MILWAUKEE — While so much has changed in Milwaukee over the last 60 plus years, one thing remains constant; the fight for equality.
For nearly 260 straight days, activists have been in and around the streets of Milwaukee making change. In the last few days of May 2020, activists across the country took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Millions of people across the nation joined the fight and, maybe for the first time, the fight for equality couldn’t be ignored.
The actions taken over the last year has made this Black History Month feel a little different than years past. Instead of reading about the important history of African Americans in this country, they lived it.
“We’re writing the history we’re creating,” Milwaukee Activist Frank Nitty said. “It feels like you’re a part of the month. I feel like, I’m a part of Black history. We are walking in the history that we’re making right now that, someday, kids and future generations will be reading and talking about.”
Nitty is arguably the most recognizable activist in the area. He’s quick to say, he doesn’t think he’s any more important than any other protester. He says the movement is bigger than him or any one person. He felt that immediately when this latest round of protesting started last May.
"When people started to protest, it was automatically, I knew it was different,” Nitty said. “I knew it wasn’t going to stop. This was the beginning of something different.”
Nitty’s activism has taken him all across the country, even marching the 750+ miles to Washington D.C. over the summer. He says the passion of the protesters in Milwaukee is second to none.
"We have some of the strongest activists and groups I've seen in the United States,” Nitty said. “Some of the smartest activists and some of the strongest groups. I know it’s because of the elders and strength of the youth at the same time.”
Milwaukee has been home to many a Civil Rights movement, going back more than a half century. It goes back as long as well-known Milwaukee Activist, Tejú.
“I started my first march with the NAACP Youth Council in 1958,” Tejú said. "I was 13-years-old.”
Tejú's call to activism started with the student uprising in the late 50s and he’s never stopped, joining in on protests for fair housing as a commando, fighting against the Vietnam War as a member of the Black Panther Party.
He still gets out today to protest for Black Lives. While he doesn’t feel the movement is necessarily in the best place, largely due to media misconstruing the message for the masses to hear, he does feel encouraged.
"What is encouraging to me is to see this whole new energy and [the opposition] is trying to figure out how to stop it,” Tejú said. "For example, the last election was not a victory for the movement. If you look at the news, the same level of police brutality, the same level of legal injustice, the same level of economic injustice, et cetera, is still going on. When we think that we have somehow made a victory by voting, it’s never that. It has to be disruption.”
Disruptions, Tejú says, are much different than riots. He praises the traffic disruptions the protesters did over the summer as an example of what good protesting is.
“When the Black Lives Matter movement stopped the flow of traffic on I-43 over here, that was a beautiful disruption,” Tejú said. "If they hadn’t done that, nobody would have even paid attention to it.”
Now, he says, people are forced to pay attention and can’t ignore the problems he’s been protesting in support of for over 60 years. Even as the protests evolve.
“I am a Black woman of trans-experience,” Elle Hill, an LGBTQ Health Advocate in Milwaukee said. “It definitely makes me feel good to see LGBTQ leaders like myself have our work elevated with the rest of the movement.”
Hill is among the many activists on a mural near 14th and Vliet Street. She says, that kind of representation alone is a big step in the direction of equality.
“For us, as women, to be next to our male counterparts in terms of activism and social justice work, it’s very good for me, as a transwoman, to be up there with the other women in that mural,” Hill said. “We have a lot of work to do to make sure our communities can work together and be inclusive to one another.”
Hill has very little time to herself because of all of the activism she’s involved in. She recently became the first transwoman to be the co-chair elect of Wisconsin's statewide HIV/AIDS board. She’s also involved with nonprofit advocacy groups like Diverse & Resilient and a group within Diverse & Resilient called Sisters Helping Each Other Battle Adversity (Known as SHEBA). She also consults for Planned Parenthood and is the health outreach navigator for Health Connections Inc.
She’s also helping coordinate the Black Trans Visibility Celebration Week from March 27 to April 2.
Her motivation is to establish change.
Something that is happening rapidly.
“We’re always veering in the direction of change,” Hill said. “It’s always happening around us, from the policies to how we treat each other to people being more inclusive in work spaces and community spaces and people like me to have that type of visibility in those spaces. The power had by men, white people, cis people, we’re chipping away at it. I’m not the only person breaking the glass ceiling but we have more glass ceilings to break.”
Glass ceilings have always been Markasa Tucker’s target. She started out in the media before transitioning to a job where she felt like she could make more of an impact.
“I was working at a daycare when my eyes were really open to the inequities injustice, whether it was through the daycare system itself, with the theme of Black mothers struggling to get to work or students who were dealing with mental health issues,” Tucker said. “That was the reason I actually came into work. I want to be part of changing that.”
As Executive Director of the African American Roundtable, Tucker has her hands in plenty of change from organizing to help the city budget divest from police, making advancements in modern public safety to developing and educating leaders in the community to be a part of changing the trajectory of those individual’s lives through policies and civic engagement.
Her work even earned her a proclamation from the city; Aug. 15 is Markasa Tucker Day.
“It was a little overwhelming because I think of myself as a humble person,” Tucker said. “The gravity of it like, my daughter gets to see that. My Godchildren get to see that. My nephew gets to see that.”
Tucker’s face is also up on the mural near 14th & Vliet. Ten blocks to the east, there is a street with the name of one of Tucker’s many role models; Vel R. Phillips Avenue. The work from people like Phillips are integral to Tucker doing what she does today.
“To be able to be in the footsteps of a Vel Phillips, that is extremely humbling,” Tucker said. “But, I know that all I’m doing is preparing the way for other leaders to come and continue to build upon what we did so that we can have the Milwaukee that we’re all dreaming about. A place where people can live, can be free and can have access to all the things that they need. As long as I get to stand on the shoulders of a Vel Phillips, but also, people get to stand on my shoulders at some point.”
A lifetime of service starts with the first step. For Mariah Smith, that step came about a year ago.
“This year was my first-year protesting,” Smith said. “I wasn’t always as awake as I am now. I’m a Black woman and I didn’t see as many problems as there are in the world.”
Smith went to school in Wauwatosa; she was surrounded by white friends and always knew racism existed, just not to the extent she thinks about it now.
When she pounds the pavement with The People's Revolution, it’s representing the now. The current social justice movement is top of mind when she’s out supporting police reform and equal rights. However, she knows the ties to her ancestry that can be surreal for her to think about.
“My mom, my grandmother, my great grandmother, my great-great grandmother, were fighting for the exact same thing that I am,” Smith said. “The exact same thing. It’s literally, just simply, equality. We’re asking to not be looked at as threats. We’re asking to be treated equally. We’re asking for the same rights as everybody else gets. That’s all we’re asking for. It’s nothing outlandish.”
What Smith is asking for may have seemed outlandish in another time. Tejú says he's been beaten, put in jail more than 30 times, even had bricks thrown at him. All of this, while he was fighting for rights for African Americans. So while Smith keeps fighting the fight, at more than half Tejú's age, he will be right alongside her until he can’t walk anymore.
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph in this world is for enough good people that do nothing,” Tejú said. "I will protest until they throw the dirt on my chest and say goodbye. If heaven isn't straight, I'll protest there and, if I go to hell, I’ll definitely be protesting that.”