Statement of Milwaukee NAACP president Jerry Ann Hamilton to Senate Committee on Education in opposition to mayoral takeover proposal

Jerry Ann Hamilton

My name is Jerry Ann Hamilton, President of the Milwaukee Branch NAACP. First of all, we thank the Senate Committee on Education for holding this public hearing in Milwaukee.

Founded in 1909 the NAACP is the nation’s premier civil rights organization. The Milwaukee Branch NAACP has been in existence since 1919, and has actively worked to secure, maintain and advance civil rights for all people in the Milwaukee Metropolitan area.

Today, we speak in opposition of Senate Bill 405, the proposed mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public School system.

If passed, Senate Bill 405 will change control of MPS from an elected multi-member policy making body – representing the varied educational interests in the community – to a one-person policy making body appointed by the mayor and accountable not to the public, but to the mayor, whomever the mayor may be.

The legislation assumes that the people of the City of Milwaukee, and only the people of the City of Milwaukee, are incompetent of electing representatives to manage their local school system. In fact, the legislation goes much further it assumes that the citizens of Milwaukee are incapable of having any substantial input into local education matters.

In the remaining time, I would like to discuss the unwarranted invasion of voting rights.

Wisconsin was one of the fi rst states to allow African Americans to vote. In 1835, Joe Oliver, the first African American settler in Milwaukee, became the first African American voter in Milwaukee. Under law, African Americans were not entitled to vote, but local officials allowed Oliver to cast a ballot in Milwaukee’s very first election. Milwaukee was relatively progressive, and Oliver represented the sole African American vote. What harm could there be? As minority voting power increased officials were less willing to allow African Americans to vote.

The issue of statewide African American suffrage was brought up at Wisconsin’s first constitutional convention in 1846. Opponents suggested that suffrage should not be granted to African Americans because “Every negro was a thief and every negro woman much worse.” Proponents of African American suffrage argued that the rights of African Americans could only be secured “by placing in his hand the instrument of his defense – the ballot.” The parties compromised and decided to put the question of African American suffrage to the voters. Voters refused to allow African American suffrage.

Voters would consider the question over the next several years without success. Having failed in 1847 and 1848 to obtain the right of vote for African American residents, voting rights advocates returned to the polls in November 1849 and overwhelming supported by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, an amendment to the State Constitution that mandated African American suffrage.

African Americans would not be allowed to exercise their right to vote until successful completion of a lengthy court battle. State officials motivated by racist ideas of African American inferiority pulled a fast one. While conceding that more voters had voted in favor of the amendment than against the amendment, state offi cials oddly held that since a majority of all electors had not voted on the question of African American suffrage the outcome was not valid. Of course, this was nonsense, but it was good enough to delay African American suffrage in Wisconsin for nearly two decades.

On October 31, 1865, Ezekiel Gillespie, an African American residing in Milwaukee, attempted to register for the 1865 election. His request was denied. Undeterred, he returned the next day to vote. His ballot was not accepted. Gillespie filed a lawsuit alleging that he and other Wisconsin African Americans had obtained the right to vote in 1849. In March 1866, the Wisconsin Supreme Court lambasted state offi cials and held that the 1849 Constitutional Amendment was valid marking the beginning of African American suffrage in Wisconsin.

After completion of the Civil War, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified giving all citizens the right to vote regardless of race. African Americans experienced early successes. In 1869, the first African Americans were elected to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

There was a cost. These early successes ushered in nearly one hundred years of intimidation against African American electors. Advances in African American voting power were countered with measures to prohibit African American participation in the electoral process.

Several states implemented laws to mitigate the guarantees of the 15th Amendments. State legislatures enacted property requirements, English proficiency and literacy tests, poll taxes, gerrymandering, grandfather clauses, at-large districts, white-only primaries, ballotmanipulation practices, etc. Public officials and private citizens initiated campaigns of violence and intimidation, including threats of violence, beatings, rapes, lynchings, termination of employment and rental agreements, and interference with contracts against minority electors and their families.

In 1944, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (then a NAACP lawyer) successfully argued that White-only primaries violated the 15th Amendment. In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed gerrymandering.

Locally, in 1961, Cornelius Golightly became the first African American elected to the school board.

On June 12, 1963, Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, a tireless voting rights advocate (and a person I had the pleasure to meet and interview) was shot and killed in his driveway while his wife and kids were inside his home only a few yards away.

On January 23, 1964, Congress ratified the 24th Amendment abolishing the use of poll taxes. That summer, on July 21, 1964, voting rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were pulled over in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and arrested on trumped up traffic charges. They were released, but were soon stopped on the road by a mob, which included local law enforcement officials and members of the Klu Klux Klan. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were not seen alive again. On August 24, 1964, their badly beaten bodies were found buried in a mud dam.

In the summer of 1964, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer who had previously been beaten within moments of her life for trying to exercise her right to vote, led a delegation to the Democratic National Convention to challenge Mississippi’s all- White Democratic delegation because Mississippi’s Democratic Party did not allow African Americans to vote in primaries. Hamer successfully lobbied the Democratic Party for a resolution holding that no delegation would be seated from any state that refused to allow people to vote because of their race.

