No, the history of African Americans should not be relegated to a single month.
At the same time, Black History Month (February) provides a chance to honor people and events that might otherwise go unrecognized by younger generations.
People such as Lloyd Barbee.
Most associated with the 1976 federal court decision declaring Milwaukee’s public schools unconstitutionally segregated, Barbee took a broad view of human rights. The following account from the June 18, 1969 Milwaukee Journal provides a glimpse of Barbee’s wide-ranging views.
Assemblyman Lloyd Barbee, who represents one of the poorest districts in the state, is attempting this legislative session to meet the needs of his race and the poor in general with perhaps the most radical libertarian legislative proposals anyone has offered. . . .
Barbee’s views transcend the question of race and go to the basic question of man’s nature. The Democratic assemblyman from Milwaukee’s inner core has introduced bills that would:
Permit sexual intercourse among consenting adults.
Repeal the crime of abortion.
Repeal state obscenity statutes.
Permit prisoners to have sexual intercourse with visitors.
Require inquests when requested into deaths caused by law enforcement officers.
Expunge juvenile criminal records if there have been no convictions in three years.
Give a defendant in a criminal action access to records and information.
Grant the right of bail on appeals to the state and United States supreme courts.
Prohibit physical and verbal abuse by law enforcement officers.
Require psychological screening of applications for police jobs.
During his time as a legislator, Barbee also called for reparations to Wisconsin residents whose ancestors were slaves or “persecuted” Native Americans; eliminating “debtor’s prison” arrests; making Malcolm X’s birthday and the day of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination legal holidays; and setting a four-year term for the Milwaukee police chief (who at the time was police chief for life).
Barbee first received widespread public attention in 1961 when he spearheaded a 13-day, round-the-clock sit-in at the state capitol in Madison to promote housing and equal opportunity legislation. Shortly afterwards, he successfully organized so that Nigger Heel Lake, in northern Wisconsin, was renamed Freedom Lake.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on Aug. 17, 1925, Barbee was the youngest of three boys. His mother, Adlena, died when he was six months old. His father, Earnest, instilled in him not only a love of classical music and literature but also a lifelong passion for fighting for justice. He told the young Lloyd: “Be right or get right. And when you are right, go ahead.”
As a young man, Barbee was acutely aware of school segregation. He walked past several all-white schools each day to get to his all- black school. Jim Crow segregation also kept Barbee from taking advantage of the Memphis public library. When he was just twelve years old, he joined the NAACP.
Barbee received a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1955, as part of a young generation of African American trailblazers at white- dominated universities. Degree in hand, he immediately became involved in civil rights issues.
Both a staunch integrationist and a fierce opponent of white supremacy, Barbee explained his views this way in a 1969 interview: “I see myself as a human being, interested in humanity and fulfilling its maximum potentialities. I realize this will never happen as long as whites view themselves as being superior because of their whiteness— therefore I must fight racism.”
Barbee had a well-honed ability to speak his mind, and he was called bombastic, elitist, and outrageous. He often responded by being even more erudite in his vocabulary or more provocative in his positions. He once called for abolishing police forces altogether because the police “are taught violence and actively practice it.” During the desegregation movement, he called a bureaucratically minded school board member “the king of the pussyfooters.”
When then Mayor Henry Maier labeled an open-housing street protest as “Ku Klux Klanism in reverse,” Barbee responded that Maier’s record on civil rights “ranges from a mere whisper to a whining whimper.”
Barbee not only took an expansive view of civil and human rights, he also understood that core issues — in particular school segregation — had to be addressed as metropolitan-wide problems.
In a 1984 interview, he noted that demographic realities would lead to the resegregation of the Milwaukee Public Schools unless one aggressively called for metropolitan-wide desegregation. “Otherwise,” he said, “the arrogant white school districts will confine the Milwaukee Public School System to a segregated island.”
Today, Barbee’s name is mostly mentioned in conjunction with the MPS Montessori school named after him. In that regard, Barbee is in good company. Martin Luther King Jr’s name adorns segregated schools across the country even as urban/suburban segregation is ignored and education is viewed in isolation from broader problems.
A building’s name is nice. But, as Barbee might say, unless it goes further such an accolade “ranges from a mere whisper to a whining whimper.”
Too bad we don’t honor our African American heroes by emulating their militancy and passion for justice.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.