So this was how it began, this journey through a labyrinth. It was a Sunday, the first Sunday of November in 1989, and I was in Montgomery, Alabama, studying faces, the reassuring sounds of “amen” and “yes” punctuating the Indian summer air. It was a day devoted to remembering, remembering those who had given their lives in the hard battle for civil rights. Some of the faces were familiar to me and some were not. Rosa Parks had come home to Montgomery from Michigan, a small figure who, by refusing in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus, had, it turned out, taken a large step and launched a movement. Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, was still recognizable from the photographs all those years before in Jet magazine, especially the one of her teenage son in an open casket, the photograph she was determined the world should see and not forget. Myrlie Evers, widow of Medgar, had come from Los Angeles, never dreaming that four years later she would have her measure of justice.
Chris McNair had come from Birmingham, recalling a different Sunday, the Sunday his daughter Denise, eleven years old, and three other little girls were blown to bits at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
… Until justice rolls down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Those words, spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. and taken from the Bible, were inscribed on the black granite wall that was part of the Civil Rights Memorial, the dedication of which was the reason that five thousand people had come.
But there was something wrong with this picture, this picture of harmony, of black and white together. It should have been a satisfying picture–it represented, after all, much of what King had pushed for–and, in many respects, it was. Along with the historic legislation of the 1960s, the black middle class continued to grow in number (there were four times as many black families with incomes above fifty thousand dollars than in 1964), continued to symbolize the group who had benefited the most from the movement and the social programs of that era, the group who was exerting its influence in all aspects of American life. And yet in 1989, despite its various accomplishments, the black middle class was nearly as isolated (either by choice or circumstance) as those who continued to live in the inner cities, where conditions were getting worse, not better. And it was impossible to escape the fact that too much unsavory stuff was still going on. Howard Beach and Bensonhurst had become the new places of reference. Nearly every college campus, it seemed, had an incident to report or to hide.
Speaker after speaker remarked on how important it was to have this memorial, how important it was that people not forget, how important it was that one’s children and grandchildren learn about the struggle for the first time. But speaker after speaker also remarked on how the decade that was coming to a close had threatened to undo so much of what so many had worked so hard to achieve. “Turning back the clock” was a phrase one heard often to describe the Reagan Administration’s stance on civil rights. And when the Great Communicator himself spoke of welfare queens, well, then, that made it okay, acceptable even, to actively voice all the racism and prejudice and anger that hadn’t been put to rest anyway.
As the words to “We Shall Overcome” reverberated up and down Washington Avenue, to the White House of the Confederacy where the ghost of Jefferson Davis was still in residence, to the state capitol where the march from Selma ended and the Confederate flag was still defiantly aloft, and around the corner to the Baptist church on Dexter Avenue, the church where King had been pastor, the song had not lost one ounce of its power to stir deeply, to make all things seem possible.
Oh, oh, oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome some day….
Everybody was singing, swaying from side to side, joining hands, locking arms. Seeing Martin Luther King III standing near Ethel Kennedy took me back to 1968, to the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy two months apart, to the profound sense of loss.
And yet it also took me back to something else, something that occurred one month before King was cut down in Memphis: the stark warning from the Kerner Commission that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.” The prime culprit, a summary of the commission’s report concluded, was “white racism”–for not only creating the ghettos, but perpetuating their existence. I had come to Montgomery to remember those who had died and to honor the struggle, a struggle that had a rhythm and a rightness to it that was all its own. But I left Montgomery with a different purpose, with a focus on the present, on trying to determine how far the country had come since the days of the civil rights movement … and how far we had–or wanted–to go.
In order to do that, I eventually realized, in order to explore race in America today through the looking-glass of one place, I couldn’t choose a place like Birmingham or Selma or Montgomery. I couldn’t choose them because they were places forever frozen in our memory, the very mention of their names bringing forth images of children being flattened by hoses, of marchers being driven back and beaten down on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, of Freedom Riders being ambushed and viciously struck as they descended from buses. The South was permanently tied to the history of the movement. There was no getting around that. Both for that reason and because the Kerner Commission had come about as a result of the 1967 riots in a number of Northern cities, I would have to find the story elsewhere.
