MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – For many in the African American community, racism is a word that evokes deep emotion. Its existence, whether covert or implicit, is often felt and remembered.
On CBS 58 Sunday Morning, Kim Shine asked several black leaders around Milwaukee County to share their encounters with racism, and how the moment shaped their lives.
“Internet makes people bold, they don't have to come out and they don't have to be in your face," Chantia Lewis, alderwoman of Milwaukee's 9th district, said. "So they feel that they can say and do whatever they want to, but there was an instance with two white male constituents actually three."
Her experience is from 2016.
“There is speeding on a particular street, a couple of streets in my district," she continued. "We have been trying to curb the speeding, curb that type of behavior, but it's one of those things that you can't legislate, right? You could put speed humps up all day long, they'll just move to a different area. Right? “I was called a ‘Black B’ because it wasn't done to their discretion. And even when I reached out to them personally to try to see exactly what you were looking to, to be done, then I got crickets.”
State Representative David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) shares his own experience, with police, from 2002.
“I want to say I was about maybe 13, 14 years old, and right in this neighborhood that I grew up in Sherman Park," he explained. “Literally just at a family member's house we were outside parked and engaging, and just by hanging out, and we had an officer that was rolling down the street, headed our way. Our friend Malcolm he was on probation, and didn't want any problems. So, he reached into the car just to shake our hands and to walk towards his house. From that moment, the officer turns the siren on and attempted to detain us and search us. He assumed that we had drugs on us.”
Octavia Manuel Wright is registered nurse and nurse practitioner.
Her story is of a patient she cared for while working in Pewaukee about five years ago.
“So I took care of a gentleman, I didn't think anything of it, took care of this gentleman for 12 hours a day before," Manuel Wright said. When I returned back to work the next day my nursing supervisor pulled me to the side, he said I need to talk to you. He said, I just want to let you know that this patient requested not to have you anymore. “And I say why? What happened? We didn't have any problems.”
“He said, 'Well, he requested not to have you because you were black.'" "And he said, 'I told him absolutely not that was not going to happen. So I'm not going to change the assignment because of that request'," she explained. "I was shocked. I was saddened by it. I was hurt. I was angry, all of those feelings.”
Dr. Howard Fuller, distinguished professor of education at Marquette University, shared his memorable experiences with racism that happened as a youth and young adult.
“1964 I was at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. And I went there to listen to Malcolm X speak," Fuller said. “And Malcolm X gave one of his most Famous speeches the 'Ballot or the Bullet' and I remember going into that church, one kind of black man, and I walked out another.”
But Fuller has another, more violent memory that, for him, defined racism in America.
“And then of course the first time I was arrested, because I was arrested in Cleveland, Ohio for demonstrating in support of integration, [and] interestingly enough and being thrown down three flights of stairs and beaten by the police as we were rolling down the steps. And then when they put us in jail they put us in one of these great big pins. These white cops would come by with their nightsticks singing ‘We Shall Overcome’. That obviously had a tremendous impact on you know on my psychic and how I view this country and what racism really meant.”
Village of Brown Deer President Wanda Montgomery learned about racism as a Milwaukee youth.
“My mother heard about, I think integration into some of the schools here in the city of Milwaukee, so she enrolled us in Samuel Morse Middle School," she said.
Her realization came after graduating from the integrated middle school to Lincoln High School.
"Right away, you know, we love this school. Of course it was predominantly black," Montgomery said. "But what we quickly realized, or I should say my mother realized, we were going to school every day and coming home with no homework. And after a few weeks she looked at us and said, 'Why don't you bring in homework?'"
"And we looked at it and said 'well, because we already did it'.
'''What do you mean you did it?'"
"We did it in school".
"'Well, how could you do it in school?'"
"Well, we did it in school because we'd already had the same work in seventh and eighth grade at Samuel Morse. So that let me know, even then, there was inequity in the school system. These were all a part of Milwaukee Public Schools, but we were not getting the same education," she explained.
These five powerful stories show that prejudice, and discrimination, can happen to Black people no matter their age, education, career, gender or intent. Regardless of their current success and accomplishments, their experiences created lasting lessons in their lives.
“Other people’s perceptions of you are already solidified before you even get a chance to open your mouth," Bowen said. “And it's important for us to recognize that it is up to us to celebrate us. It is up to us to not take those same outside perceptions and views and continue to perpetuate that on our young people.”
“Grab your own power harness your own power and know that you have the ability to control that instance control, how you respond," Lewis said. "You cannot control people's ignorance and their behaviors, but you can control your own.”
The leaders also say allies who are willing to learn, and work, are needed.
“The other thing that I'm hearing from a lot of white colleagues and friends, who now are seeing because it's right in front of your face," Montgomery said. "And the question is 'what can I do?' and what I've told many of them is, I can't do the heavy lift for you. You have to educate yourself. We know that history was not written to include us, not the way it should have been.”
“It has to be collective because we're already not listened to. We're invisible people," Manuel Wright said. "So, everything that we say is taken as a complaint. You're pulling the race card, nothing is happening to you, you're making these things up. You’re a criminal that's why you got pulled over. But our white allies, they see it differently. They're looking from the outside, looking in.”
And that means the fight for Black justice in America is far from over, but not impossible to win.
“And so the question is for you, for your generation," Fuller said. "Will you look exactly like me? And then some reporter's going to call you and ask you, ‘why is it that [Black] people are still being killed by the police?’ My attitude about all of this is you fight for change, even if you don't think change is possible, because not to fight is the co-sign on the injustice.”