Civil Rights activists campaign against de facto segregation in Milwaukee schools, 1964-1966

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Time Period:  
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
To end de facto segregation, placing blacks and whites in separate classes in the same schools, in Milwaukee.

In 1963, nearly ten years after the Brown vs. Board of Education court case declared school segregation illegal, de facto rather than legal segregation remained prevalent in many northern cities of the United States including Milwaukee. Milwaukee had begun “intact busing” of black children to predominately white schools in 1957, where black children were taught in classrooms separate from white children and were not served in the cafeterias.

Lloyd Barbee, an African American lawyer and the Wisconsin State Chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), moved to Milwaukee in 1961. He planned to start a campaign to end segregation in Milwaukee schools. He worked with the Milwaukee NAACP to organize a campaign. He also persuaded social scientists from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and Marquette to gather the data and evidence necessary for a lawsuit. As it turned out, almost two decades passed before the civil rights activists won their case.

In July 1963 Barbee gave a public speech charging the Milwaukee school system with intentional segregation. He sent a letter to the state superintendent of schools Angus Rothwell with this charge, demanding desegregation.

Superintendent Rothwell replied saying that he would not act against illegal segregation in Milwaukee schools without proof of its existence.

In December 1963 the campaign began to mobilize community groups. Barbee and the NAACP demanded that the Board of Directors of Milwaukee schools draft plans to end segregation by 30 January 1964 and threatened a direct action campaign and legal action if the board failed to meet the deadline.

On 21 January 1964 Barbee walked out of a meeting with the “Special Committee on Equality of Educational Opportunity,” or the Story Committee, when the committee refused to allow representatives from other civil rights organizations join the table. Twenty-five civil rights activists marched down the hall of the school carrying Barbee on their shoulders, singing the civil rights hymn, “We Shall Overcome.”

That same month the movement received a boost when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Milwaukee in support of their desegregation campaign. King spoke to an audience of 6,000 at the Milwaukee auditorium. Twenty members of the Milwaukee Congress of Racial Equality (MCORE) turned their backs when the mayor spoke and unfurled a banner reading, “Our Mayor Can’t be a Roadblock to Civil Rights.”

When the school board did not act by the deadline of 30 January, thirty mostly African Americans including community leaders picketed in front of the schools that were receiving bused African American students. At the same time 350 mostly African American protesters marched to the school administration headquarters to protest the board’s inaction. Both groups of protesters distributed leaflets.

The picketing of schools lasted two weeks. Some members of the white community staged counter protests. Fifteen white teenagers booed the civil rights demonstrators and carried signs reading “2-4-6-8 we don’t want to integrate.” Police removed eight white mothers who blocked the path of picketers.

On 1 March the civil rights leaders of Milwaukee held a mass rally at St. Mark’s African Episcopal Church to announce that they would boycott the schools, a tactic that had previously been used in seven other northern cities. Parents attending the meeting supported and applauded the leaders. The civil rights organizations formed Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) to act as an umbrella organization to direct the campaign. MUSIC members enlisted support for their campaign by traveling between churches, taverns, and by going door to door. They also distributed leaflets, held meetings, hosted dances for students, and held workshops for parents. They organized two pre-boycott marches.

The first boycott began on 18 May 1964, the tenth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Barbee estimated that 15,000 participated in the boycott, and that 11,000 attended one of 33 “Freedom Schools” run in African American church basements teaching African American history. Three hundred twenty people volunteered to teach at the freedom schools. The volunteers included: college students, businessmen, college professors, other professionals, blue collar workers, clergy, retired teachers, and public school teachers.

The boycott energized African American students who began their own direct action campaign through the Milwaukee Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (MSNCC). They picketed African American ministers who had not allowed their facilities to be used for freedom schools, calling them “Uncle Toms.” On 4 August, they marched on the school administration building, and disrupted a STORY committee meeting with freedom songs. They left the meeting chanting “Jim Crow must go!” They later similarly disrupted a meeting of the board.

The campaign was put on hold at the end of July 1964 as the national civil rights campaign called for a moratorium on demonstrations for the Presidential election.

