Growing up in Milwaukee, BilliJo Saffold heard the stories about the 200-day march in 1967-’68, where civil rights history was written in the streets.
She was only a child then, but her father, who ran one of the oldest barber shops in the city, would talk about how the marchers went up against angry mobs of counterprotesters in the fight to end housing discrimination.
As they crossed the 16th Street Viaduct to the city’s south side, the marchers were pelted with eggs, rocks and broken glass. Police launched tear gas, forcing the marchers to run in the direction of the counterprotesters.
It was a one-of-a-kind event, said Fred Reed, one of 100 Commandos, black men ages 18 to 30, who protected the marchers by forming a barrier around them.
Children as young as 12 were in the crowds, but they kept marching to make their voices heard against the status quo of segregation.
Fifty years later, the fight continues.
“There’s still a struggle, especially with black and brown people in this city and across this nation, with regard to those with power, white people, not wanting to coexist,” Saffold said Saturday during a March on Milwaukee 50th anniversary event held at North Division High School.
“We have to teach the young people how to be activists, how to agitate. … The young have an opportunity to learn from their elders about what it was like back then.”
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Huddled together in small groups in the school cafeteria, the older civil rights activists and some of their younger counterparts swapped stories and ideas for making Milwaukee a less segregated city.
Saffold said her generation, and some that have followed, have sometimes waited for leaders to instigate change.
That can be a mistake, she said, because everyone has a role to play.
“Just realize that it takes all kinds of people to push the agenda forward,” she said.
Carol Lobes, who as a college student participated in the first civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965, has decades of experience fighting social injustice. She’s also been a board member of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council.
In Selma, where the marchers were confronted with deadly violence from white vigilante groups and local authorities, Lobes, who is white, said her life was forever changed.
“It was the first time in my privileged life that I saw snarling, unabashed hate,” she said.
Lobes went on to marry Joe McClain, one of the Milwaukee Commandos.
Led by the NAACP Youth Council and its mentor, white Catholic priest James Groppi, the marchers were not only outnumbered by counterprotesters, they endured nights on the street when temperatures hit 7 below.
The youth council, McClain said, “was the greatest thing that happened in my life.”
Young people at Saturday’s event listened attentively as their elders shared stories of what it was like in Milwaukee five decades ago.
They shared some of their own thoughts, too.
“The struggle in Milwaukee is 50 years strong and hasn’t really dissipated at all,” said Ryeshia Farmer, 23.
“The challenge is still here, but I think in a lot of ways, times have changed. I am still figuring out what my activism looks like.
“We are all, as activists, learning how to adapt to those changing times.”
Following the discussions, veterans of the open housing marches and young activists took a bus tour of key historical and community sites on Milwaukee’s north side.
About two dozen people greeted the bus at Alice’s Garden, a 2-acre community garden at 2126 N. 21st St.
Venice Williams, the garden’s executive director, hopped aboard to thank the fair housing movement veterans, and she encouraged young activists to keep pressing ahead.
Other stops included the site of an NAACP headquarters, known as the Freedom House, which burned to the ground in 1967; Highland Community School, 1706 W. Highland Ave.; the James E. Groppi Memorial Bridge (16th St. Viaduct); and the statue of Cesar Chavez at 916 S. Chavez Drive.
Lobes said many of the civil rights activists in the 1960s were determined to make the world a better place for generations to come.
“Young people are going into a world that wasn’t what we wanted to give them. Despite all of our efforts, the challenges are still there,” she said.
Linda Carr-Carlson, co-chair of the current NAACP Youth Council, said it’s challenging to recruit young people for civil rights work.
“They don’t seem to be as interested in advocating as I feel they should be,” Carr-Carlson said.
Still, she was encouraged by Saturday’s session attended by blacks, whites, young and old people.
“We want a youth council that’s multiracial, multi-ethnic because the only way we are going to move forward is when we work together,” she said.
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