School Privatizer to Head US Department of Education

By Bob Peterson

In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for photographs at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. Trump has chosen charter school advocate DeVos as Education Secretary in his administration. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) (Carolyn Kaster)

While it is doubtful that US President-elect Donald Trump ever read George Orwell’s 1984, Trump’s cabinet choices appear to come right out of the doublethink that ruled Orwell’s dystopian society. In Orwell’s book, the Ministry of Plenty rationed essentials while the Ministry of Truth manufactured falsehoods.

Trump’s pick for the Secretary of Energy said last year he wanted to abolish the department. His choice for the Environmental Protection Agency is best known for suing the agency. His proposed Labor Secretary has criticized overtime, minimum wage and sick leave initiatives. His attorney general nominee has a long history of opposing voting rights, women’s rights and once said he decided he didn’t like the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan only after he learned they smoked marijuana.

However, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is perhaps the most extreme of Trump’s cabinet nominees. She has spent her entire adult life — and her family’s considerable wealth — mounting campaigns to transfer public dollars away from public schools and into private and religious schools.

The 59-year-old DeVos will be in charge of the U.S. Department of Education, which has 5,000 employees and a budget of $73 billion last year. Unlike many countries, the U.S. educational system is decentralized, with much power resting at the state and local level. However, federal policy initiatives have played a growing role in recent decades, particularly in shaping educational policy across the country.

Historically, the department has been focused on protecting civil rights in areas of class, race, and gender, and has focused its budget on public schools. Before he won the election, Trump announced his main education focus was to invest $20 billion in federal money to increase school choice.

In the United States, the term “school choice” has become code for supporting “independent” charter schools that are nominally public but privately controlled, More threatening, it is code for transferring public tax dollars to private schools, including religious schools, that operate with little to no public oversight. For instance, under U.S. law private schools are able to circumvent basic safeguards such as freedom of expression and gender rights. In general, neither their finances nor their curriculum are made public.

Betsy DeVos is the ideal candidate for such an unprecedented policy shift. She has had virtually nothing to do with public schools her entire life. She’s not an educator, nor has she worked for any public school institution. The main organizations she has headed, The Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children, were specifically set up to promote school privatization, and have spent millions of dollars electing local, state and national politicians.

DeVos hails from a wealthy family and married into an even wealthier one. Her father, Edgar Prince, was a politically active auto parts businessman. When not making money, he supported the creation of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian religious group that has been called a “hate” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBT views. DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, is founder of the security firm Blackwater, which ushered in the era of private contractors performing duties for the U.S. military in order to evade public outcry over U.S. operations in the Middle East. Its employees were found guilty of killing dozens of Iraqi civilians in a massacre in 2007.

When DeVos married Richard DeVos, Jr., her oligarchic empire expanded. Her father-in-law co-founded Amway, a pyramid marketing company that made millions for its founders. Richard DeVos, Sr., has also been a long-time supporter of right-wing religious and economic groups.

Forbes magazine estimated the net worth of the DeVos family as $5.1 billion. This puts DeVos in the top tier of Trump’s oligarchic cabinet — even richer than Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, who was the CEO of Exxon.

Betsy and her husband have continued their families’ right-wing political traditions. They have been powerbrokers in the Republican Party and have donated millions of dollars to right-wing think tanks, foundations, legal teams and political action committees.

Known as a smart and determined political organizer, Betsy DeVos understands the important role of labor unions, particularly public sector unions, in opposing privatization. Thus her strategy has long included attacks on unions and worker rights.

DeVos ability to bring religious groups into the privatization struggle is strengthened by her personal beliefs. In 2001, she told a group of Christian philanthropists that her work on school issues was a campaign to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

In fact, her positions are so extreme — against any form of government regulation of voucher or charter schools — that some supporters of school privatization have expressed concern about her appointment. The main association of charter schools in the state of Massachusetts, for instance, said that DeVos’s positions would “reduce the quality of charter schools across the country.”

The Republicans control both the Senate and House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress and it is expected that DeVos and Trump’s other nominees with be approved. But as the last year has made clear, political developments in the United States are highly unpredictable. The fight over the federal role in public education is far from settled.


