“The streets are calling, but this is not my time,” said McKinney, 72, a veteran of civil rights protests more than half a century ago. “It’s time for the young people”.
“It’s a do or die moment,” McKinney said, standing in his front yard this week, where he planted a wooden cross, covered in a “Black Lives Matter Too” shirt. “Part of the universal appeal of this movement is due to Donald Trump. They understand that not only will he destroy the black community through his domination and his theme of law and order, but he will destroy this country.”
Mariah Smith, 28, marched. And in November, she said she would vote.
“If you don’t come out and vote, you’re voting for Trump — period,” said Smith, a college degree student teacher aide. “If you write stupidly, you vote for Trump.”
Here in Milwaukee, one of the nation’s most segregated cities, a summer of unrest is now part of the presidential race that will test the extent to which protesters have reignited a political movement. Trump carried Wisconsin by just 23,000 voters in 2016, with a substantial drop in turnout among black voters since President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election.
Angela Lang, who founded a group to mobilize African-American voters in Milwaukee, said there was no doubt black voters could make a crucial difference in November. But she said it was an unfair burden to place Trump’s victory — or Hillary Clinton’s defeat — on the shoulders of black voters.
“It’s kind of unfair and frankly offensive and disrespectful when people try to blame only black voters,” said Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities, or BLOC. “It’s not just on us. If people want to blame the election outcome, then blame the people who voted for a white supremacist to go to the White House.”
As the coronavirus pandemic has forced the suspension of BLOC’s door-to-door organizing efforts, Lang said the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others has shone a light on Trump’s conduct in office.
“There are people who say, I didn’t know Trump was a racist. How come he’s a racist?” Lang says, recounting conversations she has with some constituents. “Now we can point to this moment, just months away from the presidential election, on how he is treating our community.”
With tributes to Floyd and Taylor painted across the city – as well as murals and signs calling for peace and justice – there are signs of change here.
In April, Democrat David Crowley was elected Milwaukee County Executive. At 34, he is the youngest and first African American to hold the highest office in the county’s 185-year history. It is the same post once held by Scott Walker, who became a two-term Republican governor.
“We’ve had a fire under fire under our bellies for the past four years. And thinking about Wisconsin and how the president won with just 20,000 votes, we have to do better,” Crowley said in a interview. “Being the first African American elected to this seat, I make it a point to make sure we get as many African Americans out here in Milwaukee County.”
He said back-to-back pandemics that have disproportionately affected the black community — coronavirus and police shootings — have underscored the urgency and consequences of the presidential campaign. He said he thought Trump would be a motivator to get votes — against him.
“This election matters because people know we need absolute change,” Crowley said. “If you want to make that change, you have to start with this November election. It’s going to be critical.”
The Trump campaign is not giving in to black voters, with a Wisconsin GOP field office on the corner of North Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. A quote from the slain civil rights leader is displayed prominently in the window, alongside a red Trump campaign sign, which reads, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
Khenzer Senat, director of African-American outreach for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he was not authorized to give an interview on the desk. A party spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
David Bowen, a Democratic state representative from Milwaukee, said voters should focus on the Trump administration’s record and not be misled by King’s words hanging from the campaign office.
“I think it’s very offensive from the standpoint that nothing in his administration or what he’s done really matches those words,” Bowen said. “We know for a fact that when it comes to issues affecting black communities, President Trump has been on the wrong side.”
Still, interviews with more than two dozen elected officials, community leaders and grassroots activists suggest disdain for Trump far outweighs excitement for Biden. The former vice president will accept the Democratic nomination in Milwaukee in August, officials said, and shine a spotlight on the city despite a reduced convention.
For weeks, Frank Sensabaugh has led protests across Milwaukee and its suburbs, calling attention to racial injustice and calling for police reform. He said he doesn’t see these fights as inherently partisan. He didn’t vote four years ago — an intentional protest, he said — but intends to vote this fall.
“I wish President Trump didn’t get re-elected,” said Sensabaugh, known here as Frank Nitty. “I think that’s really important. I think at this point the country is dividing into those who want change and equality and those who don’t. I think Trump represents that , Sadly.”
That pledge to vote gives hope to McKinney, who led marches through Milwaukee during the 1967 fight for fair housing. McKinney thinks most young protesters will make their voices heard at the polls, despite legal challenges and other voter suppression efforts he says will surface by November.
“You have to vote because your life and my life and people like us depend on it,” McKinney said. “Young people, this new generation that my granddaughter is part of, are showing us. I think they’ll be there. I think that’s what Trump is afraid of.”