Renew our commitment

Stop bussing for segregation march James Groppi center 1968
Meeting of NAACP commandos with James Groppi circa 1967 1968

I grew up in Milwaukee, which was deeply segregated for a Northern city. The line was stark, although I crossed it each week when I took the bus into the heart of the Black side of town to visit my grandparents. As orthodox Jews, they needed to live within walking distance of their synagogue, which was built decades earlier when the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish.

Milwaukee remained starkly divided throughout my childhood and young adulthood. The public library where I worked during college was located at the intersection of the two sides of town; its staff and clientele were more far more mixed than the city itself. On my first day on the job, my African American boss and I talked about that day's boycott of public schools, organized to protest the disparate quality of schools in the city's Black and white neighborhoods. My own high school was located on the edge of those worlds, and a scandal broke a few years after I graduated, when we learned that the principal had gerrymandered district lines to avoid enrolling Black students at the school.

These experiences shaped my commitment to equality. I went on to learn more about race relations and the Black Power movement as a graduate student at UC San Diego; so few African American students were enrolled there at the time that I'm pretty sure I knew them all personally. That's a sad testament to the times but also a compelling reminder of how far we've come.

As we celebrate Black History Month and honor national figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., I think of my hometown and the regional leaders who helped break down the lines of segregation. Things are different in Milwaukee today--not perfect, but far better. Much of the credit goes to Father James Groppi, a Roman Catholic priest and civil rights leader who organized protests to desegregate Milwaukee's public schools and advocate for fair housing.

Every community owes a debt of gratitude to the brave individuals who stood up for fairness. Their collective legacy was evident last month, when President Obama placed his hand on the Bibles owned by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.

Black History Month is a good prompt to look back, take stock, and renew our commitment to fighting today's injustices. Let's keep standing up, let's keep making progress, let's stay on the path of progress.

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