Bob Peterson

Bob Peterson (bob.e.peterson@gmail.com) taught 5th grade for 30 years in the public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA). He is a writer, organizer and presenter and a founding editor of the Rethinking Schools magazine, and former President of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (NEA). He is co-editor of several books including: Rethinking Columbus, Rethinking Elementary Education, Rethinking Mathematics, Rethinking Globalization and Transforming Teacher Unions.

Originally published at educationincrisis.net.

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Trump and Our Students

Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

And so it begins. At a high school in rural Oregon, south of Portland, 30 to 40 white students celebrated Trump this week in front of a Confederate flag and taunted Latina/o students: “Pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow,” and “Tell your family goodbye.” Graffiti found in a Minnesota high school bathroom read,”#Gobacktoafrica Make America GReat again.” The Southern Poverty Law Center reports over 200 incidents of racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment and intimidation.

These are harbingers of the dangerous new era launched by the election of Donald Trump. And they underscore the importance of the work we have ahead.

But racist and xenophobic celebrations were not the only response to Trump’s election. In San Francisco, more than a thousand students walked out of class to join protest marches. As one student said, “We’re trying to inform people about white supremacy, racism, homophobia, everything.” And in the New York City high school where Rethinking Schools editor Adam Sanchez teaches, the art club hosted a “No Allegiance to White Supremacy” t-shirt-making gathering, while the Feminism and Black Lives Matter clubs held a joint emergency meeting to discuss the election. These responses are also harbingers: anticipating our schools and classrooms as sites of resistance to everything that Trump stands for. As in San Francisco, students in New York later took to the streets—marching more than 40 blocks from Union Square to Trump Tower. As did students at that Minnesota high school and throughout the country, from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Boulder to Des Moines.

Trump’s election is the single worst political event in our lives. And it’s right to mourn. But a Trump administration is also a call to action. For now, we need to listen to our students and create a space where they can talk, ask questions, and analyze what has happened. We can tell students that we will do whatever we can to make our schools—and our world—safe for them and their families. Part of that involves what we say and do in our classrooms and our schools, including how we work with students doing the taunting and writing the racist graffiti. And part involves the work we do within our unions and community groups, and the alliances we build with other justice-oriented organizations.

We will redouble our efforts to provide the teaching resources that help our students make sense of what is happening in our society, and how we got here. We have resources at Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project that look at other times when racial progress was rolled back by white supremacy. But social movements have made important progress during times that seemed hopeless, and we also have teaching materials that explore these. 

There will be lots more to say—and lots more to do. For now, we simply want to thank you for the work you do that is more essential than ever and to assure you that we are in this together.

With love and hope,
Rethinking Schools editors and staff
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Racisim, Xenophobia, and the Election

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools
Ricard Morales Levins
As teachers and students return to classrooms this fall, together we have to try to make sense of a tumultuous presidential campaign and a summer of racial violence that have forcefully surfaced the racism that plagues our nation.

Elementary and middle school students have grown up with an African American as president of the United States. This is a historic milestone. But these same students have also grown up in a nation that’s increasingly unequal, a country where police killed more Black people in 2015 than were lynched during the worst year of Jim Crow.

In the past several months, students have watched Donald Trump use racist, Islamophobic, misogynist, and anti-immigrant vitriol to whip up a terrifying level of support, with ominous repercussions no matter who wins the election.

Even as Black Lives Matter has spearheaded a growing movement against police violence, our children have been subjected to an unending stream of police murders of Black and Brown people, including the recent videos of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, wrote after watching those videos: “We all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option.”

We hope that teachers will view these disturbing developments not as issues too controversial to talk about, but rather as teachable moments to address white supremacy and our nation’s rich history of movements for justice and equality.

In these scary times, the courageous undocumented youth of the Dreamers, the Movement for Black Lives (a collective of more than 50 organizations, including the Black Lives Matter Network), and thousands of other activists are providing light and hope. Powerful teaching confronts the dangers squarely and also builds on their examples and those of other young people standing up for justice. When a student put up a “Build a Wall” banner in Forest Grove High School in Oregon, many students were outraged. The next day hundreds of them walked out in protest; as word spread through social media, students from seven other area high schools joined in. High school and college students in nearby Portland staged their own protest march later that week.

