In the mid-1960s, the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was at a crossroads. The exploding African American population, combined with the growing strength of the Civil Rights movement, challenged the socially democratic principles on which the city was founded. While the growing black population provided surplus labor for the robust manufacturing sector, the racially restricted housing market helped foster a discriminatory, yet often times "color-blind" political climate, that challenged and undermined the growing political strength of the African American community well into the late 1990s.
This dissertation surveys the last 40 years of local public policy and African American activism in Milwaukee to deepen the growing discourse around Michelle Alexander's concept "the New Jim Crow", challenge the notion that effective black activism ended in the 1960s, and to uncover how black activists in the late twentieth century struggled for power.
While today's political discourse is dominated by the debate over cutting the social safety network, in the 1980s and 1990s, the political and business elite in Milwaukee first advanced the ending of AFDC, the growth of the local prison economy, and the development of an anti-youth central business district, to maintain control of the local political narrative, divert resources from public institutions and sustain the racial status quo. Although wrapped in anti-discriminatory rhetoric that frequently avoided mentioning race, the local political narrative hinged on stoking racial fear to justify eliminating social services and public programs and ramping up police presence in black communities.
Although many African American organizations and causes were unable to adjust to this multi-pronged barrage of punitive color-blind policy and the subsequent rise of rampant joblessness, a coalition of black leaders led by former black-militant-turned turned-local-bureaucrat Howard Fuller, was able to shift the local political narrative, challenge white-led institutions for public resources and forever alter the public economy by shifting resource allocations in the Milwaukee Public School System. Today, the movement to advance choice and alternative schooling may be perceived as a product of conservative activism, but a deeper analysis of the social and political context in which these movements first took root reveals a much more nuanced, yet radical, brand of black activism that was only made possible by the growing political strength of post-Civil Rights black America.