200 Nights of Freedom

Yeah, the 1960s. America was known as a hotbed of radicalism, not just in politics, but also when dealing with human rights as well as the general attitude of people. In spite of Milwaukee’s proud history of Socialist mayors, the systemic mistreatment of black and brown folks meant that here, there were more changes to come.

These were just some of the attributes that proved Milwaukee was in the vanguard of a cultural revolution, with some later referring to it as the “Selma of the North.” Not only were black folk marching and demanding change, but the Latino/a/x community as well, looking to and being inspired by the housing freedom marches. “Throughout the 1940s through the 1960s, Milwaukee had one of the most prosperous black communities in the entire country, a statement you do not hear often. The population went from 7,500 in 1930 to 105,000 by 1970 because of the amount of opportunity here,” says Milwaukee activist Adam Carr. Too many of us have forgotten or never learned about the Black-and-Latinx-led activism in the city, and as the protests unfold in 2020, there is no better time to connect with this important local history.

What we remember as a thriving Black-majority Walnut Street neighborhood stretched from 3rd to 12th Streets. Since almost all of the buildings have been demolished, Elm and Roosevelt are relevant landmarks for pointing to where it used to be. There were no laws in place that held landlords accountable and people of color were crammed into dense and undesirable living conditions. Housing discrimination was legal and widely practiced in Milwaukee.

The NAACP Youth Council of Milwaukee held protests and were joined by Father James Groppi. Soon after, Vel Phillips, Milwaukee’s first female and first Black alderman, presented a bill in the Common Council to introduce fair housing in Milwaukee. After it was voted down, she formed a partnership with the Youth Council and was ready to march alongside them. At the forefront were The Commandos, a group created as a security detail for the Youth Council, a necessary force to defend the youngsters. The bills Philips presented were continually voted down, so on August 28, 1967, the Youth Council marched across the 16th St. Viaduct to protest residential segregation. They made it to Koscziusko Park but were continually met by angry mobs looking to uphold the whiteness of the city, particularly on the South Side. Counter-protesters held “White Power” signs brandishing Nazi symbology. The second day of marching saw tragedy as the MPD burned down the NAACPs Milwaukee headquarters, the Freedom House. They claimed they saw a sniper on the roof and shot tear gas canisters into the building, which lit a fire. Protests went on for 200 nights in total, stretching all over the city.

Dr. Robert Smith and Adam Carr came together as part of the 50th anniversary of the open housing marches in 2016. It is a subject they are both passionate about, and it became a rich collaboration, collecting stories from leaders, Commandos and the community that was involved. They realized that this history was critically important, not just as a piece of Milwaukee history, but as a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. When it comes to Milwaukee, those are generally overlooked. 

Many people involved in the fair housing marches are still here, and were enthusiastic about sharing their stories, as well as contributing to having a coordinating community to honor their history. Just as their plans were coming to fruition, the Sherman Park unrest unfolded and they diverted their attention to uplifting voices and supporting grassroots organizations at that time. They soldiered on, brainstorming ideas as to what they could do to honor the events, and decided on 200 nights honoring the marches. The events ranged from potlucks, to film screenings and storytelling, complete with appearances by Commandos and key players from the day. Schools in Milwaukee have added the 200 nights of freedom marches to their curriculum, something that is truly important. Smith and Carr go to these schools as well and give their presentation, thoughtfully, with their extensive knowledge at the forefront.

During these times, the 200 nights presentation provides a glimmer of hope to people who are sadly still marching for fair treatment. While fists are raised to a seemingly unresponsive system, recalling the events of the past show us that with our continued efforts, monologue can become dialogue, which will lead to changes that are so desperately needed.

From the Shepherd Express


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