A trip down North Avenue tells more about Milwaukee than any tour guide could. The four-lane commercial artery begins near an enclave of palatial houses overlooking Lake Michigan and some five miles to the west empties into the leafy suburb of Wauwatosa, followed by the even shadier lanes of Brookfield and Elm Grove. The people in both places are overwhelmingly white. Most of what lies in between is the so-called Core, a stretch of blight and decay that could be traced from a generic template for ghettoes in nearly every large American city: urban meadows, liquor stores, boarded-up buildings, and discount shops. Most of the faces here—need it be said?—are black.
I grew up near North Avenue on the West Side of Milwaukee in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood of duplexes and bungalows that stood as a buffer zone between the Core and those with cash. Neighbors looked west with a mix of aspiration and envy and saw a Shangri-la; they looked east and saw a cesspool that needed to be contained lest it engulf them. Back then this attitude—this was during the Seventies and Eighties, mind you—was vividly expressed in everyday conversation. One adult I knew wanted to wall off the black neighborhood; another said he wouldn’t mind if someone dropped a neutron bomb there.
The ugly history of Milwaukee race relations was speaking through these people. When accounting for the city’s racial and economic polarization, there is certainly enough blame to go around: It is the legacy of average white Milwaukeeans refusing to live and sometimes to work side by side with African Americans; of city officials refusing to accommodate them; of employers reluctant to hire them and banks to lend to them; and of real estate companies to sell or rent them decent housing. Milwaukee’s is such a familiar story that it’s tempting to regard the degradation of American cities (now that we’re all supposed to be post-racists) as a tragic episode of mass irrationality—lumpen prejudice run amok—combined with inexorable economic and demographic forces playing themselves out.
After the First World War Socialist politicians began to disappear across the nation… but not in Milwaukee.
But it’s worth remembering, too, that popular racism was a bludgeon used to great effect by economic and political elites, not only for immediate ends such as breaking a strike or winning an election but to exclude certain issues from public debate altogether. Indeed, as the great postwar migration of Southern blacks intensified racial friction in Northern cities, the few brave political leaders of the center and the left who called for tolerance did so at their peril. Frank Zeidler, the popular mayor of Milwaukee throughout the prosperous Fifties, was one such leader. Zeidler urged Milwaukeeans to face the challenge of absorbing the latest wave of immigrants, proposing among other things an ambitious plan for the construction of new public housing. It was his political undoing. By the time Zeidler bowed out of city politics in 1960, he had been wearied by a race-baiting campaign so ferocious it made national headlines.
Race, however, was only the proximate cause of Zeidler’s undoing. He had another black mark against him, at least in the book of Milwaukee’s business leaders and their pawns on the Common Council: He was a Socialist, and he’d done plenty to get on their bad side. Before they race-baited him, Zeidler’s enemies red-baited him. But Milwaukee was the kind of place where that message fell on deaf ears: Its citizens had been giving their votes to reds for decades. Backed by German skilled workers, other immigrant groups, and labor, the Milwaukee Socialists (officially the Social Democratic Party) first came to prominence in the elections of 1910 when they captured virtually every important office of the city and sent the first Socialist to the U.S. House of Representatives. Their victory mirrored the cresting of the Socialist movement across the country. Between 1910 and 1911, seventy-four cities and towns elected Socialists as mayors or other major municipal officers; eleven states elected Socialists to their legislatures. The Milwaukee Socialists were pragmatic, clean-government reformers who supported unions, expanded city and social services, and instituted health programs; their focus on these common-place concerns earned them the pejorative nickname “Sewer Socialists” from more radical leftists. After the First World War Socialist politicians began to disappear across the nation as the government cracked down and party factions squabbled. But not in Milwaukee. There Socialist Daniel W. Hoan, appealing to a broad cross-section of the population, held office as mayor from 1916 until 1940, when he was defeated by a Republican—one Carl Zeidler, the older brother of Frank.
The once-proud Social Democratic Party crumbled within a few years after Hoan’s defeat, its dejected members fleeing to the ranks of the Democratic and Progressive parties. Then along came Frank Zeidler. The slight and soft-spoken Zeidler joined the Socialists in 1932 at the age of twenty; the ravages of the Depression convinced him society needed to change, and the cooperative vision of Socialist writers Norman Thomas and Kirby Page captivated him. Within a few years he was elected county surveyor and he went on to serve on the city school board. He ran for mayor in 1944 as a Socialist but lacked sufficient support to get past the nonpartisan mayoral primary. Undeterred, he ran again four years later, this time as an independent backed by group of labor leaders, old Socialists, liberal Democrats, and even a group of Republicans called the Municipal Enterprise Committee. The city’s newspapers and business interests, fearful that socialism was returning to Milwaukee, lashed out at Zeidler, more because of his political affiliation than any unpalatable Bolshevik ideas. A Milwaukee Journal columnist thundered: “Frank Zeidler is no Communist, but in these dangerous times HIS SOCIALIST COLLECTIVISM WOULD WEAKEN OUR DEFENSES AGAINST THE COLLECTIVISM OF STALIN.” Rival Henry Reuss brazenly charged that Zeidler “thinks the city ought to be running the corner grocery store.” No amount of red-baiting made a difference. Backed by labor—and helped, ironically, by the name connection to his brother, who was killed in action during the Second World War—Zeidler won.
