From Socialism to Racism: The Politics of Class and Identity in Postwar Milwaukee

By Smith, Kevin D. | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

From Socialism to Racism: The Politics of Class and Identity in Postwar Milwaukee


Smith, Kevin D., Michigan Historical Review


On April 3, 1956, voters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, went to the polls to choose their mayor in an election that pitted two-term incumbent and Socialist Party member Frank P. Zeidler against Milton J. McGuire, a conservative Democrat who chaired the city's common council. Ostensibly, Milwaukee's urban-renewal program was the major issue in the race. As the election drew near, however, press reports of a "whisper campaign" attacking the incumbent overshadowed the issue of urban redevelopment. The rumors, which had been circulating for more than four years, came to the attention of Milwaukee's daily newspapers when a number of local clergy denounced the stories from the pulpit. The rumors charged Zeidler with erecting billboards throughout the South inviting African Americans to Milwaukee to take advantage of its public housing and liberal social-welfare policies. By election day, the whisper campaign had gained national attention. It was touted in the South as proof of northern racism and deplored by nationally based publications like Time magazine as a misguided and dishonest effort on the part of real-estate interests to thwart the mayor's progressive agenda. (1) Although Zeidler was reelected, the whisper campaign, along with the Socialist's narrowing margin of victory, underscored the deep racial conflict that accompanied the rapid postwar growth of Milwaukee's black population.

Milwaukee's response to the increased African-American presence advances our understanding of the decline of the primarily class-based politics of the New Deal era in favor of the race-based or "identity" politics that has predominated in the United States since the late 1970s. Numerous scholars have attributed the splintering of the New Deal coalition to the late-1960s rise of identity-based social movements such as Black Power, second-wave feminism, and Gay Liberation. (2) As a growing body of literature reveals, however, the refusal of working-class whites in the urban North and West during and after World War II to accept integrated public housing and to permit neighborhood integration began to fracture the New Deal coalition long before the emergence of working-class "Reagan Democrats." (3) Milwaukee's history adds another dimension to this literature by illustrating the impact of Cold War anticommunism in undermining the prewar liberal consensus. The city's experience also reinforces the view that working-class whites, faced with the steady influx of black southerners, were no less willing than African Americans to define their interests on the basis of their race.

In Milwaukee the transition from class- to race-based politics resulted from three significant political and social changes, each reflected in the watershed 1956 election. First, despite Zeidler's reelection, Wisconsin's transition from a multiparty political system to a two-party state, consolidated during the early Cold War, left the mayor politically isolated. By focusing debate on Zeidler's party affiliation, conservatives manipulated Cold War fears to undermine his administration's ability to construct integrated public housing. Second, despite widespread support in the North for the growing civil-rights movement in the South, the massive northward migration of black southerners forced northern whites to confront their own attitudes and actions toward African Americans. As the whisper campaign indicated, many white Milwaukeeans, like their counterparts in other northern and western cities, harbored a deep-seated racism. Once aroused, this attitude increasingly penetrated the debates over public housing, redevelopment, and, ultimately, fair-housing legislation. Finally, growing black political power, illustrated most clearly by the 1956 election of Vel Phillips as Milwaukee's first African-American alderwoman, and reinforced by the emergence of a more militant black leadership, helped to raise expectations among many African Americans.

By the early 1960s, these rising expectations, in conjunction with stiffening white resistance to residential integration, completed the transition from class to race as the focus of Milwaukee's political discourse.

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