Dr. King’s final words and their real meaning

December 7, 1941 – August 6, 1945 – November 22, 1963

April 4, 1968 – September 11, 2001

What do these dates have in common?   For me, they are dates I will never forget.  (If you’re not sure what the dates refer to, see end of this comment.)

Today, I reflect upon that day 50 years ago today, April 4, 1968.  That day Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis Tennessee, a date that will live in American history as testimony of the racial hatred that has flourished in this nation and continues to the present day.

I recall vividly, the morning after, April 5, when I was sitting in the old Orlando Hotel in imagesDecatur, Ill., when the black boldface headline in the Decatur Herald-Review proclaimed the killing of Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.  I was devastated by the news because I had seen Dr. King just five months earlier at a conference at the University of Chicago where he spoke out eloquently against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

As I read the news, a grizzled veteran labor union representative (at the time I was a newly hired union rep) wandered by, saw the headline and said something like, “Good, they finally got the b—–d.”  As angered as I was at the comment, I was either too shocked, or too new on the job or just plain cowardly to argue with him.

His reaction, however, was not surprising, since the majority of white Americans were either scared that Dr. King’s leadership that might stir up black resentments, thought he was a communist or would bring violence to the nation.

What the old union rep had forgotten or never knew – along with many white Americans at the time – was that Dr. King was truly on the side of all Americans who might have been denied economic or social justice.  He opposed the Vietnam War in part because the task of dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia was being done by poor and working class young men (women were not a major part of the fighting force then). The college educated sons of the privileged classes were exempt from the draft in those days.  Case in point:  Most of the “chicken hawks” who led us into Iraq on the myth of weapons of mass destruction.

The old union rep should also have realized that Dr. King was in Memphis supporting the union sanitation workers at the time of his death. Dr. King saw the labor movement, in spite of its spotty history in civil rights causes, as a major way to bring working classes, particularly African-Americans, into a better standard of living.  He was on his third trip to Memphis in support of the striking members of public employees’ union (AFSCME).

His final speech mainly is remembered as for his eerie promise that he had “been to the mountaintop,” thus foretelling of his death by assassination that next morning. In reality, most of the speech was involved with bringing justice to the striking workers.

He pleaded with his audience in that Memphis Masonic temple on April 3 that economic justice required that they support the strikers, urging that “we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

It was a message of solidarity that could be preached by any union leader urging support for a group of strikers.

Dr. King was a unifying force for America and sadly too few Americans understood that in 1968; as the years went by, most have given at least “lip service” to the work of the great man.  He was, yes, a civil rights leader, but in many respects, he was also a leader in the cause of worker rights.  Ken Germanson, April 4, 2018.

December 7, 1941:  The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, putting U.S. into World War II.

August 6, 1945:  The US drops the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan to begin the nuclear age.

November 22, 1963:  The assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

April 4, 1968:  The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

September 11, 2001:  Nearly 3,000 killed when planes plow into World Trades Center and Pentagon.


A racist? Who? Me?

No doubt, President Donald Trump’s comments about “shit hole” countries is racist.  Whether he said them or not is beside side the point.  There have been too many Trump tweets and comments with racist overtones to overlook them.  The president is certainly racist, and the evidence was there long before his vulgar comment last week about Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador and some African nations.  NewYork Times Columnist David Leonhardt has compiled a list of Trump’s more notable comments, all of which drip with racism.

Yet, the president has said several times, “I am not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”  Perhaps it’s just Trump being Trump (he seems incapable to speak without exaggeration) and he might even believe it.

Certainly, Trump is not the first president who has used racist remarks, or may have even personally been racist. It is well-known that Presidents Washington and Jefferson owned slaves at the same time they were founding a nation based on the principle that “All men are created equal.”  The Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln, believed that Negroes deserved to be free, but that they were of a lesser people and should be returned to Africa.  President Woodrow Wilson was known to support the “Birth of a statue-of-liberty-new-york-ny-nyc-60121.jpegNation” movie that glorified racism.  President Harry Truman was known for his salty language and grew up in a racist environment and President Lyndon Johnson (whose language may have been even more salty) uttered the “n” word repeatedly.

