do that is with young people.”
Gurda agreed. “If I can write off large parts of the population because of our separateness, I am dehumanizing them and in the process dehumanizing myself,” he said. “That is something that each of us needs to confront within ourselves.”
As I graduate from Marquette University with a B.A. in international affairs, and a second major in journalism, I am entering the “real” world with an idealistic, resilient and persistent idea that stories matter. The stories we tell each other and about each other, as well as who we decide is worthy of telling them, matter in shaping our perceptions, our policies and our reality.
This summer, headlines put the focus on a couple of major stories about young people of color in Milwaukee, namely the unrest in Sherman Park and the uptick in the number of carjackings. In a weird way, this had a strange resemblance to summer unrest in 1967.
Meanwhile, I had the privilege of working with a team of students at Urban Underground to make a youth-led online magazine that aimed to promote youth voices to expand perspectives in Milwaukee. While Sherman Park was being painted nationally as a rowdy war zone, my students interviewed a 15-year-old peacemaker in the park and a youth leader of a violence prevention program.
I have spent the past four years learning from these incredible students, in and out of the classroom where we meet at Marquette. I have felt the stings of racism in their presence, the kind that makes it clear just how far we must go as a community, and how much the stories we tell of each other influence our lives. Their strength and brilliance reveals to me that young people in our city are up against more than I can really fathom.
I have sat in the driver’s seat of my car with flashing lights behind me, calmly talking my way out of a speeding ticket while a male Underground student left a piece of chicken hanging from his mouth – for fear that reaching for it would startle the police officer.
I have heard blatant refusal of friends and classmates to go to parts of town deemed “bad neighborhoods,” where people I greatly admire and respect live, and where I work.
I have witnessed shots being fired into the air while driving a student home, and heard her apologize: “I’m sorry you had to see that. I know you’re white and not used to that kind of violent thing.”
I have interviewed potential candidates for one of the most competitive scholarship programs at my university, while also tutoring students who are intelligent, innovative, compassionate, many with nowhere near the GPA or ACT scores they would need to get into Marquette, because they don’t have access to the resources that so many others have.
Random strangers have asked me if I am OK when walking with a black male student because he is presumed to be unsafe.
Many of my students can’t wait to get away from the city that I have loved to call home.
Through my students, I have also witnessed true vibrancy and abundance in Milwaukee. Though I may have seen them struggle, I have also seen them shine.
They share their opinions at community events, speaking on microphones and around conference tables. They are incredible photographers, passionate environmentalists, presidents of youth councils, on the dean’s lists at their universities, starting their own businesses, designing T-shirts and educating their peers about what they think is important.
Reggie Jackson and Daryl Fields pose after their interview for Youth Rise MKE. (photo by Allison Dikanovic)
Take, for example, the two students mentioned above. Daryl is a poet who rocks a suit better than any of the business students I have met at Marquette. Vondell is a mythology buff and a bookworm with the best Barack Obama impersonation I have ever heard. They are each much more than the statistics so often cast on them. They deserve so much more than the shallow histories too often fed to them. They deserve to know about those who fought for them five decades ago, and about how capable they too are of fighting.
Choosing a dignity narrative
This spring, my students are focusing the next edition of their magazine on the fair housing marches’ 50th anniversary, and the legacy of the Commandos who started the marches. They are calling the issue “Passing the Torch: Activism in Milwaukee Then and Now,” and including profiles of some of the original marchers – as well as people who are creating positive change and working for justice in our communities today.
Daryl interviewed Reggie Jackson and asked incredible questions, including how we can work to build trust between law enforcement and communities of color in Milwaukee.
Vondell Moore interviewing Monique Liston for Youth Rise MKE. (Photo by Mercedes Hayward)
Vondell interviewed Monique Liston, a Milwaukee-born educator, innovator and Ph.D. candidate at UWM. She is centering her research on the idea of integrating the concept of dignity not only into academia as a measurable quality, but also as a standard for how we look at our local institutions and how they value those they are intended to serve.
“You should have a sense of dignity as being a part of your community,” Liston told me. “There’s no way that we’re calling a thing a community, a group of people, a number of organizations or institutions without saying this institution sees the value in every single human being, and every single human being feels a sense of value because they’re a part of it.”
Vondell appreciated the way that Liston viewed the city and those who live here.
“She could already see things or visualize some things turning out for the better,” he said. “And it’s important that she thinks that way, so her mind doesn’t get stuck in the gutter, in the negativity in the city, so her brain won’t get stuck in anything bad. She won’t have a bad outlook on the city. She chooses to look at the positive aspects.”
Our city has historical legacies for why inequalities persist, but it also has a strong legacy of fighters like Prentice McKinney who have organized and marched just to be acknowledged as a full human being. We need to acknowledge this fuller narrative of our community. We each have stories beyond the statistics.
“Identifying who we are, identifying what the narrative is, and owning it, and saying with all context and all realness, like that’s not denying that that stuff is happening,” Liston said. “We’re just saying that this is a place where we can do something about it. We’re not going to own our pain as that’s it. That to me becomes the most forward thinking thing that we can do that will actually produce some tangible results.”
The narrative that I hope we choose to own is that Milwaukee may be one of the most segregated cities in the country, but it is also a place that is creating room and opportunities for young people to radically challenge that by becoming the best, fullest version of who they are and in turn building a city they can be proud to pass on to their grandchildren.
If we don’t want Milwaukee to be one of the most segregated cities in the country, we need to choose that as the narrative we will embrace by how we go about our day-to-day lives.
This will require a conscious reckoning, a persistent questioning and active decision-making in the name of dignity. We must choose that we all deserve safety, opportunity and agency to choose to do good. That some of us are not more destined for a jail cell than a college classroom. That we all can come together to create the kind of change we want.
We all have a role in this, a seat at the table. For some of us, that may mean making more room for those who marched and fought to create a seat for themselves and their family that didn’t exist before. It may involve letting them guide us. It will involve pulling up some chairs for the young people in our lives, and putting them first on the agenda.
Reclaiming this dignity will require us all to fight daily, just as our elders who marched before us, and so, too, the teenagers just beginning to question this world awaiting them.
Vondell hopes he won’t have to stand before a group of youth 50 years from now – like McKinney did that evening at Urban Underground – talking about the same injustices.
“I would not mind telling about the success that me and my supporters and my peers have had with stopping the racism, the stereotypes, the segregation,” he said. “I’d like to be able to tell them that we did it. That we did what we had to do – and we got it done. We did everything we said we were going to do.”
Allison Dikanovic is a senior studying journalism and international affairs at Marquette University.