It was 50 years ago that the open housing marches began in Milwaukee. For 200 nights civil rights activists marched from the mostly black northside over the 16th Street Bridge to city’s predominately white southside. They demanded a law to end discriminatory housing practices that prevented African Americans from living in white areas of the city.
A teenager named Prentice McKinney was at the center of those marches, leading the NAACP Youth Commandos.
WUWM’s Race and Ethnicity Reporter Aisha Turner sat down with McKinney to learn about his fight for civil rights here in Milwaukee, and how that reverberated across the nation.
Editor’s note: this piece contains language that some may find offensive.
A cup of coffee sits on the glass desk in Prentice McKinney’s living room.
“So how many questions have you got?”, he jokes. It’s about 1:15 on a Tuesday afternoon; it’s clear that I’ve interrupted his day. He usually doesn’t wake up until noon so it’s still early for him.
He’s often up until 5, sometimes 6:00 in the morning. Prentice owns the nightspot downstairs -- Savoy’s, off of Locust Street.
This afternoon, Prentice is getting ready for his Tuesday night wing special -- lining up music and playing out a few tracks. He taught himself to DJ about 5 years ago. He’s practicing when I show up.
He points to a second grey chair next to his, offers me a seat, and warns: “I smoke so... put your lungs at risk if you’d like.”
Before Prentice bought Savoy’s 20 years ago, it was called Terrand’s. It was the spot for conversation and laid back music in his day. “This was where everybody came to get together after the [open housing] marches,” he says. “I think I was 18, 19 don't think was supposed to be in here but that’s beside the point!”
Prentice McKinney is almost 70 now. But he makes it clear -- he’s not kicking the can anytime soon: “I’m still young - I still have 20 years in front of me! I’m still kicking!”
He says his energy -- the same energy he drew on as a 19 year old member of the NAACP Youth Council -- comes from his anger. “Too often we look at anger and say anger means we will destroy something. Anger also affords us an opportunity and an energy level to build something,” he explains.
Prentice has built a life and a legacy of civil rights work -- focused on confronting the injustice he’s seen for African Americans. During the open housing marches in particular, he was a leader for the NAACP Commandos. Commandos marched with activists to protect them against crowds of violent white counter-demonstrators and hostile police officers.
It was a natural outlet for Prentice, who felt the lash of racism stir his anger at an early age.
I had two brothers in the service - one in the Army and one in Air Force. The one in the Air Force had been in Europe for a while and decided to come back to Milwaukee to buy the family a home. He was in uniform; him, I, and my mother get in a car and they've got a couple spots picked out to look at properties. So one is up here on 24th and Capitol - now you gotta remember they don't allow African Americans to live up on Capitol Drive at that point - and so he drove up saw the “For Sale” sign, we all get out of the car... nice neighborhood, whatever. And at that point I'm young, I didn’t know they don't sell houses to African Americans in certain neighborhoods... So we walk up on the porch he knocks on the door white lady comes said see you have a sign for a house for sale. “We'd like to take a look at the house.” She looked at him and said "oh gosh no! I could never sell to niggers!"
That didn’t fly with him. “You don’t call my momma no nigga. My brother dragged me off the porch and um that's when I became aware of my anger - people treating me differently… Simply looking at my skin and saying ‘no you’re not good enough for this.’”
He was about 15, maybe 16 years old. He noticed how differently his mom reacted. His parents had grown up as sharecroppers in a small town in Arkansas. “[They had] seen or heard about people getting lynched, [the] KKK coming down to people's houses in the middle of the night… so her experience with white people had taught her to be afraid -- you know you do what massa say do,” he said. “I didn’t have that inherent fear that someone would do something to me because I stood up for myself. So when I got involved in civil rights that was her greatest fear - she went and took out a life insurance policy on me. She feared that deeply that they would kill me.”
For Prentice, his manifestation of anger -- in place of fear -- would pay off. A young white priest named Father James Groppi showed him how to channel his anger early on.
He and Father Groppi met at a fight -- the NAACP Youth Council had moved its Freedom House to 15th and Villet Street in 1966. (The Freedom House was a gathering place for the NAACP Youth Council and its Commando defense unit.) It was the same neighborhood where Prentice and his crew would hang out. He explained: “And so when they moved in that was our hood we had to check them out. In the process of checking them out I had a little gang called Quick Fists and the Retouchables - of course I was Quick Fists - so we went around looking out for our territory and I ran into Dwight Benning. Dwight was 6’3”, 250 pounds, base in his voice. We had a few words and the next thing know we're ready to knuckle up. And Groppi pulled up.”
