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Milwaukee’s black leaders say the enemy is within

July 7, 2005

By John Rondy

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) – Two days before the oldest and
best-known U.S. civil rights group holds its yearly convention
in Milwaukee, black leaders in the city say their community is
being torn apart from the inside.

Civil rights leaders like 57-year-old Prentice McKinney,
who fought to free Milwaukee’s blacks from the ghetto, say
gangs, drugs and violence have left those who still live in the
nation’s urban cores in fear of the next generation.

“Back then, the enemy was clear, it was white racists, and
racist police officers,” said McKinney, who was a black
teen-age “commando” in the 1960s and now runs a tavern once
frequented by fellow activists.

“It was a legalized system of segregation. And so, the
challenge was between the white establishment and the
African-American population. Today, the African-American
population is being destroyed by its own youth … an enemy
from within.”

He and others interviewed before the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People’s six-day meeting
beginning on Saturday see a changed city where a generation of
blacks freed from the shackles of yesterday’s legalized
discrimination are held hostage by today’s crime and poverty.

“You have a population of older African-Americans … who
are now afraid of the children in their neighborhoods,”
McKinney said.

Milwaukee, with 583,624 residents, 37 percent of whom are
black, is the country’s 22nd-largest city. It remains deeply
segregated, civil rights activists say.

‘A BIG JOKE’

“The image of Milwaukee is one that we are not proud of,”
said Jerry Ann Hamilton, president of the NAACP’s Milwaukee
branch.

People she encountered from outside Milwaukee considered
the city “a big joke” and were surprised at the extent of
segregation still existing there, she said.

In a departure from the NAACP’s roots of appointing a civil
rights activist as its leader, the group recently named retired
telephone company marketing executive Bruce Gordon as its
president. Gordon has said he will put more emphasis on winning
economic equality for blacks.

Retired Gen. Robert Cocroft, chairman of the National
Association for Black Veterans, said the NAACP convention could
help to remind city leaders there must be greater inclusion in
order for Milwaukee to thrive.

“Whatever we allow to happen to the least of us is going to
affect all of us,” Cocroft said.

The struggles over segregated schools and housing in
Milwaukee began in 1963, when marches and civil disobedience
were organized by Roman Catholic priest James Groppi.

Marchers who crossed an invisible line were met by mobs of
angry whites. Three people died in the summer of 1967, 100 were
injured and 1,700 arrested. Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council
later began 200 consecutive days of marches aimed at breaking
down the laws that forced blacks to live in ghettos.

The passage of an open housing law in 1968 broke open the
boundaries of the ghetto but it also led to black flight, and
those who could afford it moved to more affluent areas.

“What was left behind was the poorest of the poor — the
drug pusher, the player, the pimp, the hustler … and moral
values became very different over time,” McKinney said.

Milwaukee community activist George Martin said cities
across the country shared the same issues and had watched the
same transition from a struggle for rights to a battle with
crime.

“We marched for fair housing, and now we have
homelessness,” Martin said. “I remember when there was good
housing stock and families thrived. Now there is empty lots. I
remember business districts that were as busy as any shopping
mall and now they are vacant stores.”




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