A Lesson From The Heartland You Won’t Read About

By Robert Miranda

December 17, 2014

Ed. Note: In light of the Wisconsin governor’s Koch-induced need to privatize public education tax dollars throughout the state, and Leon Todd’s attempt to stop that tide in Milwaukee back in the 1990s, we invited Robert Miranda to write about his experiences in working with Todd back then. Think about all the charter/voucher schools currently teaching creationism, or taking tax dollars and disappearing. What do you want the next generations to learn?

Choice School/privatization supporters are prepared for what they think will be a banner few years of expansion for their cause. However, pockets of resistance around the state continue to grow as unbiased studies and reports show that privatized-Choice Schools are not producing the kind of results that would warrant expansion.

Milwaukee could have been the strongest center of resistance today against Choice School/privatization had progressive education activist leaders supported grass roots actions in the early 1990s standing against privatization of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) led by former MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller. http://www.marquette.edu/education/centers_clinics/institute-for-the-transformation-of-learning.shtml

Indeed, had leaders of the progressive group Rethinking Schools joined with the grass roots group called United Spiritual Soldiers (USS), and former MPS School Board Director, Leon Todd, who was the strongest voice on the board standing against the Fuller privatization doctrine between 1992 and 1996, a broader more solid unified base of grass roots groups and professional advocates could be in place today, dedicated to fighting for public schools. 

In 1993, USS, a group of grass roots activists from the streets of Milwaukee and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students, organized against privatization with pro-public education notables David Noble, Leonard Minsky and Ralph Nader, of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest. Their efforts were joined in by DirectorTodd. 

USS was the grass roots group at the forefront of exposing the underbelly of the so-called “reform” movement’s campaign to introduce privatization that Superintendent Fuller was advocating.

Provide Equal Education for All of Our Children

As a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the time, I was the Education Minister for USS.  I knew that the political beast we were up against was not interested in improving MPS. I believed then, and still do today, that the profiteering and privatization of our public school resources is slowly taking the breath out of a system of education that can provide equal education to all of our children, and keep our national commitment to democracy alive. 

USS organized teachers, staff, students, elected officials, community and union leaders and fellow activists to improve MPS. In fact, we established a strong working relationship with former Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association (MTEA) director, Sam Carmen and staffer at MTEA, Bob Anderson. It was through these relationships that I learned of the duplicity of so-called progressive education leaders who covertly worked to discredit and undermine our grass roots mobilization. 

In 1993, to draw support from the community to become partners with USS, we went to work at South Division High School, a school at the time falling apart and targeted to be closed by Superintendent Fuller. 

That year, a community meeting was held at the United Community Center. The meeting was called after newspaper accounts in the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel began to report on our effort to rename South Division High School to Cesar E. Chavez University High School. In addition to renaming the school, a plan to improve the school was prepared by South Division parents, community leaders and teachers. The plan outlined a way to change the curriculum towards a college preparatory school with a bilingual emphasis. 

To my surprise, the plan to change South Division’s name and curriculum met resistance by progressive leaders such as Luis “Tony “ Baez and groups like Rethinking Schools. Progressive groups Rethinking Schools and Progressive Milwaukee stayed away from our campaign and covertly spread the word to others to avoid our cause.

The campaign to improve the school brought many people together. Our great friend and longtime journalist in the Milwaukee Latino community, the late Al Stergar often times covered our efforts in the local community newspaper, Latino Community News. Leon Todd provided support and leadership on the board. Jose Martinez, a young politically conscious South Division High School student, created the Latino Student Union at South Division and began organizing students to support the name change. LaMonte Harris, Dawn Miller and a brother who simply called himself Dino were just a few of the grass roots USS leaders who led organizing efforts in the streets to expose the threat privatization presented to our public school system.

Later, we would find out that our efforts were not supported because, at that time, many progressive leaders had close ties to Superintendent Fuller, and did not want to interfere with his initiative at South Division High School, which was targeted for closing to be reopened as an Edison Project experiment, a privatized school. 

Another reason progressive leaders distanced themselves from our efforts is that every person of color involved with USS was not influenced or controlled by any of the urban white progressives who have had longstanding ties with activist leaders in the Black and Latino community. Without a nod from their progressive Latino and Black progressive partners, White Progressives Turned A Blind Eye to the growing grass roots fight USS was organizing against privatization. 

Nevertheless, we knew that if we continued our efforts, they would stop any attempt to place South Division High School in the control of the Edison Project. We understood that if South Division High School began to show signs of improvement and community support, we could derail Superintendent Fuller’s plan. Hence, we continued the fight without Rethinking Schools and the white progressives they influenced. 

