Open Housing

The Milwaukee Area Project’s debut poll asked respondents, “Do you think that people in your community have the opportunity to rent or purchase a home they can afford regardless of their race, or is there significant racial discrimination in housing?”

Displays the results of the Milwaukee Law School Poll's fair housing question by race/ethnicity

This question echoes a longer history in the Milwaukee area over access to housing. The winter of 2017-2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the “March on Milwaukee.” For two hundred consecutive nights, starting in September 1967, civil rights activists in Milwaukee marched to demand that people be allowed to buy and rent homes that they could afford without being subject to discrimination on the basis of race. At the time, it was legal for property owners to reject prospective renters or buyers because they were black.

Starting in May 1962, Alderman Vel Phillips (elected as Milwaukee’s first African American and first female city council member in 1956) proposed an ordinance that would have barred city property owners from discriminating against African Americans. Proponents of this kind of law in the United States said that it would ensure “fair housing” or “open housing”—in pointed contrast to housing that was unfair or closed. Opponents of the law, borrowing the rhetoric of “forced busing” from the contemporaneous debate about desegregation of public schools, decried what they called “forced housing.” Phillips’s ordinance was repeatedly offered and defeated by a vote of 18-1 in the years leading up to start of the marches.

Milwaukee’s open housing marches continued every night into mid-March 1968. In April, a week after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the US enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This law, also known as the Fair Housing Act, outlawed racial discrimination in housing and other practices that hobbled African Americans’ search for decent homes. By the end of April, the Milwaukee Common Council followed suit with its own fair housing ordinance. The passage of fair housing laws, however, did not in itself end racial discrimination. In 1977, a new organization, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, was created in order to help people who faced illegal discrimination.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of open housing in Milwaukee, the sources below may be helpful.

Digital Resources

Entries posted in the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee illuminate local struggles over access to housing, including:

The award-winning digital archive March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project showcases primary sources from the archival collections of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Golda Meir Library:

If you would like to dig deeper, try the following books and articles:

  • Jack Dougherty, “African Americans, Civil Rights, and Race-Making in Milwaukee,” in Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past, edited by Margo Anderson and Victor R. Greene, 131-61 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
  • Patrick D. Jones, The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
  • Stephen Grant Meyer, As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).
  • Erica L. Metcalfe, “‘Future Political Actors’: The Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council’s Early Fight for Identity,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 95, no. 1 (2011): 16-25.
  • Margaret Rozga, 200 Nights and One Day (Hopkins, MN: Benu Press, 2009).
  • Margaret Rozga, “March on Milwaukee,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 90, no. 4 (2007): 28-39.

Master’s theses and dissertations also provide information on open housing not readily available elsewhere.

  • Liane Ardell Aylward Dolezar, “Father James E. Groppi: A Case Study of Civil Rights Rhetoric” (Master’s thesis, Speech and Dramatic Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1969).
  • Katelyn Barnes, “James Groppi: A Man and His Faith: A Biography” (Master’s thesis, History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2011).
  • Thomas R. Feld, “The Rhetoric of Father James Groppi in the Milwaukee Civil Rights Movement: A Study of the Rhetoric of Agitation” (Master’s thesis, Speech, Northern Illinois University, 1969).
  • Erica L. Metcalfe, “‘Coming into Our Own’: A History of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council, 1948-1968” (MA thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2010).
  • Julius John Modlinski, “Commandos: A Study of a Black Organizations’ Transformation from Militant Protest to Social Service” (PhD. Diss, Social Welfare, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1978).
  • Jay Anthony Wendelberger, “The Open Housing Movement in Milwaukee: Hidden Transcripts of the Urban Poor” (Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1996).

For the deeper background of African Americans in Milwaukee, see:

  • Joe William Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-45 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006; originally published 1985).


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Calling 911 in the Wake of Police Violence

black_lives_matter_sign_-_minneapolis_protest_22632545857Amanda Seligman is a Visiting Fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette University Law School.

How does racially-tinged police violence toward civilians affect city residents’ willingness to summon aid in an emergency? A study in the October 2016 American Sociological Review asks what happened to the number of 911 calls after the public revelation that off-duty white Milwaukee police officers beat Frank Jude in 2004. In “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” Matthew Desmond, Andrew V. Papachristos, and David S. Kirk find that in the year after the initial publicity around the beating, Milwaukee residents placed 22,000 fewer 911 calls than might have been expected, resulting in a total of 110,000 calls. Although white neighborhoods saw a spike in 911 calls and then a long but shallow dip, the loss of calls was especially pronounced in black neighborhoods. The authors found no such loss of calls reporting traffic accidents.

Desmond et al.’s 911 study received extensive mass media coverage. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams wrote about the study in The Atlantic, and the New York Times’sThe Upshot” column reported the findings. The study was the subject of two articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one reporting on the findings and one offering responses from District Attorney John Chisholm and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. Two of the authors, Desmond and Papachristos, also published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times commenting on the significance of their research. A small host of other reports suggest broad interest in the study’s implications in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread coverage of police shootings of African American civilians.

Sociologist Desmond is one of our most thoughtful observers of the cultural significance of the 911 emergency call system. In Evicted, his 2015 ethnographic study of housing and poverty in Milwaukee, Desmond observed how victims of domestic violence put themselves at risk for losing their homes if they call the police too often.

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