Prentice, Fred, and Shirley: the original marchers
By Simone Lewis and Pilar Sharp
Prentice McKinney, Fred Reed, and Dr. Shirley Butler are some of the original members of Milwaukee’s NAACP Youth Council, and Prentice and Fred were some of the original members of the Commandos. They were all instrumental youth leaders in planning, orchestrating and executing the open housing marches in 1967 alongside the leadership of the Rev. James Groppi and are local Civil Rights heroes.
Pilar Sharp: Why did you decide to join the NAACP Youth Council?
Dr. Shirley Butler: My parents were involved. It was not like I asked or that it was put on me, it was in me.
Fred Reed: I became so interested in that and what the movement was about, so I redirected my approach from home and to St. Boniface and got involved from there.
Prentice McKinney: You could call it an awakening. I think every black person, every minority person in this country is involved in civil rights work in some way… I call it an awakening because once you realize that your life is different than the majority of the population simply based on the color of your skin, then you realize that you are struggling already whether or not you are doing it willingly or unwillingly, so I decided to do it willingly.
PS: What were some challenges you experienced while on the youth council?
SB: Sometimes it was scary, and sometimes it was very joyful. I remember being followed by the police… It wasn’t like you just marched, it wasn’t like you just stood up for some things you saw wrong. There was always going to be a consequence.
I got frustrated at school and was mad that the only black people in my history books were slaves, when we were learning about people like Frederick Douglas during our time with Rev. Groppi. Sometimes I didn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance, because I knew that it wasn’t the land of the free for everybody.
I was getting involved with the movement, learning the truth, and yet the truth was not being presented to me. Here I was in America and everything should be free and everyone should be equal and it wasn’t like that.
PS: What was one of your favorite parts of being involved in the Civil Rights movement?
PM: One of the good parts was that we were involved in an integrated movement. So many friendships developed. You got to know people outside of your circle, and that affects you for the rest of your life.
PS: What was the role of the Commandos?
FR: To protect the marchers, the women and the children and anyone who decided they wanted to march. We were well-organized. We operated on a military style. We were by rank. We had meetings prior to and after rallies to decide the strategies that would go forth on the next march. And after the strategy sessions, we would go out and the people would line up and the Commandos would take their designated places, wherever they were assigned.
PM: Let me tell you the significance of the Commandos. Ever since slavery, the African American man has never been allowed to be a man. If you go back to slavery, you have the women working in the house where they have access to the food, and you had the men working in the field. When you go home, you have a kid at home. The woman can feed the kid. The man can’t. Kids don’t eat cotton. The African American man has never been allowed the opportunity to be a man… The Commandos embodied the role of a man... I always had a problem understanding where my place was, because where it was wasn’t where they wanted to put me. So, for the African American community, the significance of black men banding together to protect their own against the police department was highly unusual, highly unusual, and people were frightened by that. That was the role of the Commandos, essentially to show that African American men could stand together to protect their own, in unity, in unity. It moved like a well-oiled machine. That’s the message you can pass on to the youth: They need to find commonality and stand together against injustice.
Simone Lewis: What motivated you to work for social justice?
SB: For me to stand up for justice, was just really a natural thing, and I knew I carried my mother’s anger too. I was just outraged when I found out there were certain things, like black people only lived here, so that’s how I, it was something that was already ingrained in me, to be able to get angry if someone said to me that I could not do this or I could not do that because the color of my skin.
PM: I just demanded that you treat me like you treat white people. If that brought about change, then that brought about change… To me, it’s intuitive that you fight injustice. None of us asked to be born the color we were born, but none of us expect that to be held against us, and yet at the same time, the demands are placed are placed on us that are placed on people who are equal in the society. When I see what’s happening today, Black Lives Matter, it’s the same as what was happening when we were growing up. I just think that people, either you’re willing to risk yourself to bring about change, or you’re willing to accept what people put on you.
SL: What is one quote you feel reflects how you want to live your life?
FR: I like, “Man is the architect of his own future.” And as we move through our lives, remember that we are the architects of our future as we go. Every day of my life, I am working out what my grandkids will look back and see and hopefully appreciate the work that I have done.
PM: If not now, when? If not me, then who?
SB: Love is the key. Love is the key, love of self, love of others, and love of everything that’s living on this earth and also the universe.
SL: How does history affect young people in Milwaukee today?
SB: It’s crucial for you to know your history of your history of your community, not only that, but the history of yourself and how you fit in that.
FR: You got to know it, because you’re a part of it. It affects you. You got to know how it’s going to impact on you, and you gotta be able to begin to develop strategies on how you move and exist in whatever is coming at you. It’s good to know your history. Know where you come from, so you can shape where you’re going.