Yet, there is a major difference between Donald Trump and the Presidents mentioned above.  They did not let whatever racism that was in their souls govern the actions they took on behalf of the nation; nor did they advertise their racism over and over again.  Instead, Lincoln freed the slaves, Wilson supported policies that helped the unfortunate of the nation, Truman desegregated the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard, and Johnson pushed through both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts — perhaps the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since the Civil War.

In deep contrast, Trump uses racism to curry support among white Americans, to spread fear and to build divides among Americans that may never be healed.  His remarks, even more importantly, stir whatever racism may lurk in the souls of all of us.

Yes, we all are racist.  We can’t help it.  We weren’t born racist, of course, but we all grew up in environments that foster racism.  It’s universal.  I grew up during the Great Depression in a suburb that then was lily white and reportedly had an ordinance that banned “Negroes” from remaining in town from dusk to dawn.  I never went to school with students of other races.  I knew of only one Jew during my school years and later learned I was one of the few friends he had.  (Years later, I ran into him while shopping and he expressed his long gratitude to me for being his playmate in grade school. He  believed he had been shunned because of being Jewish. I was his friend — not to because I was especially moral — but because I had fun with him.)

Even after more than sixty years of civil rights advocacy, I find thoughts creeping into my head that could be considered racist, particularly when encountering a dreadlocked teen African-American boy and thinking he’s a thug.  Thankfully, my rational mind tells me otherwise, and I dismiss such negative thoughts about the boy.

Similarly, I learned that some of my black friends had resisted traveling into Milwaukee’s once all-white South Side because of their perceptions of all whites as being “honkies.”  For years, those fears were warranted, even though there were many South Side whites who would have been welcoming and friendly.

Yes, we are all racist.  What is important, however, is that we not let whatever latent racism exists within us become fueled by the thoughtless remarks from an unthinking President.  Some Americans, obviously, find that Trump’s dangerous remarks justify their own racism, making it right to act in ways that would injure or humiliate people who are “different” or of another color.

It’s right to denounce the President’s racist remarks and to remind ourselves how dangerous such remarks are to building a strong and just society.  We must also examine our own selves to assure that whatever racism may rest within us is forever buried. – Ken Germanson, Jan. 18, 2018.


50 years later: Any progress on ending racism in Milwaukee?

Is Milwaukee less racist than it was 50 years ago when the disturbances in the summer of 1967 ended up with three deaths, many injuries, looted storefronts and put the city in a weeklong curfew?

As one who has lived in Milwaukee for nearly all his 88 years and has seen change occur, you’d hope I could say it has. Unfortunately, the answer is neither a yes or a no.

In a few ways, of course, racism is less apparent. Our neighborhoods, including those all-white enclaves of the 1960s that flushed up nasty demonstrators to taunt the open housing marchers, are now racially mixed, though some to a far lesser extent than others. Every previously white neighborhood has at least a smattering of families of color. In every area the presence of African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian peoples is common.

Some of the north side neighborhoods, however, have become nearly 100% African-American with the appearance of a white citizen almost as rare as albino animals in a deer herd.


Racism took a graphic form in months leading up to August 1967 riots in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee metropolitan area is still perhaps the most segregated in the United States. Nearly all of our suburbs are solidly white, the exceptions being Shorewood, Glendale and to a lesser extent Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay.

In the 1960s — and continuing through the 1980s — many of my black friends would be fearful of crossing Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon line (the Menomonee River valley) to enter the South Side. Now that has changed with African-Americans freely coming south. On the other hand, many whites are afraid to enter many of our North Side wards, while many of our suburban friends are even afraid to come downtown.