Father Groppi was an adviser for the Youth Council. Prentice described him as a “down to Earth, average, cool kinda person." So "he persuaded me maybe we could work together to make the community a better place so ended up joining up.”
Together, they marched…for better education… to picket the all-white Eagle’s Club… And eventually, on August 28, 1967, for housing.
Vel Phillips was the first African American woman to serve on Milwaukee’s Common Council. For years, she pushed the city government to outlaw housing discrimination. She first introduced a bill in 1962. It was defeated 18-to-1. She tried 3 more times -- each time the bill failed. So, in August 1967 she teamed up with the NAACP Youth Council.
They needed to make people pay attention. The Youth Council and its supporters marched along the 16th Street Bridge. An old joke claims it’s the longest in the world because it “connects Africa to Poland.”
Marchers made their way from the city’s predominantly black northside to it’s white southside.
This would go on for 200 days.
About a month after the marches began Vel Phillips told the Common Council they were out of excuses: “Nobody is free until everybody is free,” she said during a September 1967 Common Council meeting. “And we intend to march all of us until we get just some of basic freedoms what are ours. If ever a matter demanded the urgent attention and forthright action of this Common Council this is it. Gentlemen the time is now.” The witnesses in the room, including Father Groppi, applauded.
When the fair housing marches began 50 years ago, Prentice McKinney had no idea how long they would go. “We didn't say 'we march 200 days and gonna accomplish something' -- no it was ‘we're marching today.’ And they piss you off more and you say ‘I’m coming back’,” he said.
On the first night, the 200 or so marchers were met with a hostile crowd. Thousands of people on the southside shouted obscenities, and threw rocks and bottles at the demonstrators.
On the second night, the same thing. And on that second night, when marchers returned to the northside, the Freedom House caught fire. The Youth Council held a rally in the front yard the next day.
A young, pissed off Prentice McKinney took several deep drags of his cigarette while journalists gathered around him. He said: “The fire was premeditated in my mind. Deliberately set by the police force.” Police had been accused of mistreating African Americans for years. Prentice continued, “These cops out here with a gun got less sense that an orangutan with a balloon!... They don't like us down there and I guess they figured this is one way of moving us out. But one house don't stop no show.” The group of young people around him laughed and cheered in response.
During the marches, Prentice received a letter. In the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement was the Vietnam War. Prentice was 19 years old - registered for the draft. “I had to make a decision,” he said. “Muhammad Ali said ‘Vietnamese never called me no nigga so I ain’t got no problem with them. I got a problem with the ones calling me nigga.’ Ok? Well I felt very much the same way. Over there [I’d] probably kill somebody or get killed. This country wasn’t worth that for me.”
He was eventually reclassified. His fight was here; not in Vietnam.
The movement grew. Supporters joined the cause. By the spring of 1968, the streets were full. He attributes that to the power of television at that time. “People [were] seeing the local news at first then [we’d] see numbers build up. Well when the national news came - CBS and ABC - well the numbers increased and increased.”
Ultimately, the marches ended on March 14, 1968 -- without a fair housing law for the city of Milwaukee.
And then -- less than a month later -- Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. That galvanized passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. It’s also known as the Fair Housing Act -- signed into law as a national ban on discrimination in housing. That happened thanks in large part to the publicity generated by the housing marches here in Milwaukee.
After King’s death, the NAACP Youth Council chose to honor him with a march through the inner city and downtown.
Prentice remembers: “On Martin Luther King’s death - I'll never forget it, I stood on corner of Third and North Avenue after marching down Wisconsin Avenue and I looked back towards Wisconsin Avenue and the street was wall to wall people -- wall to wall -- of all colors.”
People marched in silence, except for the occasional singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
Third Street in Milwaukee is now MLK Boulevard. And -- after a previous version of the body fought against fair housing legislation -- the Common Council renamed the 16th Street Bridge the James Groppi Unity Bridge.
Anger can destroy. Or it can build. 50 years and a little bit of hindsight later, Prentice is able to see the manifestation of his work. For instance, now that African Americans can live in more districts, there’s better representation on the Common Council.
In theory, there’s also better access to schools and public facilities. But of course, there’s still a long way to go.
He concluded: “Over time you turn around and you look and you say what real difference did it make if Milwaukee was the most segregated city then, 50 years ago, and it still is today? What real difference did it make? But from a political standpoint understand there has been some progress -- don't give up.”
Special thank you to WTMJ-TV, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries for use of archive materials in this story.
Support for Race & Ethnicity Reporting provided by the Dohmen Company.