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Milwaukee's black ministers invoke segregation struggle in calling for anti-Walker vote

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  June 5, 2012 09:04 AM

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MILWAUKEE — While most of the coverage of the Wisconsin recall election has centered on the story of Governor Scott Walker vs. the public sector unions, an equally embittered group of African American ministers — joined by former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson — called Tuesday’s election so historic that they invoked the names of those who fought and died for the right to vote, from southern civil rights workers to the girls killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham to Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

“Every time I go into the voting booth, I think of those who paid a tremendous price, including giving their lives,” said Kenneth Wheeler, pastor of Cross Lutheran Church on Milwaukee’s hard-bitten North Side, during an outdoor get-out-the-vote news conference Monday.

“But I also think of those who if we do not vote on tomorrow, if we do not remain vigilant, will use our indifference and our apathy to take away the rights that so many have fought for, like this present administration who has tried to undercut the right to vote, who has waged a war against unions and collective bargaining, and has balanced the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly.”

After the news conference, Wheeler was even more piercing. Having moved here 25 years ago from Mississippi, he said Walker’s “arrogance” and the Republicans pushing of restrictive voter ID laws invoked for him the 1960s segregationist governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett. Wheeler said Walker’s constant “We don’t want Wisconsin to be like Milwaukee” rhetoric is a bald-faced stereotype of depicting a city of lazy black people who have their hands out.

Milwaukee, a metro area where thousands of factory jobs within the city itself disappeared years ago and where many new jobs have popped up in the suburbs, is currently suffering through its lowest recorded black male employment rate in recorded history. A University of Milwaukee study this year found that while working-age white male employment has also eroded, from 86 percent in 1970 to 77 percent in 2010, black male employment plummeted from 73 percent down to 45 percent.

A constant refrain from the ministers is the lack of public transportation. One of Walker’s first acts as governor was to reject $810 million federal money for a high-speed rail line from Milwaukee to Madison. Walker has employed other rhetoric that bristles the hairs of the ministers, saying at one appearance last week “we want to take back America,” and constantly saying he wants to “get government out of the way.” Wheeler took particular umbrage at what he said was Walker’s penchant for talking in suburban locations about “moms and dads who go to work everyday and work hard for a living.” Juxtaposing that with his depictions of a handout-happy Milwaukee sends a silent message that such moms and dads don’t exist in the state’s biggest city.

“In the community I work with. I deal with hard working people everyday,” Wheeler said. “But when the jobs are outside the city and there is no transportation to those jobs, that is a hardship. Walker has shown no interest in that.”

Walker was asked in a brief interview Sunday in Brown County what he meant by taking back America. He said it meant “taking on the fiscal challenges,” and returning fiscal control back to localities. Wheeler sees something else, which is another window into the chasms of this recall election and fears for ministers like he for the reelection prospects of President Obama, the nation’s first African American president.

“I seriously believe there is a great objection to this man because of the color of his skin,” Wheeler said of Obama. “All of the efforts to scale back policies, to scale rights that have been long won and long fought for. This governor and this administration has, I think systematically eaten away at this... I feel the weight and urgency of that.”

In their press conference the ministers asked for healing in this “barren land,” and invoked biblical victories of chains being loosened and prison doors opened. Should Walker win, it will be interesting to see if he feels the weight and urgency of this anger to open his door to and sit down with these ministers, to see if there are any grounds for healing.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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