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Articles on Wisconsin legal history
Attorney Lloyd Barbee
Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612
Lloyd Barbee of Milwaukee is probably the most important figure in the history of 20th century Wisconsin civil rights law. Barbee was born in Tennessee in 1925. After graduating from college, he moved to Madison and earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. In 1962 he moved to Milwaukee, where he opened a private law practice.
Barbee soon became a leader in the Milwaukee NAACP. In 1963 he led the NAACP's challenge to segregation in Milwaukee, beginning with the Milwaukee public schools (MPS). Barbee and the NAACP demanded that MPS make stronger efforts to integrate the schools, using busing if necessary. When MPS refused to modify its neighborhood school policy, the NAACP organized a boycott of schools in Milwaukee's black "Inner Core" and operated "freedom schools" in their place. When that failed Barbee filed a lawsuit on the NAACP's behalf, asking the courts to do what MPS would not.
The next ten years of Barbee's life were a whirlwind. The school lawsuit consumed thousands of hours of his time. Between his work on the lawsuit and his duties in the Legislature, where he represented an Inner Core district from 1965 to 1977, he had time for little else. Lawyers for the NAACP came and went, but Barbee remained. He often worked alone against a battery of lawyers working for MPS. At the state Capitol he tried to work on the consciences of his colleagues, arguing that segregation in Milwaukee affected the rest of the state as well.
In 1976, Barbee finally tasted victory. Federal Judge John Reynolds ruled in the NAACP's favor, ordering MPS to take stronger measures to desegregate Milwaukee schools. However, Barbee did not relax his guard: Reynolds had asked him and MPS to recommend specific steps to be taken, and much work remained to be done. "The whole system should be ordered to desegregate root and branch," Barbee argued. "If we don't do that, then we will have engaged in a paper victory."
Barbee worked with MPS to develop a plan which called for busing to achieve a better racial balance at MPS schools and a student exchange plan between schools in Milwaukee and its suburbs. This was an unusual request: the U.S. Supreme Court had recently signaled that suburbs could not be forced into city school integration plans against their will. But Barbee went to work on his colleagues in the Legislature and persuaded them to enact a program, called the "Chapter 220" program, under which the suburbs would give MPS limited but important help.
Despite Barbee's best efforts the integration plan did not meet all his hopes. White Milwaukeeans continued to migrate to the suburbs, and by the mid-1980s more than half the students in MPS were black. In the late 1980s a new generation of Inner Core leaders, frustrated with the lack of progress, turned away from integration and suggested that alternate plans would help black students get a good education. In 1989 Annette "Polly" Williams, who now represented the Inner Core in the Wisconsin Assembly, proposed a "school choice" program under which minority students could use financial vouchers from the state to attend private schools rather than MPS schools.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the choice program in 1992, on a 4-3 vote, and in 1995 the Legislature expanded the program's size and extended it to parochial schools. The state Court of Appeals struck down the parochial school feature of the choice program in 1997, and its decision will be reviewed by the Supreme Court in 1998.
Barbee, who still practices law in Milwaukee today, must have watched these developments with mixed feelings. Where they will end is anyone's guess. But it is certain that Barbee's fight against segregation in the 1960s and 1970s brought the question of black education to the fore -- and whatever solutions are tried, the issue will not die until a real solution is found. That is no small achievement.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.