As mayor, Zeidler literally reshaped Milwaukee. Looking for room for new industry and housing, he embarked on an aggressive annexation program that ultimately doubled the size of the city and boosted its population to 750,000. He raised a sports arena as well as County Stadium for the Milwaukee Braves. He built up the library system, helped establish a public television station, erected affordable housing, enhanced the park system, and expanded and improved public services. He did it all, despite a reliably hostile Common Council, by striking alliances with liberal Democrats and Republicans and often governing by threat of veto. There weren’t any Socialist aldermen, and the council shot down any Socialists or ex-Socialists Zeidler nominated for city offices. He rallied popular support with a grueling public speaking schedule, making up to three hundred appearances a year.
While Zeidler was popular with the people—he was reelected in 1952 with 72 percent of the vote—the city’s business community hated him. His desire to impose public ownership on the city’s utility and mass transit companies terrified them. His drive to build low-income housing infuriated the real estate industry. He was disturbingly pro-union; in 1955 he refused to let a freighter in the Milwaukee harbor unload clay and materials destined for the Kohler Co. in Sheboygan, then embroiled in a bitter strike. Besides, he was a damned Socialist who had the gall to point out that protective laws and subsidies made a mockery of the words “free competition.” Nevertheless, between his policies of suburban annexation and building projects such as County Stadium, Zeidler was often enough regarded as a boon to city business. Indeed, in 1958 Fortune magazine declared Milwaukee to be the second-best-run city in the country.
In 1956 Zeidler’s opposition—which was bipartisan in the truest sense of the word—fielded their strongest candidate to date against the mayor: conservative Democrat Milton J. McGuire, the president of the Common Council and a partisan of the city’s corporate interests. When he announced his candidacy in January, McGuire made the usual Bolshevik-bashing noises. He condemned Zeidler for his “socialistic utterances” and for being “pro-labor union”; moreover, he claimed Zeidler’s politics prevented the city from getting its fair share of federal or state pork. In defense of the free enterprise system, he noted that there were more radios and TV sets in Milwaukee than “any of those socialist countries like Norway.”
Police had to stand watch outside his house.
McGuire and his supporters must have soon discovered that this tired rhetoric wasn’t hitting home, so they played a different card: race. Milwaukee was a city of homeowners, and it was easy to convince even well-meaning liberals that the influx of African-Americans would lower their property values. In fact, the mayor’s enemies had already been laying the entire blame for the Great Migration on Zeidler for years. A small African-American community had existed in Milwaukee since the nineteenth century, but it didn’t start growing significantly until the Forties. From 1950 to 1960 the black population tripled to about sixty thousand. When the ghetto of the Inner Core slowly but surely started expanding, real estate agents swooped down on bordering neighborhoods to blockbust. One of their favorite lines: Zeidler was going to import blacks into the neighborhood. In 1952 an old woman grabbed Zeidler at a meeting and demanded to know, “Why are you making me sell my home? My real estate agent told me you were going to make us sell our homes to Negroes.” Still Zeidler stuck to his guns. “I made many speeches saying that no matter what color you were, everybody deserved equal rights and opportunities.” Zeidler, now eighty-seven, recalls. “That’s when I was threatened.” Police had to stand watch outside his house.
McGuire supporters revived well-worn rumors and made up some new ones. One piece of gossip claimed Zeidler’s oldest daughter was married to a black man; another claimed Zeidler was posting billboards in the South urging African Americans to move up to Milwaukee. This rumor, which first surfaced in taverns across the city back in 1952, was believed by tens of thousands of people. With Zeidler campaign supporters getting jeered as “nigger lovers,” the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council asked unions in ten Southern states to look for these mythical billboards. Not surprisingly, no signs were found; nor were the rumor-mongers.
The McGuire campaign was so repulsive that even Time magazine felt the need to defend a Socialist. It ran a brief story praising Zeidler for behaving “more like a conservative burgomaster than a doctrinaire Socialist” and shot down the rumors. Though McGuire may have denounced the charges as “shameful,” the piece pointed out, he “undoubtedly stands to benefit from the whispering campaign against Zeidler.” In fact, McGuire fanned white Milwaukee’s racial paranoia in a slightly more polite fashion, particularly during the debate over public housing. Milwaukee was straining under a postwar housing shortage, and Zeidler hoped to relieve it by building ten thousand units of public housing, some of it low-income. Reactionaries had previously opposed public housing on the grounds it was socialistic; now they opposed it because it would encourage African Americans to move into the city. Indeed, Edward Plantz, head of the Milwaukee County Property Owners’ Association, didn’t even bother to mask his reasons for opposing Zeidler’s slum clearance and public housing plans: “I call a spade a spade. If there is more housing, more people will move into Milwaukee. The only thing that has kept … Negroes from coming up there is the lack of housing.” McGuire didn’t use the word “spade,” but everyone knew his targets when—amazingly enough, in a speech before the NAACP—he said that: “Some have stated that newcomers come here because Milwaukee is a soft touch. A person can be here a day and get relief. I favor a law requiring longer residence.” Time limits should also be imposed on how long families stayed in housing—with veterans and widows excepted of course. Otherwise, McGuire reasoned, people would turn down raises so they could stay in public housing.
