Then & Now: Looking back on the unrest of 1967 Milwaukee

Then & Now: Looking back on the unrest of 1967 Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The struggle for social and racial justice in America also runs through Milwaukee. Today, a new generation of African-Americans is leading peaceful and diverse protests against police brutality. In the 1960's a similar movement led to changes in civil rights.

On CBS 58 Sunday Morning, Kim Shine spoke with some who marched decades ago to see just how far we’ve come.

More than five decades have passed since Milwaukee’s black community fought for fair housing in the city.

Reverend Joseph Baring remembers it well.

“It was the youth, back 50 years ago, that were trying to make their voices heard," Baring said. "And for a short period of time, those voices were heard."

Led by Fr. James Groppi, the Council’s advisor, Baring says protesters marched for more than 200 days throughout the segregated city.

They crossed the 16th Street Viaduct on the North Side to the South Side, which was predominately white.

In the late 1960s, Baring was part of the NAACP Youth Council Commandos – the group’s security.

 “Not only did we protect the marchers from the police that assaulted the march, but we kept the marchers safe from the 13,000 people that met us on the other end of the 16th.”

Just as they felt back then, he said youth were angry at the system and at the status quo. But there was a key difference in how they moved.

“Today, you’ve got this huge mass of people. And even though certain groups are directing and organizing it, there’s organization but there’s no protection," he explained.

The past weeks of recent protests were ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

His death, the latest in a tragic trend of black men and women killed by police, or in their custody. Sandra Bland was someone Baring knew.

“These murders kept continuing and the murderers were let off scot-free. When Ahmaud Arbery was killed, and it’s on video. Breonna Taylor was killed and to this day, nothing’s been done about that," he said.

Barb Salas was just 17 when she became a member of the NAACP Youth Council in the 1960s.

“Many white people are unaware of how racism limits everyone in this country," Salas said. "What it costs us in terms of lost talent, lost taxes, lost exposure to cultures that broaden us.”

Her family was already active in the civil rights movement, and she knew about “white privilege.”

“White privilege is being able to take your daily life for granted," she explained. "The every day things that you do, the fact that you go to a school and the teachers care about you, the fact that you have a pencil and a paper to learn with. The fact that you look at a police officer as somebody you should go to when you have a problem, like, ‘I can’t find my way.’

She remembered community-police relations as always tense.

And said white allies did exist, but in far fewer numbers.

In the year 2020, there’s now worldwide outrage against police brutality and calls for reform, equity and respect for black lives.

“It’s not just African-Americans out there demanding fair and equal treatment," said Clayborn Benson, founding director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. "It’s Europeans as well as African-Americans saying that this kind of behavior should not exist.”

And while Floyd’s death was a societal breaking point, Benson said Milwaukee was broken far before.

“Derek Williams, for example, screamed out to the highest that he could, I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating in the back of this police paddy wagon with my hands, and he died on camera," he continued.

Most recently, the idea of defunding police departments has resurfaced.

It’s a contentious issue, but one that’s not about eliminating officers.

“It’s the idea of getting back to community policing in a manner of where the police are not standing on the necks of the people that they police," Baring said. "It’s getting back to the idea that police are not Storm Troopers that our streets are not Afghanistan and our streets are not Iraq. We don’t need armored vehicles. We don’t need police officers with AR-15s to patrol our community.”

As the battle for progress continues in America, one thing is for certain, the youth have the power to make change happen.

"Even if it looks like, in the moment, you're not getting what you're asking for or getting what you're demanding," Salas said. "You're still getting, in the long term, a response that hopefully will lead to a another response to a domino effect over time."

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