Black Lives Matter! – the Legacy of Black Power Politics in Wisconsin

By John E. Peck

On March 6th, 2015 an unarmed black man, Tony Robinson, was shot down by Madison Police officer, Matt Kenny on the near East Side – my old neighborhood.   For days the bloody evidence of this latest episode in our nation’s sordid history of systemic racism was visible to anyone walking, biking or driving by on Williamson Street. Within hours, a memorial to Tony appeared and since then dozens of protests, marches, forums, and other actions have been organized by the Young, Gifted, and Black (YGB) Coalition. Adding insult to injury, the landlord of the apartment recently sent an eviction notice to Tony’s former roommates, along with a $1200 bill for “bio-hazard clean-up.” The Dane County District attorney, Ismael Ozanne, has yet to decide whether to press charges, but it is widely suspected nothing will happen to Kenny.

In early Feb. 2015 a couple dozen people had started gathering biweekly at Rainbow Bookstore to kick off the latest round in an ongoing Madison Free Skool series dedicated to exploring the radical roots of grassroots resistance in Midwest history.  Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that grew out of violent racist policing in Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere, the goal of our discussion was to strengthen the knowledge of those now challenging white supremacy by learning about the amazing legacy of black power politics in our own state spanning back 150 years.  Tony Robinson’s murder soon came to overshadow the discussion series, and made our effort even more relevant.

How did systemic racism become so entrenched in a “liberal bastion” like Madison? Why is the largest community of color in many rural areas of Wisconsin now found inside a state prison – where inmates count as part of the electorate but can’t actually vote?   Why are there more African students than African American students at such a highly rated public school like UW-Madison? These were just some of the questions we have been tackling the last few months.

Many people do not know that in 1854 Wisconsin’s Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act “wicked and cruel” effectively defying the federal government and reflecting the rising power of the abolitionist movement and in particular popular support for the case of Joshua Glover. Glover had escaped from St. Louis in 1852 and was living as a free man in Racine when Glover’s ex-master, Benammi Garland, showed up, having already placed a newspaper ad offering a $200 reward for his lost property.   Federal Judge Andrew Miller issued a warrant for Glover’s arrest and a posse grabbed him from his home and took him to the Milwaukee Jail. Word spread like wild fire and thousands of abolitionist supporters including the Racine County Sheriff marched to the jailhouse intent on freeing Glover and arresting Federal Marshal Cotton and his cronies instead on kidnapping charges. Their attitude quickly shifted from being allies to accomplices when they took a battering ram to the jail house door, rescued Glover, and then ran a gauntlet of slave catchers to hide him in a series of farm houses near Waukesha. Glover later escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, while many abolitionists who led the “mob” were in and out of court and prison for years as result of their felony activity.

Another often forgotten episode of black history in Wisconsin was the amazing rise to power of the KKK across the state and especially in Madison during the 1920s. The Invisible Empire dispatched organizers to every county and the capitol city proved a fertile recruiting ground since the population then was dominated by white Protestants with less than 25% being Jewish or Catholic and under 300 black residents total. The KKK front group, the Loyal Businessmen’s Association, was soon holding packed meetings at the Woodmen of the World Hall on Madison’s Main St. and even sponsored its own UW-Madison fraternity. A major goal of the Madison KKK was to “clean up” Madison’s Greenbush which was teeming with the “wrong people.” Former Police Chief, William McCormick, boasted that “pretty near all the men in the department were Klansmen” as were many elected officials, making it rather easy for Klansmen to be deputized by law enforcement agencies to harass bootleggers. After dark on Oct. 4th, 1924 nearly 2000 Klansmen marched around the Capitol and through the Greenbush in a show of strength. Grassroots resistance to the KKK’s corrupting influence steadily grew. When the KKK held a cross burning in a pasture near Waunakee, locals raised the alarm and an irate crowd of farmers chased the Klansmen away. When the KKK hosted a state-wide konklave in Madison to celebrate Labor Day in 1925, a spectator rushed a parading Klansmen, dragged him off his horse, and then managed to escape from the police.

By the late 1920s the KKK had returned largely underground, though it has reemerged many times since – often in conjunction with other white supremacist organizing efforts. For instance, during the civil rights struggle in the 1960s in Milwaukee the KKK was implicated in the fire bombing of the NAACP Youth League’s Freedom House (as police blocked fire trucks from responding) and mobilized their members to “defend” the homes of elected officials exposed for ebing proud members of the “whites only” Eagle Club. In 1992 a “hate summit” was held in Janesville, WI drawing white supremacists from across the country. In 2002 the KKK supported a rally in response to racialized violence at Milwaukee’s Sommerfest, and in 2006 Nazis and their allies held another white pride rally on the steps of the WI State Capitol How much synergy now exists between racist policing and white supremacy is unclear, though it is disturbing to see uniformed officers and costumed klansmen chatting and showing off their respective tattoos at WI protests.