Say Milwaukee to most people and they will conjure up images of beer, bratwurst, and bowling, of Laverne & Shirley, of the Braves and Hank Aaron, of the year Kareem Abdul-Jabbar brought the Bucks a championship. They will not necessarily know that it is situated on a lake, or that it can be steaming hot in the summer; that Anthony Trollope wandered through during the Civil War, or that it had a Socialist government for many years; that it has been referred to as “the heartland of the Heartland” (perhaps explaining why Procter & Gamble test-markets so many of its products there); or that it is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country–so much so that it has been labeled “hypersegregated.”
They will also not necessarily know that it has one of the nation’s highest rates of black-to-white unemployment, one of the highest rates of black teenage pregnancy, one of the highest turndown rates for minority loan applications, one of the lowest percentages of black owner-occupied housing, and one of the highest percentages of blacks living below the poverty line.
If any of that was unknown about America’s seventeenth-largest city, this was not: as of March 1990, Milwaukee (pop. 628,088) was living under a threat–a threat, made by one Michael McGee, head of the Black Panther Militia and an alderman with an office in City Hall, that if millions of dollars for economic development, health care, and an emergency employment program were not directed to the inner city by the end of 1995, there would be violence in the streets–sniper attacks, the cutting of electrical wires, burning tires being rolled down the freeways–all-out guerrilla warfare in an age of political correctness no less.
So who was Michael McGee and why was he saying these things? I found myself wondering, as news of this threat reached me one morning in the tranquil town of Charlottesville, Virginia, hallowed land of Thomas Jefferson. As I looked at Monticello from my kitchen window, I couldn’t help also wondering what Jefferson would make of America’s state of affairs at the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century. Would he think that the words he had written in the Declaration of Independence had been ineffective–accepted in theory but not in practice? Would he be flattered yet appalled that all these years later the document would be subject to endless analysis and deconstruction? And how would he react to his life–both public and private–being put forth as a symbol of contradiction on the question of race: his belief in individual liberty and the equality of all men at odds with his belief in the inferiority of black people and his ownership of slaves; his opposition to racial mixing and intermarriage countered by his possibly having fathered children by a mulatto woman?
The only book he ever wrote, Notes on the State of Virginia, stands, more than two hundred years later, as an unsettling echo of many attributes, both good and bad, that are ascribed to blacks today. Phrases like “unfortunate difference of colour,” “disposition to theft,” “disagreeable odour,” and “more ardent after their female” stick in the mind longer than “as brave, and more adventuresome” and “more generally gifted than whites [in music].” That he publicly deplored slavery but didn’t manage to abolish it in his lifetime looms larger than his unusual determination as a slave-owner not to break up families. Despite all his contradictions over race, he is practically viewed as a saint in the town in which I live. I prefer to think of him as imperfect and human.
As it happened, I wasn’t the only one thinking about Jefferson. So was Michael McGee. In announcing the formation of the Black Panther Militia on February 28, 1990, the manifesto McGee laid out not only contained, word for word, the beginning of Jefferson’s Declaration (as did the original platform of the Black Panther Party, of which McGee was a member), hut McGee in speaking of poor black people, gave it a contemporary spin. “We are destined for incarceration, death, and complete and absolute sadness, instead of the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness promised by the Declaration of Independence.”
Citizens of Milwaukee might not have liked the apocalyptic tone of the message; they might have been angered and repelled by the threat of violence; but it was hard to argue with the essence of what McGee was saying. If the Bush Administration had a domestic policy, no one had been able to find it.
So I left the land of Jefferson behind and headed out, knowing that I couldn’t resolve Jefferson’s conflict for him and not knowing exactly what lay ahead. As a white person, I could never fully understand what it meant to be black in America. I couldn’t say, as Walt Whitman had in a different context, “I am the man … I suffered … I was there.” In deciding to go to Milwaukee and stay for a while, I was going to a city that had, like so many cities, seen its economy shift from manufacturing to service; a city that had recovered from the recession of the early 1980s and found new ways to prosper–except that this prosperity was not generally shared by its black citizens. By crossing back and forth over the fault line of race, I would not only confront the complexity of the issue head-on–all the prejudice, anger, fear, and stereotypes, including my own–but would, I hoped, gain a deeper, fuller understanding of why we are still divided after all these years.
