One Young Man’s Racial Awakening
There has been much less change than I naively hoped
I came of age in the 1960s in the Village of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, northwesterly adjacent to the City of Milwaukee. The northern suburbs of Milwaukee were then, and are now, very white. I don’t recall a single brown or black face in my public high school graduating class of over four hundred students. When the predominantly black areas of Milwaukee rioted in the “long hot summer of 1967” residents of the northern suburbs wondered out loud why black people were burning down their own neighborhoods. Marinated in our own reality, we were mostly oblivious to the housing discrimination and police brutality that sparked the rioting.
In the mid and late 1960s I attended the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) at the Methodist Church in Wauwatosa, a relatively well-to-do suburb on the western border of Milwaukee. For three consecutive spring breaks during high school about forty other MYF students and I traveled into the South by chartered bus, sleeping in sleeping bags on church basement floors and sometimes staying with host families. All of this was arranged by the youth pastor of the MYF. For a kid from a family of very modest means living in the very white suburbs these trips with the Methodist Youth Fellowship were eye-opening and transformative.
In June 1968 I gave the valedictorian speech in the gym at Menomonee Falls High School to classmates, parents, and relatives numbering perhaps a thousand people. I based the speech mostly on my experiences on these MYF bus trips into the southeastern United States the three prior springs. I must have hit a nerve. That same evening I received an anonymous telephoned death threat from one of my listeners—a threat that revealed to me that racial bigotry is not confined to the American South.
Last week Tennessee State legislators demonstrated blatant racism as Republicans voted to eject two young, black, duly-elected legislators (but not the white woman who joined them) for protesting the lack of legislative action on gun violence after the Nashville Covenant School shooting. Someone wrote that the events in the Tennessee legislature last week taught more about the reality of Critical Race Theory than reading all the books banned by Republicans. The events in Tennessee coincided with my happening upon and re-reading the text of my speech.
If your historical interest is piqued by this introduction, click “Download” and read the original text in all its Smith-Corona typewritten glory. Be sure to consider the words used in their historical context and cut me some slack for the use of the term “colorblindness” (which has changed connotation in the last half century) and for the simplistic solutions offered. Thanks in no small part to the literature generated in the “Black Studies” programs that were launched in the 1960s, I believe my current understanding has much improved. Still, it is appalling to me to consider that we are still facing many of the same issues—and that, both in the northern suburbs of Milwaukee and here in the Inland Empire my speech might still be met more than a half century later with disbelief by some, and anger and threats from others.
Keep to the high ground,