Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another Time the State Capitol Was Overtaken

I’ve been writing a lot over at the Washington Examiner about the events in Wisconsin, trying to add a bit of context to what has transpired. To continue with the historical discussion, I thought I’d say a few words about another time when the state capitol in Madison was overtaken by protesters.

Late last year I came across a book that I had long hoped someone would write. "The Selma of the North" by Patrick D. Jones tells the story of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee. One of the shortcomings of a lot of the civil rights history (thankfully being rectified in recent years) is that it has focused almost all of its attention on the south. Whereas the movement in the south was directed largely on the issues of voting rights, public accommodations, and other basic constitutional protections, the focus in the north was on a wholly different set of problems. With voting rights not in dispute, the problems confronted in the north were in many ways more intractable and divisive—and in reality still with us to this day. The major conflicts were around school integration (with busing being an especially contentious component) and housing.

Jones centers his narrative around the figure of Fr. James Groppi. A charismatic priest in Milwaukee who was radicalized by his experiences in an inner city Milwaukee parish and by his participation in the protests in the south, Groppi was an immensely polarizing figure in 1960’s Milwaukee. He became a leader of Milwaukee’s NAACP Youth Core and helped channel the movement’s energies around issues of education and open housing in Milwaukee. A great on-line resource about Milwaukee’s civil rights protests can be found at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Library’s website.

To appreciate the complexity and intensity of the protests around housing, one needs to wrestle with the reality of how many northern cities evolved in the early and mid part of the 20th century. As the two Great Migrations saw the African American populations of cities like Milwaukee explode (it grew 700% between 1945 and 1970) the white populations of these cities resisted the need to accommodate the newcomers in anything other than the already existing, overcrowded urban core. For perhaps the best examination of this tension, check out Beryl Satter’s "Family Properties" that explores how Chicago wrestled with housing at the same time Groppi was agitating up the interstate in Milwaukee. To this day, Milwaukee and Chicago remain two of the most segregated cities in America.

In 1969, toward the end of his work in Milwaukee and as his militancy increased, Groppi turned his attention to the issue of welfare. In response to proposed cuts in the state budget (sound familiar???) aimed at poor women and children, Groppi led a march of welfare recipients from Milwaukee to Madison. There, they took over the chambers of the State Assembly for eleven hours before they were ejected and Groppi was arrested. While the protests gained the support of many in the anti-war community in Madison, its numbers where nowhere near what we’ve seen over the past month. Nonetheless, I was reminded of the Groppi marches when watching and reading the coverage of the current protests.

As a final note, it’s important to remember that the Civil Rights movement in the north, including the Milwaukee protests, drove a wedge between what was at that point two pillars of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition—African Americans and white, urban ethnics (many of whom belonged to unions). George Wallace, for example, received 31% of the vote in Milwaukee during his quixotic quest for the Democratic nomination in 1964. He famously kick started his Wisconsin campaign at Serb Hall, the hub of the white urban ethic community on Milwaukee’s South Side. As I wrote a few weeks back in discussing the plight of “Reagan Democrats,” the issue of race was one that led many of these voters to gravitate to the Republicans. While union voters have been coming back to the Democrats—and may now be in the midst of a sprint back to the left— what remains to be seen is whether a strong bond can be forged between these two oftentimes estranged voting blocs.

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