“The streets are calling me, but it’s not my time,” said McKinney, 72, a veteran of civil rights protests more than a half-century ago. “It’s time for the young people.”
“This is a do-or-die moment,” McKinney said, standing in his front yard this week, where he planted a wooden cross, covered with a “Black Lives Matter Too” shirt. “Part of the universal appeal of this movement is because of Donald Trump. They understand that he not only will destroy the black community through his dominance and law and order theme, but he will destroy this country.”
Mariah Smith, 28, has been marching. And come November, she said she will be voting.
“If you don’t go out and vote, you’re voting for Trump — period,” said Smith, a teacher’s aide studying for a college degree. “If you do a stupid write in, you’re voting 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 degree to which protesters have awakened a political movement. Trump carried Wisconsin by only 23,000 voters in 2016, with a substantial decline in turnout among black voters from the 2012 re-election of President Barack Obama.
Angela Lang, who founded a group to mobilize African American voters in Milwaukee, said there’s no question black voters could make a critical 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 a little unfair and quite frankly offensive and disrespectful when people try to solely blame black voters,” said Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities or BLOC. “It’s not just on us. If people want to place any blame on the outcome of the election, then blame the people who voted for a white supremacist to go into the White House.”
While the coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of door-to-door organizing efforts of BLOC, Lang said the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others have shined a light on Trump’s conduct in office.
“There are people who are like, I didn’t know Trump was a racist. What do you mean he’s a racist?” Lang said, recounting conversations she has with some voters. “Now, we can point to this moment, just a few months ahead of the presidential election, about how he’s treating our community.”
With tributes to Floyd and Taylor painted across the city — along with murals and signs calling for peace and justice — there are some signs of change here.
In April, Democrat David Crowley was elected as Milwaukee County Executive. At 34, he’s the youngest and first African American to hold the top job in the county’s 185-year history. It’s the same office once held by Scott Walker, who went onto become a two-term Republican governor.
“We have had a fire under fire under our belly 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 an interview. “Being the first African American elected to this seat, I am making it a point to make sure that we get out as many African Americans here in Milwaukee County.”
He said the back-to-back pandemics that have disproportionately affected the black community — coronavirus and police shootings — have highlighted the urgency and consequences of the presidential campaign. He said he believes Trump will be a motivating factor in turning out votes — against him.
“This election matters because people know that 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 isn’t ceding black voters, with a Wisconsin GOP field office at the corner of North Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. A quote from the slain civil rights leader is prominently displayed in the window, alongside a red Trump campaign sign, reading, “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 allowed to give an interview about the office. A party spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
David Bowen, a Democratic state representative from Milwaukee, says voters should focus on the Trump administration’s record and not be misled by King’s words hanging in the campaign office.
“I think it’s very offensive to the standpoint that nothing in his administration or that he’s done really lines up with those words,” Bowen said. “We know for a fact when it comes to issues that affect black communities, President Trump has been on the wrong side.”
Yet interviews with more than two dozen elected officials, community leaders and rank-and-file activists suggest disdain toward Trump far outweighs the excitement for Biden. The former vice president will accept the Democratic nomination in Milwaukee in August, officials said, and will shine a light on the city despite a scaled-back convention.
For weeks, Frank Sensabaugh has been leading protests across Milwaukee and its suburbs, drawing attention to racial injustice and calling for police reform. He said he does not see those fights as inherently partisan. He did not vote four years ago — an intentional protest, he said — but does intend to vote this fall.
“I would love for President Trump to not be reelected,” said Sensabaugh, who is known here as Frank Nitty. “I think it definitely matters. I think that at this point, the country is getting separated between those that want change and equality and those that don’t. I think Trump represents that, unfortunately.”
That pledge to vote gives hope to McKinney, who led marches across Milwaukee in the 1967 fight for fair housing. McKinney believes that most young protesters will make their voices heard at the ballot box, despite legal challenges and other voter suppression efforts he believes will arise between now and November.
“You have to vote because your life and my life and people that look like us depend on it,” McKinney said. “The young people, this new generation that my granddaughter is in, are showing us. I think they will be there. I think that’s what Trump is afraid of.”