By Dylan Deprey
There have been articles, documentaries and television specials about the March on Milwaukee’s 200 Nights of Marching for Fair Housing 50 years ago, yet many Milwaukeeans don’t know the history of the ragtag group of youth, clergy and elected officials that fought to end segregation in the “Selma of the North.”
Photos of historic local figures like Vel Phillips, Milwaukee’s first African American alderwoman, and Pastor James Groppi, NAACP Youth Council advisor, among militant commandos and angsty teens were archived in history, but left from classroom lectures.
Prentice McKinney, former NAACP commando, stood on the frontlines as hundreds marched from NAACP headquarters at N. 15th Street to the 16th St. viaduct where they were met by their hostile white neighbors just south.
Whether it was racial slurs, glass bottles or rocks, thousands of white counter-protestors confronted marchers as the police half-heartedly watched and maintained order.
McKinney knew it was time for a change, as Black people were forced into one of 15 aldermanic districts, which forced kids to go to segregated schools and left the Black community with no voice.
Even after Alderwoman Phillips had introduced a fair housing ordinance 12 times, and was shot down 18-1 every time.
“We didn’t know we were marching into history, we just knew there was a fight and we were willing to take that fight because it was righteous,” McKinney said.
Before Congresswoman Gwen Moore was fighting in congress, she was sneaking out of her window at 16-years-old, to march for her community.
“The only reason I was involved with this mission was because I had elders in the community that didn’t look at me like a hard-headed, big mouthed brat. They saw the energy that I had and wanted to use it,” Moore said.
It was a time where police/community relations were far and few, segregation barricaded minorities to a few blocks and racial tensions and political strife were felt across the country.
On the 50th Anniversary, former marchers, elected officials and the community packed City Hall to celebrate the announcement of the 200 Nights of Freedom initiative Aug. 28, 2017.
The 200 Nights of Freedom Initiative was created by the March on Milwaukee 50th, a diverse group of volunteers that spanned from past marchers, NAACP Youth Commandos and Council Members, activists, advocates, artists, professionals and students.
The Initiative honors past marchers’ efforts by providing 200 nights of free community-driven public programming in spirit of the marches educate and re-build the Milwaukee they had hoped to see.
“When we share our work with each other and get neighbors to speak with neighbors, neighbors to share resources with neighbors, get neighbors to resist alongside neighbors and neighbors to know one-another, we build a respectful, open and tolerant city that we want our children’s’ children to inherit,” said Kantara Souffrant, March on Milwaukee (MOM) 50th Coordinating Committee.
The MOM has hosted community brainstorming sessions in neighborhoods across the City, and encouraged people to share their talents with their community.
“These brainstorming sessions have literally been ways for bringing together various parts of our city to figure out, ‘who you will serve, and how do you use the experience of the marches to continue to do what you do,” Souffrant said.
Reggie Jackson, Head Griot American Black Holocaust Museum, said that a lot people in Milwaukee and across the state have not learned the entire history about the Marches.
“There are people that are going to be able to learn about this over the next 200 days and I think people’s perspective on how we got to where we are in our city. These types of events and programs surrounding it, really put people into focus for how far we have come and how far we still need to go,” Jackson said.
Adam Carr, MOM 50th Coordinating Committee, said the 200 Nights of Freedom was meant to build upon organizations that have already been working in Milwaukee. Carr gave Uplifting Black Liberation and Community coalition (UBLAC), ACLU of Wisconsin, Urban Underground and Voces de la Frontera a chance to share the work they’ve been doing.
Markasa Tucker, UBLAC founder, said UBLAC was coalition led by Black Women, Queer, and Trans* folx working towards Black liberation with people of African heritage in Milwaukee. UBLAC has organized and joined marches across the City, and added that it was a breath of fresh air hearing past marchers.
“It’s liberation of the mind to know that I won’t be alone through all of this,” Tucker said.
Jaylah Rayford attended Urban Underground’s summer youth program and learned the history about the March on Milwaukee during a trip to UWM.
“After learning about the marches, I felt inspired to be a young African American girl,” Rayford said. “I was moved by the strong will of everybody marching, and people my age knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. They believed in it each and every day, and continued to march.”
“It’s time for a change in Milwaukee again, and it starts with the young people because not only are you the future, you are the past,” Rayford said.