Leon Todd Stands Firm

Not long after Leon Todd’s house was attacked, Robert Miranda’s car was firebombed. It was hard to link the incidents concretely, but we were sure they were tied to our mobilization efforts.

Our biggest ally on the MPS School Board at that time was Leon Todd. Director Todd was outspoken and often stood in opposition to Superintendent Fuller’s privatization initiatives. 

In fact, it was Director Todd who shared with USS a manuscript authored by Dr. Paul T. Hill entitled, “Reinventing Public Education”. (

This manuscript was passed on to every MPS School Board member by Superintendent Fuller.

The manuscript is a blueprint for undermining public education and the teacher’s union from within MPS and provided strategy to use politicians to help bring about establishing privatization.

Leon Todd was very keen to Superintendent Fuller’s effort and worked closely with USS. In turn, USS worked closely with him and Sam Carmen of MTEA. In fact, our efforts exposing Fuller’s plan were so successful, that Sam Carmen and Bob Anderson helped to organize a meeting with Charles Lentz, former president of Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and other education union leaders with myself and Lenard Minsky. The meeting went very well. 

Conversely, a similar meeting attended by myself and Lenard Minsky at the home of Rethinking Schools leaders Barbara Miner and Bob Peterson went terribly bad.  Other Rethinking Schools representatives were in attendance as well. When we began to speak about Fuller’s efforts, the meeting was cut short by Miner and we were practically thrown out of the house.  Minsky looked at me and said, “I thought we were having dinner with progressives.” http://www.rethinkingschools.org/index.shtml

Realizing where we stood with Milwaukee progressives, our work proceeded in support of Leon Todd’s effort to stop Fuller. 

The price for Leon Todd’s resolve to work with the community was high. During his reelection campaign, rather than support the strongest opponent to Fuller’s privatization efforts, progressives threw Leon Todd under the bus, and he lost his campaign. 

Had progressive education journalists and activists joined the fight to oust Fuller and his allies from MPS, the privatization movement in Milwaukee could have been dealt a serious set-back with Leon Todd leading the campaign to protect public education. 

What are the lessons learned? The biggest lesson learned is that, no matter what the reason for not supporting and partnering against Dr. Howard Fuller and his privatization campaign in the early 1990s, those reasons were elementary to the struggle to keep our public schools strong and keeping them as the cornerstone notion to our mutual efforts to fight against segregation of the races in our democracy. 

Some articles from that time:

Isthmus Newspaper
Madison, Wisconsin

January 10, 1997

A Shameful Silence
Charles J. Sykes

A school board member’s home is bombed in Milwaukee, and no one is outraged.

We don’t know for sure whether the firebombing of Milwaukee School Board member Leon Todd’s house in late December had anything to do with his opposition to Afrocentrism. Even without the political implications, the firebombing marked a dramatic act of violence against one of the city’s most prominent black elected officials.

So far, police haven’t made any arrests, and Todd, who has been pushing a resolution to ban the teaching of Afrocentrism in the city’s schools, cautions against rushing to any conclusions.

None of that has stopped former Ald. Michael McGee, who went on his radio talk show two days after the bombing to applaud the attack and warn Todd that if he “were smart, he’d get his butt out of the black community.”

“My wholehearted congratulations,” McGee broadcast, “to the guerrilla who issued a little warning shot to Todd. I know where it came from.” Describing the thugs(s) who tossed the Molotov cocktail, which caused about $1,000 in damage, McGee said, “They are the kind of people I would like to pin a medal of honor on.”

McGee also made it clear that the firebombing may just have been the beginning. “Its a warning,” he said on his program, broadcast on WNOV-AM. “Next time, there ain‚t going to be no warning shot.”

I should make it clear that I am not a fan of Leon Todd. But it is difficult to name another elected official who has been subjected to more abuse than him. His crime is his opposition to a curricular fad that Todd claims “mythologizes and falsifies the past and provides inaccurate information.”

Seldom one to mince words, Todd calls Afrocentrism “racist pseudo-science” which aims to raise children’s self-esteem, but which contributes to widening gaps between inner-city black children and white middle-class youngsters.

“I am concerned about the fact that we are running a dual school system once again,” he says. “One system for poor blacks, and another for middle-class children.”

At one Milwaukee school that embraces Afrocentrism, curriculum materials flatly declare that Aristotle stole most of his ideas from Africans. Children are also taught that Africans discovered America 3,000 years before Columbus. Some Afrocentric courses teach children that black Egyptians had learned to fly, using gliders for both business and pleasure.

For Todd, all of this is cant, pure and simple. But, as he has discovered, these matters are not about history or facts, but about politics and inflamed emotions. He found himself at the center of what is becoming, quite literally, a firestorm of vilification. For weeks before the firebombing, Todd was labeled an “Uncle Tom” at public hearings, called a traitor, and warned that opponents would “get him.”