In 1967, Milwaukee a child’s school was determined largely by his or her neighborhood, resulting in many all-white and all-black schools and others with severe imbalances in the races. Now, even with school-busing, little has changed, thanks to the flight of many whites to the suburbs (less than 30% of residents in the city of Milwaukee are Caucasian today) and the creation of voucher and charter schools in which parents have chosen to send their kids to schools that best match their own racial identity. (Of the 76,856 students in MPS schools in 2016, some 88% were students of color and 80% of all students were economically disadvantaged, according to district statistics.)

And there’s no evidence that children are generally better educated in voucher or charter schools than in the highly unbalanced MPS schools.

We repeatedly hear evidence that there’s little progress in making Milwaukee less racist. It’s been well-reported that Milwaukee’s incarceration rate for black males is the highest in the nation with more than half in their 30s and 40s having served time. Zip Code 53206 on the near North Side has been shown to have the highest rate of homicides of any zip code in the U.S.

Nationally, the income gap between whites and blacks remains largely what it was in 1967, according to a national survey conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 2015 — the most recent year for which data are available — black households in the middle income levels earned an average of 55 percent as much as white households at those same percentiles. This is exactly the same figure as in 1967. With the loss of so many manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area, it’s likely the gap may even be greater.

Also, note that Milwaukee has had a number of police shootings, with the one in Sherman Park in August 2016 setting off disturbances reminiscent to those in 1967, though with few deaths and injuries.

Despite that, in many ways Milwaukee is working to becoming less racist. Though the mayor and county executive are both white, minorities are well-represented on the Common Council and County Board; both executives are sympathetic toward programs to end racism (some would argue they may be too timid, however). There are numerous public and private efforts aimed at reducing the disparities in the community, as well as public-private strategies. The church community, most major businesses and the media tend to be supportive.

There is a spirit of hope in the air, but regrettably, there’s a lot of inertia and apathy to overcome. There’s some downright opposition, mainly from suburban and out-state sources. The state government shows little inclination to help the city; in fact it is working to undercut many of the efforts through its starvation of funds.

Meanwhile, within the community there must be continued and even greater involvement in ending the racism that still rests within too many of us. — Ken Germanson, August 1, 2017


A. Philip Randolph legacy in civil rights and labor traced

Norman Hill (left) with Nacarci Feaster, president of Milwaukee Chapter of APRI

Norman Hill (left) with Nacarci Feaster, president of Milwaukee Chapter of APRI

Far too many union members and African-Americans today may never have heard of A. Philip Randolph, not realizing the contributions he made both to the civil rights movement and to labor.

WIlliam E. (Bill) Johnson, retired business manager of Laborers Local 113, received the Milwaukee APRI Chapter's Achievement Award at the event.

WIlliam E. (Bill) Johnson, retired business manager of Laborers Local 113, received the Milwaukee APRI Chapter’s Achievement Award at the event.

Norman Hill, longtime labor and civil rights activist and president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, outlined the major legacy that Randolph left upon his death at the age of 90 in 1979.  Hill, of Washington, spoke at a program sponsored by the Institute’s Milwaukee Chapter in April to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of Randolph’s birth.

Hill traced Randolph’s life from his founding and leadership of the Sleeping Car Porters Union, the nation’s first predominately black trade union, and his leadership of the union became a springboard that led him to leave a significant mark on the nation’s civil rights and labor history.  Randolph brought pressure upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to issue an Executive Order banning discrimination in defense industries, perhaps the first significant action by the federal government to end such practices.

Randolph today is best known for developing – along with Bayard Rustin – the famed 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech.  Hill recalled that President John F. Kennedy at first opposed the March, fearing it would become violent and create a backlash against the civil rights movement.  Hill said Randolph persisted and the March was held, its eventual success made possible by the inclusion in the program of both African-American and white leaders, particularly from the labor movement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, did not originally contain a job discrimination clause, and it was eventually included when Randolph persuaded AFL-CIO President George Meany to push for it.  The clause banned racial discrimination by both companies and labor unions, with Meany urging it cover unions, many of which then practiced discriminatory behavior and needed to “clean up their own act.”