White fans at a high school girls’ soccer game in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, started chanting “Trump, build that wall” at the predominantly Black and Latina Beloit Memorial team. A few days later, the neighboring Evansville girls soccer team posted a video condemning the racist incident and expressing support for the Beloit team. At Beloit’s Big Eight Conference game against Janesville Craig, players from both teams stood side by side during pregame introductions as a show of solidarity against racism.

Trump and Our Classrooms

The “curriculum” of the presidential campaign inevitably finds its way into our schools and classrooms. As we reported in our summer issue, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the campaign is “producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions . . . [and] an increase in bullying, harassment, and intimidation of students whose races, religions, or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”

Trump’s ascendancy parallels the growth of extreme right-wing parties throughout much of Europe, where a toxic stew of austerity, economic anxiety, and the refugee crisis has fueled xenophobic and neo-fascist rallies, electoral victories, and violence.

His popularity also reflects the growth of racism and inequality in the United States, which has been exacerbated by policies pursued by both the Republican and Democratic parties. Internationally, pro-war policies have led to unspeakable suffering, wasted hundreds of billions of dollars, fostered terrorism, and destabilized whole swaths of the planet. Bipartisan “free trade” policies have thrown people out of work in the United States at the same time they have increased inequality abroad. Domestically the “war on drugs,” “three strikes,” zero-tolerance discipline policies, and other criminal justice “reforms” have led to unprecedented rates of mass incarceration of African Americans.

At the same time, we have witnessed an inspiring resurgence of demands for an end to police violence, for racial justice, for climate justice, for gender justice, for economic justice, for immigration justice. There’s a lot to talk about.

The polarization and racism of this election season make it especially important to create safe classrooms where students engage deeply in critical analysis. Of course, a student who is a member of a targeted group should never be singled out as a “spokesperson.” And perhaps it’s time to rethink traditional approaches to teaching about elections.

For example, many teachers routinely hold debates with students representing candidates from different parties (more than just the Democratic and Republican parties, we hope). However, this year such debates might be counterproductive. We don’t want to create classroom forums where students-as-candidates could repeat racist rants, nor should students be subjected to them. Slogans like “build that wall” are essentially racist slurs; “jail the bitch” is a sexist slur.

A better curricular route might be to look at the premises underlying key campaign issues — immigration from Mexico, for example — by asking questions: What is the history of the border between the United States and Mexico? How have initiatives like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) affected Mexican farmers and workers, and influenced immigration from Mexico? Who benefits and who is hurt — on both sides of the border — by “free trade?” (See “Who’s Stealing Our Jobs?”, and the Rethinking Schools book The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.) After this kind of study, students can more easily recognize a slogan like “build that wall” for the ignorant and hateful demagoguery that it is.

Instead of limiting classroom conversations to the issues as the campaigns define them, teachers can draw on the perspectives of activists who call into question the narrow two-party discourse and offer rich critiques of the racism, xenophobia, sexism, and Islamophobia heard on the campaign trail — and sometimes at school. (See “As a Teacher and a Daughter: The Impact of Islamophobia,” by Nassim Elbardouh, summer 2016.) This is the perfect time to invite local community and campus activists into our classrooms.

The issue of voter suppression is particularly relevant this election. President Obama’s election eight years ago and the changing demographics of the United States motivated Republican legislators and a conservative Supreme Court to roll back historic victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Teaching about the campaigns for the right to vote — for women, people of color, residents of Washington, DC, or Puerto Rico — exposes the racism and sexism endemic in our nation’s history, as well as the ongoing struggle to turn the United States into a democracy. It also opens up discussions about who can and can’t vote today, why it’s important to vote if you can, and ways to make your voice heard if you can’t.

