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


To end de facto segregation, placing blacks and whites in separate classes in the same schools, in Milwaukee.

Time period

January, 1964 to March, 1966


United States

Location City/State/Province

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Jump to case narrative


Lloyd Barbee, Calvin Sherard, Isaac Coggs, Marilyn Morheuser
Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC), the coalition of civil rights groups


NAACP, MCORE, NNPC, Elk’s Civil Liberties Committee, Milwaukee Chapter of SNCC (MSNCC), Milwuakee Negro American Labor Council, the Wisconsin Baptist Convention, Milwaukee Citizens for Equal Opportunity, the Marquette Faculty Association for Interracial Justice, Student Equality Fellowship (UW-Milwaukee), the Ninth Senatorial District Young Democrats, Americans for Democratic Action, Students for Racial Equality (SURE)(Marquette), Milwaukee Democrats for Freedom, and local churches.

External allies

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Involvement of social elites

Not known


The school administration of Milwaukee and the city government of Milwaukee.

Nonviolent responses of opponent

White students and parents staged counter protests.

Campaigner violence

Not known

Repressive Violence

Not known


Human Rights



Group characterization

African Americans

Groups in 1st Segment

African Americans

Groups in 2nd Segment


Segment Length

4 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

1 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

5 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

The campaigners won a lawsuit and ended segregation fifteen years after the end of the direct action phase of the campaign.

Database Narrative

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.

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

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

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.

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.


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