In honor of Black History Month, WUWM is highlighting some of the significant moments in Milwaukee's Black history. That includes the fair housing marches that brought together Alderwoman Vel Phillips, the NAACP Youth Council Commandos and Father James Groppi. Young people and adults gathered for more than 200 consecutive nights of marching to end housing discrimination.
The Rev. Joseph Baring was one of the commandos. Baring retired as a pastor in October from St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Madison, but he jokes that he’s not really retired.
Baring is active in work that addresses social justice issues and racial disparities.
"There’s an old joke we have with the preachers. In the Gospel of Luke, in the Bible, Jesus tells the people to occupy until I come. That word 'occupy' translated is ‘do business.’ So, basically Jesus said do business until I come to get you," he says.
Baring says his calling has been social action and helping his people get to better positions in life. It’s part of what drew him to the NAACP Youth Council Commandos, a unit of primarily young men, formed in 1966.
The Youth Council began protests three years earlier in 1963. Its first campaign was against Marc’s Big Boy Restaurants for discriminatory hiring practices. Three years later, the council protested the whites-only policy at the Eagles Club.
Baring was in Milwaukee in 1966 after serving in the Navy. He says the newly formed Youth Council Commandos reminded him of the Black Panthers.
The members wore black berets, black boots and sweatshirts with the word “Commando” on them.
"They exhibited this impression of strong Black men. Militant. Disciplined Black men. And I said to myself, 'Boy I’d like to belong to that group,'" says Baring.
Baring would eventually become the secretary of the Commandos.
The group strategized — putting together marching plans and providing security for marchers during demonstrations. Commandos played an active role in the 200 nights of open housing marches that began in 1967.
Members partnered with Milwaukee Alderwoman Vel Phillips to amplify her proposed open housing ordinance. She had tried for years to get it passed.
In some of the most intense nights of marching, protesters walked across what some deemed the Mason-Dixon line of Milwaukee: the 16th Street Viaduct. It spans the Menomonee Valley, connecting neighborhoods on the north to those on the south side, which were mostly white at the time.
Baring compares crossing the viaduct to crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He shares the reputation Milwaukee’s south side had in the 1960s: "If you were Black, you weren’t to be caught on the south side at night unless you were working. And if you were working, you needed a car to get out of that place because if you were standing on a bus stop, you were in danger of being injured or killed over there."
But that didn’t stop the plan to take demonstrations to those neighborhoods.
"We got behind the idea that this would be a demonstration; that we were coming over to where we didn’t belong. A symbol that Milwaukee belonged to us just like it did anybody else," Baring says.
The first march across the bridge began in August of 1967.
Baring says there were a few hundred demonstrators, and they were met by some white counter-protestors when they reached Kosciuszko Park. But for the most part it was peaceful.
The next night, things escalated.
"When we got to the other side of that bridge, over 13,000 or more white people over there. Clubs and bottles; they threw bricks at us — they did everything you could think of to us," says Baring,
Police used tear gas to disperse counter-protestors.
When the marchers returned that night to the Youth Council headquarters, known as Freedom House, they found that a fire had destroyed the building. Many Youth Council members believed police were to blame for the fire.
But Baring says that only fueled the Commandos’ fight.
The fair housing marches ended in March of 1968. In April, the Milwaukee Common Council finally passed a fair housing ordinance.
Baring says he frequently thinks about his days with the NAACP Youth Council Commandos. He says remaining members keep in touch and get together when possible.
During the historic marches, Baring says they experienced 200 days of tension, but the camaraderie the Commandos developed was unbelievable.
"Even though it was a struggle, it was a time of enjoyment. I’m reminded of the slaves and how they would gather even though the slavemaster was so hard on them. That when they would get away to themselves, how they could enjoy what little bit of peace and comfort and time they had together," he says.
When thinking about what the Youth Council means to Milwaukee, Baring asks: Where would Milwaukee be today if the young people had not made a statement about what was happening in their lives?
Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.