By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 15, 2011 at 9:06 AM

If you're looking to read an epic tale rooted in history and featuring strong personalities struggling to change the world, look no further than "Against the Wind," a hefty new hardcover from Milwaukee author Bill Dahlk, published by Marquette University Press.

The book is, as the subtitle explains, about, "African Americans and the Schools in Milwaukee, 1963-2002."

Dahlk, a veteran public school teacher and, for the past decade, a teacher of American -- and African American -- history at Cardinal Stritch University, has spent two decades researching and writing this in-depth look at the efforts by African American community activists and parents to bring about change in Milwaukee Public Schools, including integration, vouchers and choice.

The size of the book might seem daunting, but don't be put off. Dahlk tells this story in direct, readable prose, recounting decades of battles and focusing on the people -- like Lloyd Barbie, Vel Phillips, James Groppi, Howard Fuller, Larry Harwell, Carole Malone, Mikel Holt and so many others -- who succeeded at engaging "the Iceberg on Vliet Street."

We talked to Dahlk about researching and writing the book, about the story he tells in its more than 600 pages and about the lessons to be learned from it.

OnMilwaukee.com: You refer to the book as an on-again/off-again "hobby," which I found interesting. Can you tell me a little about how you became interested in the subject matter and how that morphed into the idea to write the book?

Bill Dahlk: I "came of age" during the Civil Rights / Black Power struggles, 1954-1970. And I was very interested in history, so I read a lot of African American history. While my wife and I lived in New York City, I worked for two summers in Harlem. After we moved to Milwaukee, I taught in an all-black school for 27 years, teaching reading and social studies. During that time I saw much of the history the book contains unfold around me. When I chose a master's thesis topic at UWM, the topic of Milwaukee's school desegregation was my focus. That led to the other topics the book deals with. All of those factors helped guide me into the book's "journey."

OMC: Maybe you can tell me a bit about the process of writing it. Was it on-again/off-again due to time constraints?

BD: Time constraints were an issue. While I was teaching in MPS, I often worked 60-hour weeks, with lesson prep and grading. When I started teaching at Cardinal Stritch, I did so without the benefit of a doctoral program behind me. As I took on more courses at Stritch, I had to do considerable reading to get up to speed for the teaching there. So, weeks would go by without anything done on the manuscript.

Additionally, it was essentially a hobby most of the time. I dreamed that it might one day be a book, but I was doing the project entirely on my own, with no institutional backing, and without the contacts that might have brought. Fortunately, around 2000, Andy Tallon of Marquette University Press agreed to look at what I had at that point. And gradually the Press and I worked together to get a finished product. The long time it took enabled me to bring the book up to 2002 and the Press to do the necessary editing of a manuscript that had not had the benefit of a vetted dissertation.

OMC: There are some other books on the subject, but they're not really the same are they? What sets your look at this major issue apart?

BD: The other, earlier book which deals with many of the same topics, is an excellent one by Jack Dougherty, "More Than One Struggle" (2004). Dougherty focused primarily on the (Lloyd) Barbee / MUSIC (Milwaukee United School Integration Committee) desegregation struggle. He also has much more on the 1930-1963 period than I do. He followed up the desegregation triumph with an investigation of other attempts to reform MPS.

My work agrees with much of what Dougherty concludes. Mine does three additional things: it takes some of the non-Barbee reform attempts into greater depth and detail, especially the "educational nationalists'" endeavors -- their efforts had roots partly in the Black Power/Black Nationalist movements; mine also takes the "story" up to 2002 -- Dougherty's essentially stops about 1980; and mine tries to put the black struggle for better schooling into the metropolitan setting, especially with regards to the economic devastation that came with Milwaukee's de-industrialization. Perhaps no black community in the nation has been hit harder by that trend than Milwaukee's.

OMC: Let's talk a bit about Milwaukee's history with desegregation. Is our story unique or is it really quite similar to how desegregation occurred in other American cities?

BD: Many cities and school districts came under court order to desegregate their schools during the '60s, '70s and early '80s, which is what happened in Milwaukee as a result of Lloyd Barbee's suit of 1965. Milwaukee was somewhat "unique" in its desegregation because it was achieved relatively peacefully and the degree of desegregation was quite extensive -- at its height, over 80 percent of all MPS students were in integrated schools. The Milwaukee community, especially its civic and business leadership, pulled together to make the desegregation peaceful and orderly.

