Next Story ►

Prentice, Fred, and Shirley: the original marchers

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.

Simone’s reflection

Speaking with Shirley, Prentice, and Fred helped me learn that I wasn’t alone. I learned that many other people feel like and have felt like they don’t belong somewhere simply because of the color of their skin, how they talk, what type of hair they have, or what they believe in. At times, I used to think that I was the only one who thought this way and that I was the only one going through this.

Shirley, Prentice, and Fred were treated differently and not able to have different rights, do certain things, or live certain places because they were black. And then there were people like Father Groppi who weren’t black but stood alongside them and was kind of in between the different categories that existed. They were all fighting for equality, regardless of race. I can relate that to how I feel, because since I’m mixed race, I don’t have to pick just one category to fall into. I should be able to be how I am most comfortable.

Everybody should be able to be comfortable in their own skin. It doesn’t matter what race you are, in the sense that that shouldn’t determine where you so-called belong, or where you should be able to feel free.

It was a real eye-opener for me to find out that many others have been feeling this way for over 50 years now. This very same thing brought me more hope of finding out who I am and where I fit in in this city and in our world.

Still in Milwaukee today, people of different races, religions, and other categories are not seen as equal. It really is segregated here, even in the schools. I do believe this segregation is a part of our lives whether we want it to be or not. Even if you don’t let the segregation and racism affect how you treat other people, other people will still base their decisions about you on your race or nationality. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to understand why this is the case, but I do feel like it is not right.

Knowing that I’m able to say that I’ve met and learned about people who marched for equality 50 years ago makes me feel confused. I feel this way because no one can tell me why people are still labeled and judged by the color of their skin, the way they may talk, the way that they dress, or by the way they learn new things. I’m aware that a lot of things have improved compared to the way they were back then to now, but we still have a lot to work on.

I just want my peers and other youth to know that we have a voice, and that voice has been with us before we were even born. Our past should be one of the biggest tools used for learning what should and should not be happening in our present now. We need to remember that what we make of our present will determine our future.

Pilar’s reflection

After talking with Prentice, Fred, and Dr. Shirley I got a chance to visualize their experiences and the experiences of many people like them during the Civil Rights movement. In middle school I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in the South and that the South was the only place of civil rights issues. But after talking with these activists and doing research, I soon realized the problems were in the North as well.

One thing that I found inspirational was the bravery all of them had. It takes a lot to continue fighting when law enforcement and government are against you. There were literally police officers following them home and harassing them. They still continued to march when people threw rocks and bottles at them; they still marched. Standing up for what is right and just is a hard thing to do.

I learned that you have to keep marching for the issues that affect you until you see a change. That’s the only way you can see a difference being made. And I believe my peers can learn from them too that we can’t back down with issues that are important to us. If you stop marching you won’t see a change. Everything will remain the same unless you do something to change it.