What is particularly powerful are stories — from the past and from today — about youth working together against racism and other forms of oppression. Resources abound: children’s picture books, young adult novels, short stories, poetry, videos. Check out the archives for Rethinking Schoolsmagazine, our books, and the Zinn Education Project for ideas. Anti-racist teaching is important in all subject areas, not just social studies. Math classes can tackle the racial inequality of the criminal justice system, language arts classes can address gentrification, science classes can focus on environmental justice (see “Lead Poisoning: Bringing Social Justice to Chemistry,” by Karen Zaccor).

And then there’s action beyond the classroom walls. In addition to powerful examples like those of the students in Wisconsin and Oregon, teachers in North Carolina demonstrated at a Clinton rally where Obama was scheduled to speak. They demanded an end to deportations and that Clinton and Obama do everything in their power to release detained refugee youth.

Progressive school board members in various cities are promoting systematic approaches to fighting racism. In Milwaukee, despite objections by right-wing talk show hosts, the school board passed a Black Lives Matter resolution and put nearly half a million dollars in this year’s budget to fund implementation. In San Francisco, Albuquerque, Portland, Oregon, and other communities, educators, students, parents, and community activists have come together to fight racism through similar initiatives, such as ethnic studies programs. Many of these draw inspiration from Tucson, Arizona’s hugely successful Mexican American Studies program, outlawed in 2010 by conservative lawmakers. These are the kind of long-term, institutional responses that educators, students, and community members are fighting for.

We need to seize on teachable moments to address racism and white supremacy during this election cycle and, after that, continue and increase our efforts. From the dinner table to the classroom, from staff meetings to school boards, educators need to find ways to put the issue of race and racism front and center and keep it there.

We know time is short before the elections, but the damage wrought by racist comments and slurs fueled by the campaign will be long-lasting. And the anti-racist teaching that emerges because of thoughtful parents and educators — and from students who demand more relevant curricula — will flower and bear fruit long after November’s election. ◼


Originally published at www.rethinkingschools.org.

Making Climate Change Part of the School Curriculum

By Katy Farber

Originally published at momscleanairforce.org.

It can be a confusing time to be a kid. People on the TV, internet, and radio say conflicting things — about climate change — with seriousness and determination. How hard to tell truth from fiction!

We know that scientists agree that human caused climate change is real, and it is hurting people and ecosystems across the globe.

How can we help students understand this complex issue, and inspire them to work toward creative solutions?

Here at Moms Clean Air Force we are asked how teachers and parents can make sure climate education is part of the curriculum. We were excited to hear about Portland, Oregon’s school board climate justice resolution which “abandoned the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities,” and called for all schools to teach a “climate justice” curriculum.

Shortly after that, the National Education Association voted to support the Portland resolution and to encourage state and local affiliates to create and promote climate literacy resolutions in their own communities, using the Portland resolution as a model. The NEA has over 3 million members.

We wanted to know more, so we reached out to Bill Bigelow curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine. Rethinking Schools has been distributing “seed packets” to parents, teachers, and activists around the country, which include a copy of Portland’s school climate resolution, lesson resources, and excerpts from the Rethinking Schools book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

Moms Clean Air Force: Amazing progress in Portland and with the National Education Association, Bill. Why do you think climate education is being supported now? What was the tipping point for Portland?

Bill Bigelow: The resolution in Portland grew out of a workshop that Tim Swinehart and I led on our book for climate justice activists in Portland. People were shocked when we shared with them Portland’s “official” curriculum on climate change, which not only is very puny, but even doubts that it is happening. “Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect,” one current social studies text says. Climate activists had recently organized to get the city council to pass an excellent resolution opposing any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland, and so we had the idea to get the school board to pass a resolution acknowledging that climate change is real, is human-caused, is serious, and that it’s urgent that we teach about it across the curriculum.

I suppose you could say that the tipping point was the gulf between what we know about the climate crisis and what the school curriculum included. It had become too huge to ignore. I think that’s true across the country.

What has the reaction been to the Portland resolution?