Another little known fact is that housing segregation in Milwaukee is the worst in the nation (with Madison being not much better). Over 90% of Milwaukee’ growing black population has been concentrated in just a 72 block area on the north side – the inner core – thanks to restrictive covenants, red lining, and outright block busting where predatory realtors would create fear amongst white homeowners on the “blighted edge” and then cash in on the panic as they fled to the suburbs. Catholic parishes, though, are place-based, so as whites left the congregations became increasingly black, leading to the rise of a cadre of radical urban priests like Father Groppi. Similar to the struggle for recognition that Young Gifted and Black is facing today in Madison, activist black youth in Milwaukee in the 1960s were often marginalized or even ostracized from existing organizations that were more assimilationist and “friendly” with the establishment. Drawing upon a more militant philosophy of “non-violence” which allowed for self defense, the Youth Commandos became a formidable symbol of black nationalism. When the decision was made to directly challenge segregation by crossing Milwaukee’s “Mason Dixon Line” over the 16th St. Viaduct “from Africa to Poland”– it was the Commandoes – not the police – who protected the marchers from the barrage of slurs, bricks, bottles, and other racist garbage. The Milwaukee Police formed its own “goon squad” backed up by the vigilantes of the Milwaukee Citizens Council to crack down on community resistance and three people were eventually killed in subsequent “race riots” in Milwaukee. Dick Gregory noted that the strength of the Milwaukee civil rights movement was that “it was not a color but an attitude” which defined which side you were on, but those living in Milwaukee today would say the struggle is unfinished.

To conclude here’s a brief look at Wisconsin’s prison industrial complex. Wisconsin’s first inmates literally built their own prison – this was at Waupun back in 1852 – and this 19th century system of penal labor (some might call it modern day slavery – up until 1951 WI inmates had to work for free) continues well into the 21st century. These “rent an inmate” programs (for ex. Badger State Enterprises) still make quite a bit of money for the Dept. of Corrections, especially when inmate wages range from just 12 cents per hour up to a maximum of $1.46 per hour. Back in the 1970s there were less than 5,000 inmates in WI prisons, but now the figure tops 20,000 with 38% being African American. If you are black and between the ages 25 and 50 in Milwaukee there is a 40% chance you are or have been incarcerated. WI taxpayers now spend more on maintaining this bloated prison industrial complex – $1.2 billion annually – then they spend supporting the entire University of Wisconsin system! This prison pipeline program for youth of color begins with police arrest profiling and continues through the whole racialized criminal injustice process – from compelled plea bargaining and punitive sentencing to biased parole violations that send 4,000 people back into the system each year even though they have not committed a fresh crime. Others end up filling jail cells simply because they can’t afford a good lawyer or post a $500 bail. Thankfully there are many prison abolitionist groups working to change this lock ‘em up and throw away the key approach such as the No Dane County Jail Working Group and Madison Organizing in Strength, Solidarity and Equality (MOSES). Believe it or not, there are alternatives to incarceration.

There were many other inspiring episodes of black power politics in Wisconsin which the Free Skool series explored – such as free black farmers homesteading in the Kickapoo in the 1850s and 1860s, as well as the Black Student Strikes from Madison to Oshkosh to Milwaukee in the 1960s and 1970s that led to the creation of multicultural studies programs.  We also discussed efforts to provide reparations for the historic survivors of racial injustice and community based strategies for nonviolent conflict resolution that don’t require police.   Of course, the real take home lesson is not to talk about about such radical history for nostalgia’s sake, but to use this knowledge to inform and empower our current organizing. One way to honor Tony Robinson, is by not letting his memory and the legacy of the others who proceeded him in this struggle for justice to simply rest in peace.





Abridged Bibliography:


Cooper, Zachary. Black Settlers in Rural Wisconsin. WI Historical Society. 1977.


Giffey, David. People’s Stories of South Madison. Part of the Decades Mural Project. 2001.


Goldberg, Robert. “The KKK in Madison 1922 – 1927.” Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn 1974.


Harris, Richard. Growing Up Black in South Madison. Roy Tek Publishing. 2012.


Jackson, Ruby West and Walter T. McDonald. Finding Freedom: The Untold Story of Joshua Glover, Runaway Slave. WI Historical Society Press. 2007


Jones, Patrick T. The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee. Harvard Univ. Press. 2009.


Lee, Gordon. The Ku Klux Klan in Wisconsin in the 1920s. Masters in History Paper. UW-La Crosse. Aug. 1968.


Quinn, Lois M. and & John Pawarasat. Statewide Imprisonment of Black Men in Wisconsin. UW-Milwaukee. June 2014.


WI Council on Children and Families. Race to Equity – A Baseline Report

on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County. WCCF. 2013.


Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections (DOC). 150 Years of Inmate Work Programs. 2003.


WISDOM. 11×15 Blueprint For Ending Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin. WISDOM. 2014.

Comments are disabled.

%d bloggers like this: