Monday, January 10, 2011

Grizzled civil rights warriors pass the torch

Reuben Harpole speaks as Harry Oden, George Sanders and Paul Blackman look on.
Milwaukee’s Reuben Harpole grew up at 807 W. Somers St, in the shadow of the Lay’s potato chips and the Wonder bread plants, a stone’s throw from bustling Walnut St., where black-owned restaurants, haberdasheries and other establishments thrived and the Regal Theater swung to the likes of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie.bands.

Wiped out by "progress" - housing projects and a freeway - this one-time hub of black Milwaukee lives only in memories now. It served as a backdrop in the saga of the struggle for racial fairness and justice in the city, as told by Harpole and other oldtimers at a forum the other day.

A side show developed on Facebook when two days prior to the event a young man replied with bahs and humbugs to the forum’s announcement.  

“I see no record of impact they have [on] … epidemic conditions of Black Milwaukee,” he wrote of the panelists, starting a string of back-and-forth commentary

No doubt, members of my father’s generation would be chuckling now. The curse parents secretly bestow on their troublesome offspring – may you have children like you – has been fulfilled.

Back in the 1960s we young know-it-alls scoffed at our elders for accommodating white racism. We confronted it. We marched and picketed and sat in and demanded equal rights. We refused to scrape and bow. No, we weren’t loud about our superiority – well, maybe a few of us were.  Mostly we were just quietly smug. We’re putting our bodies on the line, and you didn’t.

Now what goes around has come around. So a young man attacks a panel of older activists, saying they did nothing for the cause of racial justice, offering as Exhibit A the continuing blight in the neighborhood around Coffee Makes You Black coffee house, 2803 N. Teutonia Ave., where the forum took place. It was titled “Grizzled Black Men Discuss Their Historic and Ongoing Struggle on Behalf of the Black Community.” The eight panelists were all at least 70 years old.

Harpole, black Milwaukee’s oral historian, related pieces of the struggle. He noted the epic push for open housing in the 1960s. And he told of his involvement with The Milwaukee Star in an era when black weeklies were fresh and urgent. He was the newspaper’s advertising director.

Paul Blackman, retired labor leader, recalled a flashpoint in the marathon series of open housing marches, when it encountered violent resistance on the white ethnic south side: "I was on the 16th Street Bridge dodging bottles from some of our Polish neighbors."

He related how he led A. O. Smith steelworkers on strike, shutting down Chrysler, Ford and General Motors in the process. The Milwaukee plant was the world’s largest maker of automobile frames. In the end, the union got everything it wanted. The lesson: "If you are organized, anything is possible.”

My generation was wrong – very wrong – about our elders. We came to realize that it was on their shoulders that we stood as we fought racism. Our parents forged strong families through much work and sacrifice and gave the children the security and strength to permit them to challenge the social order.

Besides, “accomodationist” oversimplifies that generation. My own dad, for instance, refused to surrender his dignity when growing up dirt-poor in Birmingham, Ala., a city synonymous with racial oppression. The rule among kids was that, when the police came, you ran. But according to family lore, my dad refused to run, to the exasperation of his playmates, especially his older brother. My dad was polite in dealing with the police, but he stood his ground.

My father’s generation emerged into adulthood in the 1940s; the panelists did so the next decade, and my wisdom teeth broke out in the ‘60s. The civil rights revolution was mainly waged by the ’50s and ’60s generations.

It is not crystal clear whether the Facebook critic is attacking a whole generation. He faults two of the panelists by name – Harpole and black business advocate Curtiss Harris – charging they have sat on economic development boards with zero benefits for the black community. But he attacks the panel as a whole, too. And since the panelists have been involved in Milwaukee’s and the nation’s broad struggle for racial justice – from Martin Luther King Jr., to Stokely Carmichael, to the Black Panthers – he seems to be pooh-poohing that struggle.

Maybe what’s at work here is the intractability of racism – a phenomenon the struggle brought to light. You get rid of Jim Crow and, as the late NAACP leader Ben Hooks used to put it, his more sophistticated cousin – J. Crow. Esquire – takes over. You integrate the city schools, then whites resegregate by fleeing to the suburbs. Sharecropping replaces slavery, mass imprisonment of black men replaces sharecropping.

In a post after the forum, the Facebook critic said many of the panelists were in denial that the black communioty was in a state of emergency. Trouble is, not one panel member expressed that opinion. In fact, they went in the opposite direction. To wit:

  • Carl Estrada – who was wheelchair-bound and who was an activist in Milwaukee, Detroit and New York City – called Wisconsin the “third most racist state in the country” and urged a grassroots movement to attack the problem.
  • Former State Sen. Monroe Swan intoned, "The proportion of black imprisonment in the state of Wisconsin is the worst of any jurisdiction in this country, thusly the greatest anywhere in the world.” America leads the world in overall incarceration rate.
  • Harpole said getting black businesses a fair share of public contracts remains a struggle.
  • Harris said, “We didn’t have parity when it came to economics and we still don’t.”
  • George Sanders, artist and activist who once worked for The Milwaukee Star, spoke only briefly, but his e-mail recipients know he consantly rants about the sad state of black Milwaukee.

The other panelists were Harry Oden, a former Milwaukee Public Schools principal and a basketball star at the University of Minnesota, and Mason Bullock, a carpenter.

To be sure, the hard-fought civil rights movement fell far short of its goal. As a rule, blacks still don't enjoy the same life chances that whites do. The battered, grizzled civil rights warriors are passing the torch to a new generation.  Now it's up to the Facebook critic and his peers to change the world. Criticism has its place, but, more importantly, they must come up with their own goals, tactics and strategies.  And they shouldn't be too surprised if decades hence a new cocky generation belittles their efforts.

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