The resolution in Portland was passed with the support of more than 30 community, education, and environmental justice organizations. So for many people the reaction was jubilation that the school board would unanimously pass this measure. On the other hand, the right wing and climate denial crowd around the country recognized immediately that this was something that could catch on in other communities, and they attacked it as censorship, mocked the idea of “climate justice,” and tried to discredit some of us who led the initiative. We were gratified that the country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, endorsed the Portland resolution and urged members across the country to organize to get their own climate literacy resolutions passed. We also had wonderful support from parents, and Climate Parents, which organized a MoveOn petition drive to thank the Portland school board for passing such an important resolution.

Are you seeing more schools, parents, and teachers taking an interest in climate education for students?

Yes. I’ve heard from people all over the country about the Portland climate resolution. And the NEA resolution was introduced not just by Portland teachers but also people in Washington, California, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Rethinking Schools received a small grant to send out “seed packets” to teachers, parents, climate activists and others interested in sponsoring a resolution similar to Portland’s. We have sent these out to teachers and parents across the country.

How can parents and teachers best advocate for climate education in their school systems and states?

The first thing is for concerned parents, teachers, and community members to come together and begin talking about the character of climate education being offered in one’s school district. What curriculum material is in use? Look at the relevant textbooks. As I mentioned, our group in Portland began with a workshop around the book A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, to give people a sense about what we mean by “climate justice” — i.e., that the curriculum needs to feature the voices of people from “frontline” communities, the ones hardest hit by the climate crisis; we need to be exploring the deep social roots of the climate crisis, and we need a curriculum of hope — to put kids in touch with activists who are working for a fossil-free future.

And the kids! How can students take on a leadership role in climate education in the classroom and beyond?

From the very first meeting in Portland, we had students involved in our work — middle and high school students. Some came from Sunnyside Environmental School, a public K-8 school in Portland that focuses its curriculum on environmental awareness. Sunnyside has sponsored annual teach-ins on climate change, on energy issues. This is how students come to take on a leadership role in this: They participate in a curriculum that equips them to understand the enormity of the climate crisis, and also highlights people all around the world who are acting to address it. My experience is that young people want meaningful work, they want to make a difference. But they need to be engaged in an environmental justice curriculum that invites them to be part of the solution.

What is your sense about the future of climate education and action in our country?

That’s a big question. There is such an enormous gap between students’ need to understand the science and social forces underlying the climate crisis and what schools are teaching about it. This is where outside pressure becomes so important. What happens — or doesn’t happen — in schools is of concern to all of us. Environmental organizations, parents, community activists, educators, and students need to band together to demand that school districts get rid of biased, climate denying materials, and launch a process of robust professional development and curriculum creation so that students see clearly what’s at stake and the urgency this issue deserves. Our group in Portland is a good example of the good things that can happen when even a small group of parents, teachers, activists, and students starts to organize and demand change.

Are there climate curriculum models for other districts. What other schools are leading the way?

Portland is the furthest along, and we have only just begun. As a result of the passage of the climate justice resolution, we have begun meeting with the Portland Public Schools administration about the implementation of the resolution. This fall we’ll be sponsoring workshops for teachers with Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a remarkable poet from the Marshall Islands, who gives voice to people who are some of the most vulnerable to the devastating impact of climate change. We will also be conducting a full review of text materials to evaluate these for bias and how adequately they address the human causes of the climate crisis, and its severity. Our Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference will also feature a number of climate-related workshops this fall. The book that Tim Swinehart and I edited, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, is the only one I’m aware of that features role plays, simulations, student-friendly readings, and detailed lesson plans on climate change, and the environmental crisis more broadly. Tim and I began work on this book in 2007, so it’s been a long time in the making. I hope people consider using this as a resource.

Thank you to Bill for talking with us about your work to bring climate education into our nation’s schools. Moms Clean Air Force has a picture book for this very purpose, called Every Breath We Take, for younger children, with free lesson plans HERE.

JOIN THE FORCE

Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality on the Radio!