Randolph believed that blacks would never be able to gain equality unless they got involved in politics.  He constantly called for blacks to engage in building coalitions with whites, “since whites were also affected by economic issues,” Hill said.  In 1965, Randolph founded the Institute that bears his name, settings its three main goals to promote voter participation, get black workers active within their unions and to establish a positive labor presence in the community

Thus the Institute provides a link between labor and the civil rights movement, Hill said.

He stressed the importance of engaging in political activity by outlining the anti-worker and anti-civil rights actions that were occurred under four U.S. Presidents that were elected without the support of organized labor.  Under Richard Nixon, he said, the Republicans “southern strategy” was created, a movement that called for a “law and order” agenda that were code words against civil rights.  President Reagan opposed both the voting rights and civil rights acts through appointments of administrators that stifled enforcement and gave a permanent blow to labor by firing the striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

Both Bushes, Geroge H. W. and George W., followed similar policies of appointing anti-worker persons to the Supreme Court or key commissions.

Hill said experiences under such Presidents show the need for becoming more active in political action.

Coalition-building is a vital goal to success, he said, urging the involvement of youth and reaching out to other community groups, including all of the civil rights groups of all minorities, including Hispanics, seniors, gay and other progressive organizations.  In that way, Hill concluded, today’s activists will “fulfill the legacy of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.



Our words may have changed, but racism lingers on — particularly in Wisconsin

It’s hard to forget certain dates.  Today, April 4, is one of them.  It is exactly 46 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I remember exactly where I was when I learned of his death in Memphis, where he was gunned down on the balcony of the Loraine Motel while participating in a rally in support of striking sanitation workers.  The headline of his death greeted me on the following morning as I entered the coffee shop in a downtown hotel in Decatur, Illinois, where I was working on a labor union project.

An older union representative whom we called “Red” saw the headline about the same time I did and uttered something like “it’s about time someone got that b—–d.”   I forget his exact words, but that’s what he meant.

In 1968, Red’s attitude was fairly typical among whites who considered Dr. King a radical, a communist, a troublemaker and a danger (the nouns usually accompanied by expletives).  We’ve come a long way since then, and I’m certain there’s a rare union man or woman who would share Red’s feelings, much less speak out loud so hatefully.  Much of the nation has adopted Dr. King as a symbol of peace and we celebrate his life with a national holiday, full of honor and praise.

Yet, how far have we “really” come as a nation in rooting out racial hatred and in providing persons of color with true equality and opportunity?

Some of us in the North might think most of the barriers have been broken through.  In many ways, it is true: particularly in urban areas there is a cheek-by-jowl existence with persons of varied racial backgrounds that forces us to live and work together in a semblance of harmony.  We joke and share stories with persons of other ethnic backgrounds almost every day; yet, when we socialize or meet for lunch, we too often go our separate ways.

In Wisconsin, we should be particularly ashamed.  Just a few days before April 4, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report ranking the Badger State the “worst” among the 50 states for black children in an index measuring 12 key indicators at various stages of life, including home situation, educational skills and income.

The report is a true indictment of our state’s failure to deal effectively with this economic and social inequity.  It only confirms what most of us have known for years.

Sadly, the policies being expressed among our leaders in Madison will do nothing but exacerbate the situation.  Governor Scott Walker and Republican-controlled Legislature have cut several avenues to better health care by refusing to expand Medicaid while cutting back on BadgerCare.  It has further sliced such benefits as FoodShare that assist poor families; it has taken steps that have weakened the Milwaukee Public School system.  None of the actions of the current Administration will do anything but to make the inequities facing African-Americans grow worse.

You may hear occasional platitudes from Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan (the Wisconsin Republican who heads the House Budget Committee) honoring Dr. King, but don’t accept such hypocrisy.  Perhaps, if they were being honest with us, they’d sound more like Red in that hotel coffee shop in 1968.  Ken Germanson, April 4, 2014

Lingering racism shown in nasty remarks!

