Lloyd A. Barbee and Wisconsin’s Search for Justice After Brown v. Board

Lloyd A. Barbee and Wisconsin’s Search for Justice After Brown v. Board
Image from the UW-Milwaukee Archives (https://uwmarchives.tumblr.com/post/160341574551)

by Christopher Lehman, Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative

This story, like all stories of race and class in U.S. public schools, develops along twin plot lines of passionate activism and white fear. It comes to an unfulfilling resolution, without a happy-ever-after bow, wherein the conclusion is both one of disappointment for what could have been and what never was.

It is also a story, though, like many existing after Brown v. Board (and the lesser known Mendez v. Westminster before that), of an unrelenting fight for justice. It is the story of unearned optimism, the kind that makes little sense in the midst of relentless oppression but nonetheless galvanizes a movement. It is the kind of breathless hope we need to be reminded of, today, 65 years into a desegregated school system that grips evermore firmly to the perceived benefits of its segregation.

I grew up in Wisconsin, a student of Wisconsin Public Schools, during the era of our one and only State sanctioned school-integration plan, known locally as “Chapter 220.” The program created a legally binding two-way aid and busing program: students from the segregated Milwaukee Public Schools could be bused into the segregated suburban schools (of which mine was an option) and students in those suburban districts could be bused into MPS, with the main draws for white families being MPS’ fine arts and other magnet-like school options.

Chapter 220 was imperfect, but was something new in Wisconsin and something more than most other states had even attempted. It was an integral social experience in my schooling, though one I had never learned a great deal about. We lived the integration experiment, but never talked about, learned about it, or even really heard about it much beyond occasional, “220 bussing” concerns for student travel regarding after school activities. Only recently, have I come to learn about the foundational work of and activist central to Wisconsin’s history, yet unaccounted for in our taught lessons: Lloyd A. Barbee.

Photo credit: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Lloyd A. Barbee was born in Tennessee in 1925. He joined the NAACP when he was just 12, a black young man fighting for survival in the Jim Crow United States. He served in the navy during World War II. After completing his undergraduate degree at LeMoyne College, a HBUC in Memphis, his family suggested he move to Wisconsin for his law degree. The University of Wisconsin-Madison was a top law school and, it was believed, its racially integrated status would make for a positive learning environment. What he found, instead, would likely prove to be unwanted training in the North’s own brand of “moderate white” racism. He faced racial discrimination at the Law School, by professors and fellow classmates, and dropped-out after his first year. Soon after, however, he re-enrolled and completed his degree in 1956.

UW-Madison, my alma mater as well, is about an hour west from Milwaukee. I-94 is a direct thruway connecting the two cities. Milwaukee and Madison were—and largely still are—urban cultural hubs that cater to the ideals of white nightlife and entertainment, while simultaneously housing and schooling black and brown children and families. The racial and income tensions existing in Madison, exist to an even greater extent in Milwaukee. With his law degree in hand and higher calling, it would be a natural choice for Barbee to find a new home in Milwaukee, and so he moved there in 1962.

There, he composed a new chapter in Wisconsin, and national, history.

Close to a decade after Brown v. Board, it was clear to Milwaukee residents and activists that Milwaukee Public Schools remained deeply segregated. One of the School Boards’ main means of rationalization was the conceit that school enrollment was tied to housing, ergo where people chose to live was segregating schools, not the district. This was, of course, a convenient lie, while housing segregation is another form of structural racism; school zoning, busing, and funding were very much within the district’s decision making power.

In 1964, Barbee, now an active attorney, formed MUSIC, the “Milwaukee United School Integration Committee.” The coalition brought together Milwaukee religious, labor, civil rights, and other organizations with the main goal of desegregating the schools, through fair busing, construction, and funding.

Borrowing from the activism practices of his contemporaries, ones he had been trained in since his youth, Barbee led MUSIC to organize sit-ins, sing-ins, human barricades of bus routes, and school boycotts.

The first “Freedom Day” walkout and boycott took place on May 18, 1964. MUSIC estimated 15,000 K-12 students withdrew from school. 11,000 began attending one of the 35 temporary Freedom Schools, organized to give children alternative learning during boycotts. Freedom Schools were held in local churches and community centers, taught by a volunteer force of current and retired teachers, politicians, business people, doctors, and other professionals.

Image from the UW-Milwaukee Archives (https://uwmarchives.tumblr.com/post/160341574551)

Like most stories, the incredible—breathtaking—organizing and activism of MUSIC was not met with open arms.

MPS and the city refused to be moved. The School Board kept to their talking points, closing meetings to civil rights organizations, stonewalling attempts for information. At the same time, the city’s white mayor seemed to suffer from jealousy for the attention MUSIC was garnering, telling an influential area newspaper: “The record shows I was in the field of fighting prejudice long before I heard of Mr. Barbee and long before there was a climate in support of the fight.”

Barbee and MUSIC continued pressure, but after a full year of action, the school board was unmoved.

In 1965, MUSIC held its final direct action. That same year, Barbee filed a federal lawsuit, Amos v. Board, which sought court action against MPS, arguing their policies maintained racial segregation.

The path of justice through our court system is often painfully slow. The case would not be heard until years after filing and procedural matters were finalized. It took from the 1965 filing, to 1976 for a decision to come down—about 20 years after the Brown decision. Hinged on the Fourteenth Amendment, a Federal District judge ruled: “I have concluded that segregation exists in the Milwaukee public schools and that this segregation was intentionally created and maintained by the defendants.”

It was a stunning, unavoidable, and legally-binding validation of the work Lloyd Barbee undertook in Wisconsin. A triumph of organizing around a clear need for justice and a sobering example of just how long the road can be through legal channels.