“The kind of fight I’m talking about bringing to Milwaukee is the kind that once it starts here, it’s gonna spread throughout the country. It’s the white establishment’s worst nightmare. You can’t cope with an internal enemy, underground, tied up into the fabric of society. So that means that any black anywhere could be a sympathizer or a member–and I’ve got white members.”
It was early April of 1991. The voice Michael McGee’s–was softer than I expected. I had been in Milwaukee for five days and he had been dodging me. Actually, I’d been prepared for that. Since he had been on 60 Minutes and Donahue, been written about in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Economist, and was giving speeches all around the country, it was probably difficult to see how talking to an author could help his cause in the short term.
Anyway, he finally agreed to meet at the offices of WNOV, a black radio station owned by JerrelJones, one of McGee’s patrons, so to speak, though Jones made it very clear that he was a black Republican millionaire, a man who knew Richard Nixon personally and considered him to be one of America’s greatest presidents. The whole situation was designed to test my patience (perhaps even confuse me). I was told to come at one, which I did, and was then told that Mr. Jones and Mr. McGee were in a meeting, a meeting that might last another half hour, and then, when a half hour had passed, that they were not there at all, that they were out at lunch, but would almost certainly bring me something to eat.
At about two-thirty I was finally summoned and up the stairs I went. I had thought I might find McGee in his militia uniform, ready for battle, but he wasn’t. He sat reading a book when I came in, and didn’t bother to look at me. He had a dark shirt on and a black hat and a full beard and he actually had two books with him–Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (the one he was reading) and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which he picked up after he presumably finished a chapter in the other. I wouldn’t have put those two authors together myself, but the combination seemed to suit McGee.
He listened to me talk with Jones for a while, then said, “How do we know that you’re not a chump?”
I was used to being challenged by people I wanted to interview, but the challenge was usually along the lines of why they should expend valuable time and energy for that purpose. This was a new one. I offered my credentials and then said that, as far as I could tell, I was no chump. In truth, I didn’t mind the question. It served as an opening for the two of us to drop protocol and begin to talk.
The Milwaukee Journal had begun a series on race the day before (“Race: The Rawest Nerve”) and I wanted to know what McGee had thought of it. “Too little, too late,” he said dismissively. “All they’re doing is verifying what everybody in the country already know about. I wouldn’t even read it.”
McGee was referring to the national exposure Milwaukee’s “race problem” had received–exposure that had intensified since he formed the militia. Among the many things the series touched on was the question of whether McGee’s threat of violence in 1995 was serious. A majority of both blacks and whites surveyed seemed to think it was.
If McGee were simply a fringe figure, perhaps it would have been possible to dismiss him as a crackpot. But he had been an alderman since 1984 and had worked in community development organizations before that. He served in Vietnam, won a Bronze Star, and was proud of pointing out that the only time he had ever committed violence was over there, in America’s name. Considering that he had nine children and a wife he had been married to for more than twenty years, it was not readily apparent why he was so willing to risk so much.
Because nothing else had worked, he said. The many studies and task forces he had been a part of had not met with the kind of response he believed was essential. He was frustrated, he was angry, and he saw this as the best way to get people’s attention. What it all boiled down to was a question of mind over matter. “They don’t mind because we don’t matter.”
They don’t mind because we don’t matter. It made my blood boil to hear him say that, and yet it wasn’t until later that I was able to go beyond my initial reaction and figure out why. I knew that I didn’t feel that way and I resented his sweeping generalization; that kind of demagoguery and polarization wasn’t going to solve anything, and could easily make things worse. But I also knew that not everyone shared my opinion, that there were white people (as well as middle-class blacks) just as angry and frustrated as McGee was but for a different reason: in their view, blacks had been given every opportunity to succeed, to lift themselves out of poverty, and they had no one to blame but themselves if nearly a third in the country had not. If they insisted on dealing drugs and killing each other in record numbers, then they would have to face the consequences. That point of view was just as onerous as McGee’s. The solutions to the problem were far more complex. If they were to be found at all, it would be in the gray areas.