Criticizing the President is a great American past-time, and certainly there has been no lack of criticism toward Barack Obama. And, such criticism of a President is proper and within bounds, when it concerns policies. But the personal attacks have been something else, such as the innuendo and rumor thrown at Mr. Obama by the idiotic question of whether he was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii.

Was that not just a sly maneuver to constantly remind voters that he is black – and therefore not one of “us,” meaning a lily white person?

Now, comes Wisconsin’s 9th District Congressman James Sensenbrenner to make fun of the First Lady by saying she has a “big butt” in criticizing her commendable crusade to reduce childhood obesity. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Columnist Eugene Kane called the remark “racist,” noting that he couldn’t recall another First Lady who had ever been similarly attacked by a clearly offensive, nasty remark.  Read column.

Then there’s the story about the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a year ago ruled that there were no racial overtones when a white manager at a Tyson chicken plant in Gadsden AL called the adult black men employed there as “boy.” Now, just before Christmas, the Court has made the unusual move of reversing itself and agreeing that the term “boy” is offensively racist.  See story.

How the learned judges of the 11th Circuit in Atlanta could have dismissed the use of the word “boy” in the South as anything but hurtful to black men in the first place speaks volumes about how far this nation still has to go to understand how racist terms can hurt. How could they not know that the term “boy” connotes inferiority and enslavement itself?

The judges in the 11th Circuit are from the South, and may have grown up using the term “boy” to refer to their black neighbors. That’s still no excuse, especially for supposed educated men wearing dark robes.

Now, Rep. Sensenbrenner is a born and bred northerner, representing folks in the counties bordering Milwaukee County. He made the “big butt” remark in a small group to be sure, but it matters little that he likely would not have said it in front of a microphone. The Congressman has apologized to the First Lady but such apologies are meaningless. The fact that he said indicates what his attitude is.

Sadly, too, Rep. Sensenbrenner’s racism rests in many of us, if we’re honest about it, just as it rested in the souls of the justices of the 11th Circuit.

Some may question whether we’re merely being “politically correct” in looking to avoid the use of hurtful references of a person’s anatomy or the use of terms like “boy.” It’s more than that: it’s a basic attitude that needs to be corrected. And racist attitudes can be just as prevalent in Wisconsin as they can be in Georgia. – Ken Germanson, Dec. 29, 2011

Brief book give stirring account of black teen life

A Review:

“Time & Place ‘In the life of B and K,’” by Khalil Coleman. Publisher: Changing Lives Through Literature, PO Box 76169, Milwaukee WI 53216, $13.00. 40 pages.

Still in his early 20s, Khalil Coleman is determined to change the fortunes of young male African-Americans, and he’s turning to literature to help make it happen.

This short book takes a fictional heartfelt journey about the life of ‘B,’ a teenager, who looks about the ghetto in which he lives and still sees hope and a chance for change for the better. He is joined by his best friend, ‘K,’ in a bus trip out of their seedy, dissipated environment into the peaceful surroundings to visit more affluent friends.

There he sees hope for a change, and returns to face the challenges of his neighborhood and its people, regardless of their fretful situations, who are reluctant to make the change.

He finds that he is seriously misunderstood by young people he had considered his friends, particularly after his friend falls prey to an unfortunate fate.

What is a boy to do? That is for the reader to discover in reading this book.

Coleman has an eye and ear for the “hood,” and what it feels like to be of the ‘hood.’ His descriptions of his neighbors, of their lives and of their own unknowing despair is so real, you share in his feelings, a rare gift for such a young writer.

His book reminds of a book, more than 60 years old, “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison, (published 1947 by Random House), in which an idealistic young black man tries to make his way in the white man’s world.

Coleman’s writing has a poetic quality; hence, the brevity of this book makes sense. His meaning flows out in his words, even though this reviewer wishes he had cut down the length of his paragraphs, many of which run on and on and make reading a bit difficult.

It’s a shame, too, since Coleman intends this book to be read by teens … maybe even shared in groups.

Those of us who don’t live in the hood may find why it’s so hard for young black men to find success in this still racist society. – Kenneth A. Germanson, Nov. 30, 2010