Editor’s note: This is one in a series of 15 pieces about the Milwaukee Open Housing marches, which took place 50 years ago beginning on Aug. 28, 1967.Download a free copy of “The Long March to Freedom” ebook, a compilation of all the articles in this series.
Fifty years separate the Milwaukee open housing marches from the civil unrest in Sherman Park that took place last August. However, Barbara David Salas, a member of the NAACP Youth Council in the 1960s, and a participant in the marches across Milwaukee’s “Mason-Dixon line” in 1967-1968, says that the city still has invisible barriers that hold back people of color.
“Issues that were brought to the spotlight in 1967 have not been resolved yet today,” Salas said. “Just because you have a neighbor that is African-American, does not mean the world has changed for your neighbor.”
Recent studies show that not much has changed in the city of Milwaukee in the past half-century. According to a 2013 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study, fewer than 9 percent of African-Americans in the Milwaukee metropolitan area reside in the suburbs.
A 2016 study conducted by the National Urban League also found that Milwaukee has the second-largest income gap between whites and African-Americans. In addition, 17.3 percent of blacks reported being jobless compared to just 4.3 percent of whites.
According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee report, the city has the highest incarceration rate in the country for African-American men. Additionally, two-thirds of incarcerated men come from the six poorest ZIP codes. The gap in high school graduation rates among African-Americans and whites is also the highest in the nation.
The Sherman Park neighborhood is an example of these disparities. The median household income is $26,676 compared to $43,385 in the city as a whole; and the unemployment rate is 14.2 percent in the mostly black community, compared to 3.9 percent for the city.
Salas, who remains a civil rights activist, has seen the racial divisions in the city firsthand. In addition to marching across what is now called the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge during the 1967-1968 marches, her family was involved in the Milwaukee school desegregation lawsuit. She sees similarities between the Sherman Park civil unrest and the open housing marches.
“I don’t believe in violence; the people in the Sherman Park neighborhood don’t believe in violence; vandalism is against the law,” Salas said. “However, people tend to put the emphasis on that rather than the underlying issue.”
“If somebody is not willing to stand up and force the issue, nothing is going to happen. We still unfairly put a burden on our African-American citizens.”
Although Salas acknowledges there have been signs of progress, she still believes more needs to be done in terms of equality and justice.
“It (housing law) was a very visible issue that was addressed in many portions of the country,” Salas said. “There are as many serious or more serious issues but they’re not being addressed.”
“White privilege exists in this country, and people do not address that issue. They deny it. They declare that their privilege has been earned by their ancestors. These are the issues that are going to have to be taken on before this becomes a society where everyone has a fair chance,” she added.
Many of the frustrations Salas expressed were manifested in the Sherman Park uprising, she said.
At the same time, citizens there feel like the government is idle in addressing their concerns and problems. According to Salas, individuals nationwide need to wake up and realize these issues still exist.
“People just cannot seem to wrap their heads around the fact that if you believe in justice, then you have to stop putting the burden on one group,” Salas said. “We unfairly put a burden on our African-American citizens to solve the problem…. The problem is all of ours, and the people most responsible for solving it should be the people in power.”
“If they’re not willing to do it, then pressure needs to be put on them.”