In the spring of 1965 MUSIC threatened further direct action if the school board would not act to end segregation by 15 May. The STORY committee responded that they had already acted by instituting an open enrollment policy and a compensatory education program.

Meanwhile, MCORE waged its own direct action campaign disrupting a school board meeting on 4 May with prayer and singing, and staging a two-day sit-in outside the superintendent’s office

The school administration did not act by MUSIC’s deadline. Barbee outlined the campaign’s next plan of action: “We will have an all-summer long program of direct action. If the school board doesn’t get off the dead center of inaction, we’re going to see to it that Milwaukee has the kind of boycott this nation has never seen- in both scope and duration.”

On 24 May MUSIC began “human chain-in” actions where activists in chains blocked buses transporting African American students to predominately white schools. MCORE continued sit-in and prayer protests targeting school administrators.

Administrators insisted that integrating classes at schools receiving bused students was unfeasible. The tactic of blocking school buses drew loud criticism in the press.

MUSIC agreed to end blocking school buses on 18 June and filed a lawsuit in the court to end de facto segregation, on behalf of 41 African American and white students and their parents.

On 28 August MUSIC sponsored a march of 800 demonstrators to mobilize for the second school boycott. On 16 September Barbee announced the boycott would begin 18 October and last for a week.

The boycott plan received wide criticism in Milwaukee newspapers, and school officials vowed to prosecute participants and organizers under truancy laws. State officials declined action on the boycott calling it a local issue. The Mayor of Milwaukee tried to stave off the campaign by declaring a War on Prejudice, but this did not attract interest.

In late September the Catholic community came out in support of the second boycott, and offered to run freedom schools on their grounds. When the Bishop forbade their participation in the boycott, priests ignored his orders. This internal conflict within the church was very significant for the city because the population of Milwaukee was 40% Catholic.

On 18 October, the first day of the boycott, between 4,000 and 7,000 students missed school. MUSIC estimated that 5,000 students attended a freedom school. Activists picketed schools during the day and youth marched to officials’ homes at night where they picketed and sang in protest. MUSIC called off the boycott after three and a half days.

MUSIC directed the energy generated by the boycotts to block the construction of two planned schools that were located where they would serve African American students and perpetuate segregation. On the fifth and sixth of December twenty-two civil rights demonstrators blocked the entrance of the construction site.

Construction workers forced their way through the demonstrators and police arrested eleven of the demonstrators. The other demonstrators ended their blockade and sang freedom songs.

Protests at the site continued for two weeks. Activists blocked construction equipment, chained themselves to equipment, and created diversions to allow others to get into the into the site and block equipment. The protest of the new school sites ended with 350 people marching from the sites to the school administration on 17 December.

MUSIC attempted a third boycott in the spring of 1966, but lower absentee figures and a higher discrepancy between absences and Freedom school attendance caused MUSIC to call off future boycott attempts, ending their direct action campaign.

Instead, the MUSIC coalition focused on research and the lawsuit. The NAACP won the lawsuit in 1976, and a plan to desegregate Milwaukee schools was enacted in 1979.

Research Notes

1. Civil rights campaigns waged through out the nation, especially ones waged against segregation in schools and northern cities and conducted by the Wisconsin NAACP.

BETAmchsAdmin, Harold S. Vincent, 1918,1968. Milwaukee Co. Historical Society. 25, February 2011. Accessed: 27, April 2013.

Jones, Patrick Damien. “ ‘The Selma of the North:’ Race relations an civil rights insurgency in Milwaukee 1958-1970.” The University of Wisconsin, Madison [Doctoral Thesis]. 2002. Accessed: February 16, 2013.

United States Commission on Civil Rights. Wisconsin Advisory Committee. “Impact of school desegregation in Milwaukee public schools on quality of education for minorities- 15 years later.” Washington D.C.: United States Commission on Civil Rights. Wisconsin Advisory Committee. 1992. Rights: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2005. Accessed: 27, April 2013.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Jonathan White, 17/04/2013