But, this story is not a perfect one, as racial justice in America never is. In the short term, Barbee spent an additional three years fighting, and winning, against a host of legal challenges. Finally in 1979, the case was ended, maintaining the original decision.

The initial 1976 decision led to creation of Wisconsin’s “Chapter 220.” It was the direct result of the Judge’s ruling and in which he maintained an oversight role during negotiations. Chapter 220’s implementation, however, remained a long battle between civil rights and white fear. The UW-Milwaukee archives has a in depth timeline (here). In short, compromises with full integration time and again hinged on, as they seem to do across the US, white families’ comfort. One idea was to redraw suburban district boundaries so portions of MPS were brought in, this was rejected in favor of busing between existing districts. Instead of forced-busing to enact integration, programs would be open but optional to families, encouraging but not demanding movement.

Through negotiations, a watering down took place, some of the broadest goals of desegregation were not met in the immediate plan, nor have they been in the 40-plus years since. Broad structural racism, with school segregation as a symptom, persists in Milwaukee, like New York, like Chicago, like the US.

Yet, on a smaller, school-by-school scale, Chapter 220 has made an impact over the near 40 years of implementation. Of the 23 suburban districts involved in the 220 program, about half now have 30 percent or more nonwhite students.

Yet, on a smaller, personal scale, Chapter 220 has had profound effect. It changed my schooling experience. Only in my adult life am I better recognizing how meaningful this reality was for my sense of humanity and justice. How meaningful relationships, including some of the most important in my early life, never would have happened.

Though, I also now more critically recognize the unbalanced version of “integration” the watered-down version of the law provided. As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones describes in her reporting on segregation in schools, this sort-of integration gave white families, like mine, a sense of diversity that the actual statics did not support. We were still a majority white school, with majority white norms and values. This meant minoritized students entered a space where they were, very clearly and continually, in the minority. The dual realities exist of this sort of integration being both inadequate and impactful.

Students and families who integrated through the Chapter 220 program were able to take a path, from which there had never been a path before, to have access to resources not immediately available. This February 2019 story from Milwaukee’s NPR station begins with one students’ 2019 experience, taking place in my alma mater Wisconsin High School (link).

WUMW 89.7, Milwaukee NPR, story https://www.wuwm.com/post/history-and-impact-wisconsins-only-school-integration-program#stream/0

Yet, here is where the story of Chapter 220, a result of Lloyd Barbee’s years long fight for justice and community’s insistence on equity, comes to an unsatisfying end. The Chapter 220 program, the state’s only racial integration plan, the one alive for nearly 40 years, was in eliminated in 2015 in then-Governor Scott Walker’s budget.

I learned of this only a few months ago, when working with teachers in one of the Chapter 220 suburban schools. At one point in a conversation someone interjected: “Did you know our current second graders will be the last cohort of 220 students?” It is cliché to say, but accurate, that my mouth dropped. I was speechless. We had just spent the morning and afternoon working with classrooms of middle schoolers, in which sat many students who attended the school through the 220 program. In a few more years time, those students likely would not have the same access to those seats.

The Walker administration, and conservative led Legislature, cited all sorts of “fiscal responsibility” and a manufactured decline in Chapter 220 enrollment. Manufactured, because in years prior, his and other conservative administrations enacted or reorganized a number of “School Choice” programs which, under the guise of providing access, have largely led to state-approved white flight from a number of districts, including Milwaukee. White families make up the largest constituency of “Open Enrollment” students, moving out of districts and re-segregating them. The most damning, is that the collection of programs, now with the rolling closure of Chapter 220, contain no racial integration requirement for districts.

The end, at least as it is currently written, of Chapter 220 is astonishingly bleak. It never fully addressed the harms it sought to and was so suddenly erased by politicians whose self-told mythologies are all too familiar.

But, this does not need to be the end. In our conversation this Spring, sitting in the library of that Chapter 220 school, the teachers talked about the way districts petitioned, rallied, and fought back against the closure plan. They talked about the way they, and families, were pushed to talk and learn about the program in a new way, so they could advocate for something that, as it had been in my own schooling experience, just had always been and was assumed to always be.

The teachers were also earnest: “you need to know this story, so you can tell this story. Tell others. They need to know what happened here.”

So, here I sat to write about the end of Chapter 220, on the anniversary of Brown v. Board, without knowing Lloyd Barbee. Telling the story led me to him and his work. If you don’t know him already, I hope this has led you to him as well.

Barbee did not use his lifetime lightly. During his legal battle against MPS, he was elected and served as a Wisconsin State Assemblyman from 1965 to 1977. In that role, brought legislation, organized, and fought for racial justice, gender equality, gay rights, again police brutality, drug criminalization, unfair housing, and a host of other causes. After his state political tenure, he remained an active civil rights lawyer and organizer. He lived until 77, passing in 2002. Years later, his daughter collected some of his work in the anthology Justice for All: Selected Writings of Lloyd A. Barbee.

What feels most overwhelming, is how the racism underpinning school segregation that Lloyd fought against has not faded. Even while we lived the fruits of his work, we were never educated about them. We existed in an unproven belief that rights enacted are timeless and do not need to be continually fought for. How white supremacy changes form, but not function.

What feels most hopeful, is that we have a history of experience, a recipe for action, a playbook of possibility to lean on and learn from. Because Barbee and his community of organizers sat-in, sang-in, boycotted, barricaded, petitioned, filed, fought, and won, then, we evidence that these things can exist, now.

Lloyd A. Barbee wrote a new history for students after Brown v. Board, one that lasted nearly 60 years. Now, it’s on us to write the next 60.