On June 17, 1965, Milwaukee attorney and state Assemblyman Lloyd Barbee filed a federal lawsuit, Amos et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, after a year of high-profile demonstrations by the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) failed to sway the Milwaukee school board and change policies, which resulted in de facto segregation. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 41 Black and white students, charged the school board with intentionally maintaining racial segregation in its schools.
The school board never denied that Milwaukee’s public schools were segregated, but instead insisted that it was caused by the city’s residential housing patterns and not by any actions they had taken. While it is true that Milwaukee’s neighborhoods were racially segregated, the use of a neighborhood school policy resulted in a corresponding segregation of the schools. As the African American population in Milwaukee increased, the predominantly Black schools became overcrowded. The school board took several steps to alleviate the overcrowding, but all of them resulted in strengthening the segregation in the school system rather than weakening it.
Barbee argued that it was the neighborhood school policy, and all of the school board’s actions to maintain it, that created segregation. Barbee supported his arguments with research that he and Marilyn Morheuser had collected with the assistance of a small team of MUSIC volunteers. Much of the research needed to be conducted because the school system kept no racial statistics until 1964, when MUSIC began to insist upon it. Barbee and his team were forced to compile racial data based on class photographs and census information going back to 1950. Additionally, they compiled information on teacher transfers and promotions, and exposed the fact that Black teachers were disproportionately assigned to teach in schools with high populations of Black students, further segregating the system. Their research proved that the school board’s policies, and not simple residential housing patterns, had caused the racial segregation in Milwaukee schools.
On January 19, 1976, Federal Judge John Reynolds ruled, “I have concluded that segregation exists in the Milwaukee public schools and that this segregation was intentionally created and maintained by the defendants.” Judge Reynolds ordered that a plan be developed for the school system’s desegregation. However, the school board doggedly resisted the creation of a workable plan, and they appealed Reynolds’ decision all the way to the Supreme Court. A complicated series of legal obstacles followed the 1976 decision, but in all instances Judge Reynolds’ original 1976 findings were reaffirmed. In 1979, an agreement was reached between the two parties, and a consent decree was issued which finally ended the case. LW