 

KPFA, the San Francisco Bay Area progressive radio station, recently ran an engaging hour-long show on Rethinking Schools’ new book Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality. Kate Raphael, producer of KPFA’s Women’s Magazine, interviewed RSGS editor and contributor Jody Sokolower and contributors Liza Gesuden, Candice Valenzuela, and A.J. Jennings. The far-ranging conversation included how to talk with 3-year-olds about gender, the challenges of facilitating a Black girls group, what is intersectionality anyway? and teaching sex-positive sexuality.

You can catch  the interview here: http://kpfa.org/program/womens-magazine orhttp://kpfawomensmag.blogspot.com.

The Roots of Racist Violence in Milwaukee

Editor’s note: Milwaukee is the latest city to erupt as a result of the police shooting of a Black man. As in Ferguson and Baltimore, the outrage in Milwaukee last weekend was rooted in long-standing anger toward the city’s multi-faceted racism. Milwaukee has been home to Rethinking Schools since our founding in 1986. Its schools cannot be separated from the city’s history of racism and racial violence.  At her blog, “View from the Heartland,” Barbara Miner notes that “Milwaukee has a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the worst city in the country to raise an African American child. The city’s intense segregation and disparity did not happen overnight, but are the result of decades of practices and policies.” Miner is the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools and author of Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of Lessons from the Heartland. The chapter details the tumultuous events of the summer of 1967—both the city’s long-standing practice of valuing law and order over social justice, and the power of sustained grass-roots organizing.

Also see Miner’s 2012-2013 Rethinking Schools article on the origins of the school voucher movement in Milwaukee.
. . .

Chapter 7

1967–68: OPEN HOUSING MOVES TO CENTER STAGE

A Good Groppi Is a Dead Groppi.
—White supremacist sign during Milwaukee’s open housing marches

lessons2bfrom2bheartland2bphotoExcept for Alderman Vel Phillips, who had been raising the issue for five years, no alderman would even consider the topic [of Open Housing]. “Seventeen white Milwaukee aldermen listened silently for 30 minutes Tuesday while their lone Negro colleague urged them to consider the adoption of a city fair housing ordinance,” the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote of the day’s events. “Then, without a word of comment or criticism, they voted to reject the proposal.”

That summer, Phillips got support from outside the council. Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council launched their Open Housing campaign, demanding the city pass legislation prohibiting discrimination in the sale, lease, and rental of housing property in Milwaukee. The campaign began with picketing outside the homes of prominent aldermen. On July 30, however, the marches were interrupted by what in Milwaukee are known as the 1967 Riots, part of a national explosion of pent-up Black rage.

In Milwaukee, as in other cities, anger in the Black community had long simmered over police brutality, unemployment, housing discrimination, school segregation, political and economic disenfranchisement, and the refusal of the white power structure to acknowledge the pressing need for change. On July 12, 1967, disturbances broke out in Newark, New Jersey, sparked when two white policemen arrested a black cabdriver for improperly passing them. Rumors that the cabbie had been killed led to six days of rage, leaving 26 people dead. Less than a week after the end of Newark’s riots, Detroit was in flames. Police action—this time against an after- hours bar—once again lit the fire. Disturbances grew so intense that not only did the governor call out the Michigan National Guard, but President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in army troops equipped with machine guns and tanks. The riots lasted five days, leaving 43 people dead and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

Milwaukee’s two-day upheaval began the night of July 30. By national standards, it was a relatively small disturbance. But it left whites in Milwaukee absolutely terrified, and it had a lasting impact on the city’s psyche.

The outbreak was fueled by rumors that a white policeman had killed an African American boy. Before long, the central city was beset with arson, gunshots, and looting. At around 3:00 a.m., Mayor Henry Maier instituted a 24-hour curfew and asked that the National Guard be called out. Only emergency and medical personnel were to leave their homes. Mail delivery and bus service were suspended. Those who violated the curfew were subject to immediate arrest.

The following morning, the city’s freeways and streets were empty and still. Six armored personnel carriers, each mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun, were ordered into the Milwaukee area. In the central city, the Milwaukee Journal reported, “every pedestrian and civilian vehicle was challenged by troops armed with bayonet-tipped rifles.” The riots left four people dead, almost a hundred injured, and 1,740 arrested.