OMC: What kind of sense do you get of the way Milwaukee thinks now about how desegregation played out here? Could anybody in 2010 actually think, in retrospect, that intact busing, for example, was a good idea or that it wouldn't be disrespectful and cause anger?

BD: In the book, I note that the black community in 1963-64 was rather fragmented over intact busing. Most black activists found it an appalling example of racism. Many black parents also opposed it but mainly because the busing took time out of instruction. Many others in the community did not have a well-defined view of it.

From 1976 into the 1990s, the support for school integration in Milwaukee was generally positive, but quite shallow. Most blacks supported it but did not feel it greatly improved the education of their children. Many whites paid it lip-service support, but many white parents gradually removed their children from MPS -- they moved to the suburbs or got their children into private schools.

In 1976 white children were still a majority in MPS. By 2002, they were around 15 percent. In general I think most Milwaukeeans who have an opinion would probably say that integration was a noble idea, but did not prove out to be the answer to better education for Milwaukee's kids. I believe that many perceptive observers of the process would say that integration produced some gains in improving relations between the black and white races because folks gradually felt more comfortable mixing. But the "mixing of bodies" in schools was not accompanied by the steps necessary to bring a significant upgrade in the quality of education for most black children.

OMC: There were some very powerful -- and, consequently, influential -- voices in Milwaukee's African American community demanding change in the public schools during the period you write about. Are there voices like that today among urban parents of all races here, or are we in something of a dry period in terms of community calls for change?

BD: I would say we are in more of a "dry period." Or, rather, the demands for change are not presented in the same very vocal, organized, take-it-to-the-streets protests that characterized the 1964-73 period. There are some obvious reasons for this.

First, the earlier period coincided with the national black rights struggle, so there was a broad-based community impetus for school reform, open housing, equal opportunity for blacks in employment. Second, many of the demands that blacks put forth beginning in 1963-4 gradually came to pass: attempts at school integration, both city and metro; increased multi-culturalism in curriculum; improved school facilities; more black administrators and school board members; black immersion schools; more school choice.

In general, as it stands today, many black parents probably feel that they do have a rather wide range of choice regarding a school for their children. Many others may feel resigned to accepting the status quo because they are depressed about the economic situation and about years of so-called progress without really getting their heads much above water, economically or in terms of real quality education.

OMC: What lessons does the history of African Americans in MPS provide for the future of public schools? What can we learn from this story?

BD: I could go on and on about lessons we should perhaps have gained from the Milwaukee experience and the book tries to do this, although I do not feel it is a polemical work. Essentially I do not believe there is any single silver bullet to quality education for more African American kids. I think my work indicates that the issue is quite complex. Yet I do feel there are several especially important conclusions.

First, the best single structural reform that might have produced better education for more black kids, over time, would have been a metropolitan-wide school integration, provided that it was two-way and not just one-way and provided that it proceeded concurrently with smart and persistent attempts to bring under-prepared students gradually toward grade level. Those would have been two big and likely insurmountable (politically) "ifs."

Second, despite the many structural and program gains that blacks achieved regarding schooling, 1964-2002, these have not measurably helped the majority of black kids. Many middle class black kids and kids with upwardly striving and determined parents have benefited by making use of increasing choices.

I think what we have learned from this is what maybe should have been clear all along: the most important ingredients for learning are good teachers and principals, engaged and demanding parents, and engaged kids. Structures and programs are important but finally the educator-parent-student triad is crucial.

Finally, I believe it is definitely harder for parents to be good parents, students to be motivated and teachers to teach effectively when the economic situation facing many families is so bleak. Low income kids can learn -- Howard Fuller and others are absolutely correct here -- but it would be easier for all if the families had reasonable economic security. And this is a metropolitan, state and national obligation, not just that of the city of Milwaukee.

OMC: Did this subject appeal to you because you were "there" for some of it, teaching in the schools and some of this stuff played out?

BD: Definitely my experience in MPS did play a major role in shaping the book. One anecdotal note here. When I started teaching at my MPS school, the school was in what was still a middle class/upwardly mobile working class black area. Gradually the neighborhood became infused with more low-income, single parent families; gangs and drugs were on the rise. Integration siphoned off many of the "better" students from the neighborhood. My school remained one of the all-black schools. I believe that by the late '80s-early '90s the students had become on the whole more angry and less engaged in school.

OMC: Will you pick up the thread from 2002-onward in another book or will you leave that to another scholar?

BD: I have nothing further planned right now. It took me 20-plus years to get this work published. At that rate, the next book would come out when I am 90!

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.