Milwaukee vital in national civil rights movement

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by Tiffany Tarpley

MILWAUKEE—As the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is celebrated; many remember the influence the local civil rights movement had on the nation.

“Wisconsin’s the very seed of revolutionary activities all the way starting back in the 1850’s when we were denied the right to vote,” explained Wisconsin Black Historical Society Founder Clayborn Benson.

The reasons Blacks came to Wisconsin were for jobs and better education for their children. Fair Housing was a major issue in Wisconsin in the 1960’s. Father James Groppi organized and led demonstrations for 200 consecutive days in Milwaukee, protesting the fact African Americans were restricted to living in certain areas of the city.

“It became a ghetto inside of a ghetto and so the African Americans wanted to be able to live and move their families into areas that they can go to school with other kids and get a decent education,” said Benson.

Dwight Benning founded the Commandos, a security detail to protect marchers in Milwaukee. “Things were being thrown, things were being said, people were trying to walk through while we were walking, we didn’t allow that,” he said.

Benning said he was a teenager when he understood the dynamics of the inequality in Milwaukee. “We didn’t’ know the difference between our education and education that was happening in white schools,” he explained. “A lot of books that we got were books they had already had so we were already behind them as far as knowledge goes.”

Local activists testified before congress on the issue of fair housing and Benson said six months later, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law. That pushed local municipalities, like Milwaukee, to follow suit.

Although there have been great strides over the years, in certain ways some of the issues of the past remain concerns today.

“The key thing now is education and jobs so that our kids can get decent jobs to provide for themselves and their families,” said Benson.

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