As for my blood boiling, I didn’t care. McGee knew how to provoke a reaction, put you on edge, and keep you there. I have always respected that ability in a person. Even if the line of thinking isn’t always rational, even if the personality grates, it forces you to respond. McGee was heavily invested in pushing buttons. When Jimmy Carter came to Milwaukee to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, McGee and some of his entourage showed up and began blowing whistles and carrying signs that read “Missionaries Out of Milwaukee” and “Jobs, Not Charity”–all for the benefit of Good Morning America. When the Common Council posed for its official 1988 portrait, McGee wore a paper bag over his head–his own Ku Klux Klan-type protest over the company he was forced (by election) to keep. On two occasions, once in 1987 and again in 1990, he threatened to disrupt an event that is near and dear to the heart of most Milwaukeeans–the Great Circus Parade. In the first instance he was going to throw eggs; in the second, he was going to try to shut it down altogether, a threat that was answered with a legal injunction. But these antics were mild compared with his claim, made in the summer of 1990, that the sausages at Usinger’s had mysteriously been poisoned. It was one thing to blow a whistle, quite another to set off immediate panic. The mayor, John Norquist (whom McGee had begun calling “Norqwurst”), decided that the only response to a “demented mind” was to fight back and try the sausages himself. The whole incident cost Usinger’s money but actually gained Norquist political capital. Somebody had finally stood up to McGee. At least that was the perception.
Beyond these tactics, though, the question still remained: was he serious about this 1995 threat he had cast over the city? “I’ve been talking to people, some in your district,” I told him, “and they agree with the message, but they’re apprehensive about violence.”
So was he, he said, but there was violence all around them, every day, everywhere they turned. “It comes a point,” he said, “that if somebody invaded your home, raped and robbed and beat up everybody in your family, stole everything in your house, what would you be willing to do? That happens five and six times a day in the black communities all across the United States.”
Though he was talking about the present, about gangs and black-on-black crime and drive-by shootings so random and so senseless that stray bullets were finding their way into houses and killing children while they slept, he was also talking about the original sin of slavery, about blacks being put on ships and brought to America against their will. Somebody should pay for that, McGee thought, “for all of the turmoil and strain we’ve went through just being brought over here from Africa … and worked like dogs from sunup to sundown….” It was time for reparations, time to get the forty acres and a mule that were supposed to be coming after [he Civil War but never really did. McGee had a way of bringing everything full circle, of making it all fit into a philosophy that made sense to him: if reparations were offered to black people for all they had been made to suffer, from the moment they were forced onto slave ships until the present, then “that would solve everything because we would probably be the wealthiest group in the world.” And so it goes, of course, that if you are the wealthiest group in the world, then you have power, you are in charge, and you don’t have to give a good goddamn what the Man thinks anymore.
As McGee continued talking, going on about how he couldn’t just launch into the kind of revolution he had in mind overnight “because people don’t understand me yet,” how it might take him until 1995 to explain his rationale to “the average mass of person that you might see on the street,” how, in the meantime, the militia would do everything it could “to bring dignity, hope, and revitalization” to the people of Milwaukee’s inner-city community, and how, in the end, he wasn’t afraid to die for a cause he believed in, I was listening intently but putting him into context at the same time–seeing Huey Newton, George Jackson, and Malcolm X, among others, in my mind’s eye. I thought about a conversation that Huey Newton, cofounder of the Black Panthers, had had with the author Shiva Naipaul in 1979. Naipaul was writing about Jonestown and the People’s Temple and was trying to learn from Newton what support the Panthers had given to the sect. In leading up to that question he asked Newton what, in his opinion, had gone wrong for the Panthers. Newton spoke (as McGee did now) of COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence operation that the FBI had set up to ultimately destroy radical movements. He spoke (as McGee did now) of victims who are like slaves, who decide “to demand some dignity” for themselves by taking up arms “to enforce that demand” because they have been “so demeaned, so humiliated.” Newton didn’t view that as provocation, and neither did McGee.