In March 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led voting rights activists on a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest voting rights atrocities in Alabama. As the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge they were attacked by police who shot tear gas into the crowd, and beat, kicked and whipped the marchers with night sticks. Hundreds of people were injured. Fifty people were hospitalized. Undeterred, the marchers returned time and time again, unit they bravely and successfully completed their journey.

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which firmly established the right of African Americans to vote fairly and freely, and a new era of African American electoral successes began. In 1968, nine African Americans were elected to Congress, the most since 1875.

Time does not permit more examples of the dedication and sacrifi ces of voting rights activists of all races. Suffi ce it to say that because of the brave actions of thousands of voting rights activists all Americans enjoy the right to vote today. That does not mean, however, that the right to vote is not constantly under attack.

Obtaining the right to vote took work. Maintaining the right to vote will take no less. We sit here are heirs of voting rights secured through the determination, blood and ultimate sacrifice of others. We are morally opposed to squandering these rights on loose promises of improved educational outcomes wholly unsupported by verifiable evidence.

History teaches us that the infringement of voting rights can take many forms. Politicians may directly eliminate a citizen’s right to vote. Or as proposed here, in Senate Bill 405, politicians may leave intact the right to vote, but undermine the effectiveness of a citizen’s voting power by curtailing the power of an elected body. In the end, even the most simpleminded realize that the effect is the same – the voice of the voter is muted.

Gone are poll taxes, English proficiency tests and gerrymandering, however, other threats – elimination of elected bodies comprised of minorities or influenced by minorities, felony disenfranchisement laws, abusive electionday challenges, and Voter ID requirements – remain. These modern-day threats are on the same moral plane as previous threats to our voting rights. They represent different sides of the same coin.

Indeed, the threat to voting rights presented by Senate Bill 405 is as great as any threat we have observed in several decades. It is greater even than the annual threat of Voter ID.

Under Voter ID proposals, lawful voters are made to jump through discriminatory and unwarranted obstacles to the ballot box, but in the end these lawful voters still have the ability to elect a meaningful governing body. Under Senate Bill 405, lawful voters within the City of Milwaukee lose the ability to elect meaningful representation.

The loss of the ability to elect meaningful representation is repugnant to democratic ideas. It is no wonder, recent polls show most people oppose the mayoral takeover of MPS.

We owe too great a debt to those who struggled before us, to allow intrusions upon our voting rights in exchange for a one-time pursuit of federal dollars. We did not secure our voting rights without a fight, and we are not inclined to give them up without the same.

Our right to vote is not for sale to any politician – Democratic, Republican, African American, Caucasian, or Latino. It is not for sale to public school supporters, nor public school haters. It is not for sale for federal dollars, state dollars, local dollars, or private dollars. It is simply not for sale.

The three most popular arguments in support of this radical legislation are: 1) the need for change; 2) the need for accountability; and 3) the long-standing achievement gap between African American and Caucasian students.

We can quickly dispose of these arguments. First of all, we can all agree that change is needed. The question is what kind of change. It has become popular to say that unless there is a governance change MPS will experience the same results. There is simply no evidence to support this argument.

President Dr. Michael Bonds has ushered in an era of positive change. There is learning taking place in MPS. Sure, much more needs to take place, however, this radical legislation is not the change that is needed. We continue to favor increasing the time students spend with quality teachers, by extending the school year and decreasing class sizes.

Secondly, the promise of accountability is illusory. There is simply no evidence that the proposal would lead to greater accountability. There are multiple strains and duties placed on the Mayor. This proposal sets in place a mechanism where the future needs of students will be balanced against city services, such as street and pothole repair, snow removal, and garbage pick-up. In selecting a mayor, voters weigh the mayor’s effectiveness in a variety of areas. The mayor’s ineffectiveness in increasing student achievement could easily be outweighed by his effectiveness in providing another city service. The education of our children is too important to compete with these other city services.

Proponents suggest it is unlikely that educational needs will be balanced against city services. We strongly disagree. For instance, the legislation establishes a seven-member budget committee to advise the Superintendent. The members of the budget committee are: the City of Milwaukee Comptroller, the City of Milwaukee Council Common President, three members appointed by the Mayor, the President of the Milwaukee School Board, and the State Superintendent of Schools.

The budget committee is dominated by City of Milwaukee officials, or their designees. It will be impossible for City officials to consider an appropriate school budget without also considering the net impact on the overall property tax.

Lastly, proponents suggest that a governance change is necessary because of the achievement gap between African American and Caucasian students. Nothing in this legislation will lead to increased reading and math scores.

In conclusion, we are against the proposed mayoral takeover. We refuse to buy into the construct that the voters of the City of Milwaukee, and only the voters of the City of Milwaukee, are incapable of electing their school leaders. This way of thinking is radically wrong. The proposed legislation will deprive voters of an effective voice in the Milwaukee Public School system, and offers little hope for improving educational attainment.

We encourage mayoral involvement in the education of Milwaukee Public School students. If the current mayor or any future mayor desires to get involved, he/she should get involved. By no means though does mayoral involvement necessitate a mayoral takeover. We are convinced that school districts in this state and outside the state will received Race-to-the Top funds without the kind of legislation proposed here.

We urge defeat of this controversial legislation. We ask that the legislature considers proposals which increase cooperation between the mayor and school officials, but which do not involve a plan for the mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public School System.