Compiled by MCJ Editorial Staff
Funeral services were held Wednesday for civil rights activist John Givens, the first African American in Milwaukee’s history to become a staff assistant to a mayor, in this case former Mayor Henry Maier.
Services were at St. Mark AME Church, 1616 W. Atkinson Ave., where Givens was a long-time member. Givens passed away December 30, 2019. He was 83.
Givens was the chairman of the Milwaukee chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and a member of numerous civil rights organizations, including the Milwaukee United Integration Committee (MUSIC) and the Milwaukee NAACP advising its legendary Youth Council in the 1960s.
He later became a labor negotiator for American Motors Corporation where he helped place African Americans in management positions and skilled trades.
Givens was instrumental in the early protests around job and housing discrimination. Between 1962 and 1964, Givens and other civil rights activists in Milwaukee would send testers to apply for jobs or seek to rent an apartment at businesses and with landlords who never seemed to hire Black residents or house them.
The testers would gather and document enough examples of racial preference to allow anti-discrimination campaign leaders to confront business owners or landlords about their hiring or rental practices to Black employees or tenenants or face demonstrations.
“What we wanted to do was change this community,” Givens said in a 2007 interview with the city’s daily newspaper. “We were about action.”
From those discrimination protests, Givens was tapped to become the associate director of the Model Cities Program, which was created to bring federal money to Milwaukee’s central city.
The goal of Model Cities—a five-year demonstration project to deal with housing and unemployment–was to involve residents in planning decisions such as where to put a health clinic or how to deal with dilapidated housing.
Though stalled repeatedly by the Common Council, Model Cities was eventually approved after the city’s 1967 race riots.
In the application Milwaukee filed for federal funds in 1968, it listed poverty, unemployment, crime and low educational attainment, factors that led to the riots. Ironically, these same issues continue to plague Wisconsin’s largest city.
At the end of the five-year project, though unemployment actually jumped (according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report) from 6.3 percent in 1970 to 13.5 percent in 1975, the number of affordable housing units increased. More than 400 units were built, and 900-plus units were rehabbed.
A total of $9 million in federal and local funds were spent on public works projects in the area, and parks and social service centers existed where they hadn’t before, according to a 1976 report.
As associate director of Model Cities, Givens opened the door for several Black Milwaukeeans–at the time the most the city had ever seen–such as Tom Sprewer, who served as a managing director of Model Cities; Bill Fisher, who became director of city housing; and Vance Coleman, who was deputy commissioner of city development.
Givens left city government in 1979 for a position with the state.
Sources: Civil Rights Digital Library, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article published August 1, 2007