Being demeaned and humiliated–not to mention physically hurt or killed–can take many forms, and police brutality is one of them. As it happened, one month earlier the world had witnessed the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and McGee wanted me to know that it was “a cakewalk compared to some of the ass-whoopings I done seen.” Among the black man’s greatest fears was being stopped, often for no good reason, in a white neighborhood (especially late at night) or being mistaken for someone else. That was what happened to a young man named Ernest Lacy in July of 1981, an incident that resulted in McGee and fellow black activist Howard Fuller successfully mobilizing thousands of people to seek justice for Lacy, who was thought to be a rapist the Milwaukee police were looking for and who died of injuries from a beating he received while being stopped and questioned. The police department at the time was run by the legendary Harold Breier, run in much the same shoot-first-ask-questions-later style of Daryl Gates in Los Angeles. It was a department that had fought hard to keep blacks from being hired; even when they were, Breier simply didn’t speak to them. Breier retired in 1984, but the black community’s deep distrust of the police remained. For every Rodney King and Ernest Lacy the public became aware of, there were countless others, McGee said, you never heard about, who never got in the paper. McGee had once remarked that the police were merely “the KKK in blue” and he still thought that way. “There are places you can’t go in Milwaukee, period. The whole time you feel like you in jail.”
He was painting a picture of life that was constrained on all sides, of life lived in a war zone, of being hunted and preyed upon, of constantly being in a state of siege. He had been to Vietnam, but this, in his opinion, was worse. It was hard to listen to, and yet…
There were no lights on in Jones’s office. That and the freezing rain beating against the window only added to the gloom of what we were discussing the number of black families on welfare; a system that made it more cost-effective to stay on welfare than to take a job with no benefits at McDonald’s; houses that had twenty or so people living in them; the difficulty black businesses and individuals had in getting money from banks. (In 1989, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Milwaukee metropolitan area ranked first in the nation in turndown rates for residential loans to blacks.)
“When you’re in a black business,” JerrelJones said, “there is a difference between black people and white people, whether the white people want to admit it or not…. When it’s convenient they’ll admit the difference, but when it’s time to pay the bills you’re an equal-opportunity bill payer. Nobody cares what color you are. But when it comes time to spend money, that’s when you become a minority, a Negro, colored, rigger, spook, coon, African-American, Afro-American, Black, black with a small b, negro with a small n.”As far as Jones was concerned, no matter how much money he had, no matter that he lived in an upscale, predominantly white suburb–large house on a hill, big backyard, his own pond, the works–no matter that he sent his children to the finest private school in the area, he would always be viewed, by whites, as a rigger. And if I didn’t understand that, he suggested, then I was probably a chump after all.
The force of Jones’s declaration took me aback in a way that none of McGee’s statements had. Perhaps it was because I could more readily understand the anger and frustration McGee expressed on behalf of his race than that of someone who had grown up comfortably and continued to live like that. But the problem with that way of thinking, I realized later, was that I was viewing it through my lens, not Jones’s. It was a mistake I would have to keep in mind as time went on, a mistake that in large part had to do with the unconsciousness of being white, of not appreciating, or being constantly aware of, all the things that intrinsically come to you–that you don’t have to do battle for on a daily basis–because you are white. It’s more subtle than They don’t mind because we don’t matter, but far more dangerous.
McGee, for his part, had given me all the time he was prepared to give, and would not promise to see me again. He picked up his two books and told me to be careful. And then he was gone, followed by the two figures who had come with him, whom I had not been introduced to, and who had sat there the whole time, their faces inscrutable, never speaking a word. office.
“To whose benefit is it that the problems not be solved?
That was the question JerrelJones wanted me to ponder as I left his
“Who benefits from the way things are now? Who benefits from a large black prison population? Who benefited from Desert Storm? I’m in business. I look at the bottom line on things.” He suddenly referred to the Chippewas in northern Wisconsin and citizens’ complaints about the extent of their spearfishing. “Them Chippewas want to take twenty-five thousand fish out of their own goddamned lake and the tourists take out six hundred and eighty thousand. Now if that ain’t wanting it all, you know. You want to just narrow it down to its rawest sense–it’s greed. Like the cat says in Wall Street, greed is good.”
And then Jones unwittingly let slip what he and McGee had been doing while I had been waiting in the reception area: they had been watching Tarzan. He looked at me for a moment, then shook his head. “In the jungle, they wouldn’t even let the Africans play the Africans. They had the goddamned Africans being played by white people. This is when I was coming up, so you know how fucked up my mind must be.”
©1997 by Jonathan Coleman. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.