Analyzing Milwaukee’s Race Relations Then and Now

Angela Scavone
Sep 17, 2018 · 5 min read
UWM Archives/Wisconsin Historical Society

When Simone Schweber said in her article, Holocaust Fatigue in Teaching Today, “to teach about the past always and unavoidably implicates the present,” it really stuck with me (46). I believe that the reverse is also true, that to teach of and understand the present we must understand the past. During the second session of our methods course, we discussed the importance of not teaching the past in isolation from the present and how current problems of inequality, racism, etc. do not just spring up out of nowhere. I knew going into designing my inquiry unit, that I wanted to make sure my historical topic was one which would be viewed in connection to current issues in our society. It was from here that I decided upon the topic of the American Civil Rights Movement. First, it made sense from the standpoint of being a topic of which their is a great connection to current issues as seen with the Black Lives Matter movement. Second, it connects in really well with what my students in Global Studies are learning about, as they are just finishing up their unit on Apartheid and human rights in South Africa, so there could be a lot of fruitful connections made, as students can, for example, compare the different tactics used by activists in each country.

The Civil Rights Movement is a topic that we have encountered in Social Studies since we could first read words on paper. Students have been exposed to it so often that it can unfortunately run the risk of becoming overdone and boring for students, similar to what Schweber describes as “Holocaust fatigue,” which is the struggle to “make the material new, interesting, intellectually engaging, and emotionally affecting, how to build on what students have previously learned rather than reiterating that which they already know” (45). How can we prevent this topic from falling into “fatigue” for students? They spend their entire lives in schools learning about the Civil Rights movement, but do they really ever get to go deeper than the surface level? Implementing an inquiry unit around this topic will allow students to go beyond this typical surface level knowledge and truly make connections and gain meaningful understanding.

From my experience, my education on the American Civil Rights movement has occurred in isolation within a vacuum, lacking a global perspective during the time and a connection with the present. In a time of immense activism with movements like Black Lives Matter, it is a shame that students are not able to make these connections.

Being that last spring was the 50th anniversary of the March on Milwaukee, it is the perfect time for students to make connections to their community. Students can reflect and use their knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to compare it to the current state of racial relations here in Milwaukee.

Last spring I attended the “Marquette Protests: 50 years later” panel at the Haggerty Art Museum in which campus activists Art Heitzer, Greg Stanford, Albert Raboteau, and Peggy Kendrigan reflected upon the Civil Rights Movement in Milwaukee and particularly at Marquette’s campus. I remember during the Q&A one of the panelists asked how much they think things have changed between then and now, and they discussed how while things improved, there has not been nearly enough change for 50 years passing. (you can view the panel discussion below).

Through this inquiry unit I want students to research the 1960s civil rights movement in Milwaukee and compare it to the current state of racial relations in Milwaukee and the Black Lives Matter movement and be able to think critically about these connections. My goal is for them to answer the central question of how much have things really changed in these 50 years and what still needs to be done to improve race relations in their community. Where have things improved and where are things lacking? How are the strategies of activists similar and different from then and today?

I would like students to engage with local resources about racial relations in Milwaukee, such as the 200 Nights of Freedom Movement and online resources from the Journal Sentinel and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee archives, which I have included the links to below for more information.

Researching their Milwaukee community allows students to make tangible solutions and have opportunities to truly go in-depth in the topic and make personal connections by meeting community leaders and activists. I would love to create a panel similar to the one I shared that includes not only the original activists from the 1960s, but also the current generation of community activists for students to directly see the connections between the past and present.

I think by connecting these two movements it will be a great way to accomplish the major goal in Social Studies for students to see patterns in history, and a great way to operationalize this goal is by analyzing how these patterns from the 1960s reemerged in the current movements. Students can transfer their knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement by applying what they learned in analyzing the current state of racial relations in Milwaukee (Wiggins 40). Lastly, this will accomplish the goal of having students think deeply about their community’s history and current issues, and through this will be able to empathize with and understand their fellow community members. The value of student engagement with their community is demonstrated through the success of Jerica Coffey’s community storytelling project and Hardy Thames’s inquiry project on the Turkey Creek community, which furthered content knowledge and fostered community empathy.

Most importantly, like Beth Rubin said in her article, A Time for Social Studies, having students engage with the present issues in their community can help them move “away from discouragement and apathy towards more aware and empowered civic identities” (29). It invites students to become changemakers in their communities.


Coffey, Jerica. “Storytelling as Resistance.” Rethinking Schools, 29, 4, 2015.

Rubin, Beth. “A Time for Social Studies.” Social Education, 79, 2015, 22–29.

Schweber, Simone. “Holocaust Fatigue in Teaching Today.” Social Education, 2006, 44–49.

Thames, Hardy. “Looking for Justice at Turkey Creek.” Rethinking Schools, 28, 2, 2013/2014.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding By Design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: ASCD.

Investigating Inquiry in the Social Sciences

A future teacher currently taking my social studies methods course. Join me as I document my experience creating a Social Studies inquiry unit at the high school level!

Angela Scavone

Written by

Investigating Inquiry in the Social Sciences

A future teacher currently taking my social studies methods course. Join me as I document my experience creating a Social Studies inquiry unit at the high school level!

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