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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz

Paul Geenen's new book is "Civil Rights Activism in Milwaukee."

Geenen recounts struggle for civil rights on the South Side


In his books, community activist and author Paul Geenen has homed in on important, hyper local subjects, like the heyday of the Bronzeville neighborhood, the diversity of Sherman Park and the story of Gimbels and Schuster's department stores.

His latest book for The History Press, "Civil Rights Activism in Milwaukee: South Side Struggles in the '60s and '70s," is the result of a special request.

"A friend called me and asked if I would write a book about those who were fighting for civil rights who lived on the South Side," he says. "She felt that many knew only about the 13,000 angry South Siders who in August of 1967 met Father Groppi and members from the NAACP Youth Council and threw rocks and epithets at the marchers at the end of the 16th Street Bridge."

So, in 100 illustrated pages, Geenen traces the battles centered around fair housing – fueled by racial and economic tension – and battles for bilingual education.

"Blue-collar workers were living in small bungalows, duplexes and rear-lot cottages, and supported the numerous churches as well as the 'ma and pa' taverns located on many corners," says Geenen.

"Low-cost housing was cleared to make way for the freeways and many young Polish newlyweds were forced to live with their parents. There was a cultural clash. The Polish culture valued humility while the African-American were brash. The fair housing marches were seen as a bad idea by many of the people on the South Side."

Most Milwaukeeans – at least those of a certain age – will remember some of the names the fair housing fights brought to the fore, like those of Father James Groppi and Peggy Rozga. They, of course, appear in "Civil Rights Activism in Milwaukee."

Geenen also discusses the role of Alverno College in the story.

"Many members of the local Catholic Church saw the fight for fair housing as a political issue and one that the church should stay out of," he says. "However, the nuns at Alverno worked to get the message out to South Side community that there was a big world out there, and the residents should learn more about it."

"Alverno offered one-day educational events, such as one titled 'Racism-Reason-Response,' that inspired Margaret (Peggy) Rozga to work in the South helping African-Americans register to vote. Another Alverno student, Maria Varela, worked in the South to teach African-Americans how to pass the arduous poll exams. Both women were physically threatened and had to flee late evening pursuers at high speeds. Varela compared her experience as being as dangerous as being in a combat zone in Vietnam."

The South Side Latino community was also key to the story and in his book, Geenen discusses the contribution of the Salas family, the Obreros Unidos union and the struggle for bi-lingual schools.

"Jesús Salas led 24 migrant workers on a march from Wautoma to Madison advocating for improved working and housing conditions in August 1966," Geenen recalls. "After the march, the migrant workers asked Salas to form a union, which they called Oberos Unidos. In two strikes, one against the potato processors and a second against a cucumber grower, the organizers learned how difficult it is to organize a union."

"Many of the migrant workers who lost their jobs through these strikes moved to Milwaukee. Salas took these organizing lessons to Milwaukee where he supported Cesár Chévez and his grape boycott and fought for the enrollment of Hispanics at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee."

Especially interesting is Geenen's discussion of the position of Latinos in MPS after the 1976 desegregation ruling by Federal Judge John Reynolds.

"That raised the issue of how the Hispanics should be counted," he says. "Were they 'white,' or 'non-black' or their own racial group? How did bilingual students and teachers fit in to the ratio of black and white students that was being called for?"

"Hispanics had to negotiate with the African-American community, the special master appointed to oversee the desegregation effort, the school board, school administrators, the teachers' union, the media and community groups. A sophisticated cadre of parents were successful in saving and improving their bilingual schools."

Most importantly, says Geenen, despite whether or not the activists in the '60s and '70s achieved the desired results, they had a lasting impact, one that we continue to see today.

"Civil rights activists using similar techniques, sometimes working separately, other times working together, did not attain all of their goals, but trained a new generation of civil rights workers. Today, our first Hispanic alderman, José Peréz, whose mother was the principal of the first bilingual school in Milwaukee and Christine Neuman-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, benefit from the work that was done in the '60s and '70s and carry on the fight."

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