McGuire—whose campaign repertoire actually included the slogan “Milwaukee needs an honest white man for mayor”—ultimately may have been undone by his own bigotry. Despite Milwaukee’s low crime rate, the McGuire for Mayor Committee sought to play on fears of rampaging African-American youth with an ad that claimed “hoodlum mobs [are] ranging Milwaukee with wolf pack viciousness.” The ad, understandably, angered cops—who by and large were McGuire supporters—and drew rebukes from the city’s police chief and district attorney. South Side Republican alderman Anthony J. Gruszka, no friend of Zeidler or socialism, accused McGuire of running a “Nazi” campaign, citing its “injection of racism, the condemnation of our youth, and the criticism of our police agencies.”
Surprising many, including himself, Zeidler won the 1956 election, although by a very narrow margin. The victory was short-lived, however. The bitterness of the campaign and continued battles over public housing—including a failed bid to build low-income housing in the city’s predominantly blue-collar South Side—persuaded Zeidler not to run for a fourth term in 1960. “My health could not stand another vicious campaign such as that I had to engage in with Alderman McGuire in 1956 on the housing issue and the race question,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs, which are now kept in the Milwaukee Public Library. “And this issue certainly would have been raised again in the 1960 campaign.” He once hoped to build ten thousand units of public housing; he managed to build thirty-two hundred.
The 1956 election taught Milwaukee politicians the dangers of being friendly to African Americans. The twenty-eight-year reign of Zeidler’s successor, Henry Maier, proved to be a lesson in denial. Immediately after taking office, he shelved a report on the Core commissioned by Zeidler that, among other things, urged outreach programs for youth and job-training for adults. Subsequently, Maier put a two-year freeze on public housing construction to “review” the situation. In 1963 he warned his community relations commission to go slow on civil rights. He opposed the open-housing ordinances that Vel Phillips, Milwaukee’s first black alderman, introduced into the Council four times between 1962 and 1967; each of the proposals—which merely mirrored state law—was shot down eighteen to one. City-only housing ordinances would encourage white flight, Maier reasoned; the suburbs would have to open first. This neglect caused resentment in the black neighborhoods, and protests over housing and school segregation flared during the early Sixties. A riot broke out in the summer of 1967, leaving three dead. Maier pinned the blame on “so-called civil rights leaders who have been encouraging defiance of the law.” That same year, Roman Catholic priest James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council started two hundred days of open-housing marches, frequently targeting the highly segregated South Side. They were met by thousands of bottle-hurling whites. Known during the nineteenth century as the “German Athens” for its vibrant cultural life, or as the “Cream City” for the color of the brick used in its buildings, Milwaukee found itself tagged with another nickname: “The Selma of the North.”
Would racial harmony have flourished in Milwaukee had Zeidler remained in office? Perhaps not. Zeidler’s critics have pointed out that, for all his good intentions and his rhetoric, he did little to address job discrimination, school segregation, or housing discrimination. Even if he had tried, it’s likely the Common Council would have stymied him again and again. Yet rhetoric and intentions do have consequences. Zeidler at the very least sought to establish a dialogue about how African Americans could be brought into the mainstream of Milwaukee society. Once he stepped down, succeeding politicians deemed it expedient—as had McGuire—to score points with some members of the white community by ignoring or taking a stand against the city’s burgeoning African-American population. This tactic proved to be one of gradual suicide as the black population of Milwaukee steadily grew. The white population, meanwhile, cast its ballot for the city’s future by pressing their feet against gas pedals en route to the suburbs.
Milwaukee had a population of 750,000 when Zeidler left office; it has since shrunk to about 600,000. Roughly a third of its people are now African American, as the white flight that started during the Fifties continues. When integration came to my neighborhood in the Seventies, hatred of African Americans was part of the air I breathed. “There’s too many niggers around here,” said a childhood friend, visiting the block after his parents fled. A grade school classmate was thrown out of class for chanting “nigger” during a filmstrip about Martin Luther King Jr. “He had the right to say what he wanted to, so why can’t I?” my classmate demanded to know, anticipating the backlash against so-called political correctness by a decade. He is now a Milwaukee cop.
That’s changed. From the Fifties of Joe McCarthy and Milton McGuire to Governor Tommy Thompson’s Nineties, Wisconsin has led the union in the politics of backlash. “Power to the People” is still the cry (it was even the title of Thompson’s 1996 book), but between the state’s war on welfare and campaign against public education, power to the wealthy and more comfort to the comfortable is the result.In the first half of this century, the Milwaukee Socialists, “Fighting Bob” La Follette, and a militant labor movement made Wisconsin a showplace of progressive politics. The state introduced the country’s first laws for workmen’s compensation and the minimum wage, among many other reforms.