Maier’s show of force was widely praised as saving the city from even more devastating consequences. At the same time, nothing of substance was done to alleviate the conditions leading to the unrest and anger in the African American community. [emphasis added.]

Shortly after the riots, Father Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council again took up their demands for open housing. And, just as they had crossed into the suburb of Wauwatosa, the civil rights demonstrators were not afraid to venture into white supremacist strongholds of Milwaukee. The decision led to the now legendary marches across the Sixteenth Street Viaduct separating the city’s downtown and Inner Core from the South Side.

On Monday, August 28, 1967, protesters gathered at St. Boniface in the central city. For the first time, they set out for the South Side, infamous as a stronghold of ethnic whites opposed to civil rights.

In a tribute to Father Groppi’s reputation among his former South Side parishioners, a small group of supportive whites from St. Veronica’s met the demonstrators at the beginning of their march across the bridge.1 By the time the protesters walked the half mile across the bridge, however, matters had changed. Most of the 3,000 whites on the other side were hostile, with signs that read “A Good Groppi Is a Dead Groppi.” Some yelled “Sieg heil,” others “Go back to Africa.” The marchers continued. Before long, counterdemonstrators along the march route were throwing bottles, stones, and chunks of wood at them. Another 5,000 white counterdemonstrators were waiting when the civil rights protesters arrived at their destination, Kosciuszko Park in the heart of the South Side.

The next night, Groppi and the Youth Council once again headed to the South Side. This time, an estimated 13,000 counterdemonstrators challenged them. Once again, Groppi and the marchers continued. After their march, they returned to their Freedom House in the Inner Core. At about 9:30 p.m., the house was on fire. Groppi said the police started the fire with tear gas; the police said a firebomb had been tossed into the house by an unknown person. When fire trucks arrived, the police would not let them near, citing reports of gunshots and fears of a sniper. “Youth council members said the gunshots came from police weapons,” writes journalist Frank Aukofer in his civil rights history of Milwaukee. “No arsonist or sniper ever was found.”2

After the day’s events, Mayor Maier banned nighttime demonstrations. On the night of August 30, however, Groppi held a rally at the burned-out Freedom House and led a march down city streets. Police ultimately arrested 58 people.3 The next night, declaring that Maier’s ban violated their First Amendment rights of assembly, marchers headed toward city hall. Some 137 people were arrested, including Alderman Phillips and Father Groppi.

Within days, the mayor was forced to lift his ban. Keeping their promise to continue marching every day, Father Groppi and the Youth Council didn’t stop even during the cold winter months, when temperatures sometimes dipped below zero.

On the South Side, white racists organized Milwaukee Citizens for Closed Housing, led by a white priest, Father Russell Witon. Decrying  “forced open housing,” Father Witon and his supporters organized counterdemonstrations at the Milwaukee archdiocesan chancery office and in the central city. The group, however, had more fury than staying power. Their efforts dwindled.

Open housing supporters, meanwhile, refused to give up. Beginning with the walk across the Sixteenth Street Viaduct on August 28, 1967, they continued with marches and protests for 200 consecutive days.4 Finally, propelled by national events, Milwaukee’s power brokers realized they could no longer hold onto the past. On April 30, 1968, Milwaukee’s Common Council finally passed the open housing bill. The vote occurred two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated during his campaign in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Riots of rage broke out across the country. In Milwaukee, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people marched somberly but peacefully through downtown.

The open housing legislation ended a long chapter in Milwaukee’s civil rights struggles, spanning almost a decade and involving the city’s seminal civil rights leaders and organizations. As early as 1961, [Desegregation activist Lloyd] Barbee helped organize a 13-day sit-in at the state capitol to ban discrimination in housing. In 1965, by that time a legislator, Barbee successfully co-sponsored statewide open housing legislation, but even supporters acknowledged it was a weak bill. In Milwaukee, meanwhile, Phillips and Groppi were pushing the more comprehensive local ordinance.

Barbee, Phillips, Groppi, and countless other activists easily moved between housing, school, and employment issues. They believed not only that the issues were inherently intertwined but also that they all had deep roots in overarching problems of racism and discrimination. …