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"Looking further than the skin": Wisconsin's struggle over segregation

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

A "Great Migration" of southern blacks to the northern industrial states began during World War I, and it finally reached Wisconsin in the late 1940s. During the 1950s and 1960s the rapid growth of Milwaukee's black community and the rise of the national civil rights movement forced Wisconsinites to address racial equality as never before.

In the early 1960s, Milwaukee had been segregated for many years. Many whites were reluctant to live in integrated areas. Even some members of the black community were unenthusiastic about housing integration. They worried that dispersing from the predominantly black "Inner Core" of the city would dissipate their political power and make it difficult for them to maintain a sense of racial identity and pride.

Nevertheless, in 1962 the Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a campaign to integrate the Milwaukee public schools (MPS) and Milwaukee housing. Protest marches and political action failed, and in 1965 the NAACP resorted to the courts: it filed a lawsuit, arguing that MPS's policy of neighborhood schools denied black children equal educational opportunity.

Wisconsin and the nation went through troubled times as the school case worked its way through the courts. Milwaukee escaped the riots which plagued other northern cities in 1965 and 1966, but its luck ran out in 1967. Marches for open housing met with violence and deep hostility outside the Inner Core, and in July the city was torn by a riot.

The city council refused to take action to integrate housing, and in 1968 the NAACP challenged it in the courts. Federal judge Robert Tehan concluded that "race [was] a factor of almost transcendent significance" in determining Milwaukee housing patterns, and he ordered the council not to suspend action on open housing. In early 1968 the council passed a strong housing ordinance. Whether the ordinance helped blacks find better housing is debatable, but it was at least a small first step toward change.

In 1976, federal Judge John Reynolds issued a decision in the school case. Reynolds painted a picture of a school system in crisis. He found that Inner Core schools did not receive their fair share of new facilities and equipment and that black students lagged badly behind white students in virtually every measure of achievement. He concluded MPS had never been motivated by a desire to hurt black students, but he said that was not enough under the law: under the U.S. Constitution, MPS had to do more to integrate the schools.

MPS then consulted with the NAACP and developed a desegregation plan. The plan called for school busing, and in a departure from what most other large cities were doing it also called for a student exchange plan between schools in Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs. In 1976 the Legislature approved the suburban exchange plan, which became known as the "Chapter 220" program.

The plan worked well at first. Integration in MPS increased in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But white families continued to migrate steadily to the suburbs, and as a result integration became more difficult. By 1984, more than half the students in MPS were black. MPS became convinced that suburban support was the key to integration, and in 1984 it filed a new lawsuit against suburban districts. In 1987, MPS and the suburban districts reached a settlement under which the suburbs agreed to increase minority hiring in the schools and try to make more housing available for blacks. But as will be seen in a future article, that was not enough.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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