Remembering May 18, 1964: How Milwaukee Students Stood Up Against Injustice

Today, we commemorate a monumental chapter in the civil rights movement of Wisconsin that occurred 59 years ago. On May 18, 1964, students from Milwaukee schools participated in the first boycott of the city's public schools. This bold act of civil disobedience brought local and national attention to the glaring educational inequality in Milwaukee.

Despite the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that declared racial segregation in public schools illegal, a survey conducted in 1960 found Milwaukee schools, especially those in the central city, were 90 percent Black. There was a widespread outcry from parents distressed by the stark differences in quality between majority Black and majority white schools. This glaring inequality was a consequence of the intersecting issues of residential and school segregation. Historically, racial segregation in neighborhoods has been tied to educational disparity and achievement gaps, reinforcing a cycle of systemic inequality.

Reacting to these injustices, several community leaders, including attorney Lloyd Barbee, Milwaukee Common Council member Vel Phillips, and Father James Groppi, organized the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) in March 1964. Their objective was to implement mass action to spotlight the issue of educational inequality and catalyze action from the seemingly indifferent school board.

With their message falling on deaf ears, MUSIC coordinated a city-wide school boycott on May 18, 1964. Instead of attending their usual schools, about 60 percent of Milwaukee’s Black, inner-city school population - roughly 11,000 students - participated in Freedom Schools. Here, they learned about segregation, racism, and discrimination. Remarkably, about 8,500 students took part in these alternative education programs during the boycott.

A few months later, in October 1965, MUSIC organized a more extended, three-day boycott. Around the same time, Lloyd Barbee filed a federal lawsuit against the Milwaukee School Board, accusing it of intentional discrimination. This lawsuit, eventually decided in favor of the children in 1976, marked a significant step towards educational equity in Wisconsin.

Indeed, the struggle against residential segregation is inextricably linked with the fight against school segregation. The two create a vicious cycle, one that perpetuates educational disparities based on race and socioeconomic status. Access to quality education and fair housing are fundamental human rights, not privileges granted based on one's zip code or the color of their skin.

As we remember the brave students who participated in the boycott and honor the relentless work of activists like Lloyd Barbee, Vel Phillips, and Father James Groppi, we are reminded that the fight for justice and equality continues. The Wisconsin Green Party is committed to promoting housing as a fundamental human right, recognizing the deep connections between housing equity, educational equity, and racial justice.

We invite you to join us in this cause at our Spring Gathering on May 20, 2023. Our theme is "Housing is a Human Right". This event serves as a platform for us to discuss and strategize around the intertwined issues of housing and educational equity. We urge you to RSVP and attend this important gathering, where we will continue the conversation started by those brave students and activists nearly six decades ago.

RSVP for the Spring Gathering here.

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