As the debate mounted in intensity, several things became clear: There was remarkably little tolerance within the black community for dissent, intimidation and slander could be used against anyone who broke ranks, racial slurs and race baiting could be used with impunity, and liberals (who profess to be troubled by the state of civility in our society) would not lift a finger for the victim.

Few expected, however, it would go as far as it did. But the real shock was not the bombing of Todd’s house. The real shock was what came afterward. And what did not.

Imagine for a moment that a prominent black official pushing for civil rights was the victim of a firebombing, and that white racists went on the air to applaud the burning. Imagine further that prominent members of the radical right threaten the uppity official to shut up or get out of town.

One would hope that both the hate crime and the hate speech would be met by a howl of outrage ˜ from the black community certainly, but also from the community as a whole, the churches, the civil rights community, and the media.

But in Milwaukee, a prominent black official was attacked, the bombing applauded, his life threatened, and the response has been… silence. No protests from the community or the churches. No candlelight vigils, no community forums. Media coverage has been tepid to nonexistent.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which originally reported McGee‚s threats in a story on page 35, did not even editorialize about the apparent incitement to violence for more than a week, and then in only the most perfunctory way.

If Todd, as a black elected official, has any right at all to independence of thought, no one is willing to stand up and say so. So much for the celebration of diversity. The intolerance of dissent has been paralleled by an almost limitless tolerance for intimidation as long as it is black on black.

That silence has already sent an unmistakable message. When the dispute over Ebonics made headlines, few black leaders were willing to be associated with Todd’s criticism of the notion that black English was a legitimate dialect. Similarly, few leaders of the African American community dare criticize the incompetence or corruption of Milwaukee’s Social Development Commission. White critics may say what they like, but there are simply some things that you cannot say in Milwaukee safely, if you are black.

In Milwaukee, everyone pretends that none of this is happening. That way, we can keep looking the other way, hope that nothing worse happens to Leon Todd, and try not to be ashamed.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

McGee applauds firebombing
He claims knowledge of attack on Todd’s home

by MEG KISSINGER, Jessica McBride of the Journal Sentinel staff
Journal Sentinel staff

December 21, 1996
Edition: Final
Section: B News
Length: 484 words
Record Number: MWS96122101929

Former alderman Michael McGee said Friday that he knew where the fire-bombing of Milwaukee School Board member Leon Todd’s home “came from,” and he congratulated those responsible for their work

“They are the kind of people I would like to pin a medal of honor on,” McGee said on “The Word Warriors,” his radio show on WNOV-AM (860)

McGee and his radio show partner, Teju Ologboni, began their show by talking about Wednesday night’s firebombing

The Molotov cocktail, thrown around 11 pm at the front door of Todd’s home in the 3400 block of N 47th St, caused $1,000 damage No one was injured and police have no suspects in custody

Todd has been at the center of a controversy over his proposal to ban the teaching of Afrocentrism in Milwaukee Public Schools But he said Thursday night the incident didn’t necessarily have anything to do with that

On Friday, McGee said: “My whole-hearted congratulations to the guerrilla who issued a little warning shot to Todd I know where it came from”

Later in the program, McGee said he was glad that the person who threw the firebomb took his advice and wore rubber gloves so that the police could not trace it

“You listened to me when I told you, Always wear rubber gloves and wipe down your device so there can’t be no trace’ Just a little tip,” he said

McGee told his listeners that the firebombing “needed to be done”

“It’s a warning,” said McGee “Next time, there ain’t going to be no warning shot”

He added that if Todd “were smart, he’d get his butt out of the black community”

Police Sgt Anna Ruzinski, public information officer, said she had informed detectives about McGee’s remarks Friday afternoon but did not know whether detectives plan to interview McGee

Ruzinski said Friday afternoon that there were no suspects and “no new leads” in the firebombing of Todd’s home

Todd was unavailable for comment on McGee’s remarks

Ruzinski said she was aware of no connection between the device used in the Todd firebombing and Molotov cocktails tossed against the Korean-owned Beauty Island, 5241 W Fond du Lac Ave, last spring

McGee had made remarks on his radio show concerning protests at the beauty supply shop, including instructions on how to build a Molotov cocktail There were at least three small arson fires at Beauty Island last spring, the target of a yearlong protest by some members of the African-American community

One of those fires broke out just days after McGee warned of further reprisals against the beauty supply store


Resolved: That in 1997, they’ll get it right

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

January 1, 1997

The start of a new year prompts many people to make resolutions: to lose weight, to quit smoking, to spend more quality time with the kids, whatever. Private citizens generally know what’s best for themselves, but people in the public eye, in their ceaseless quest to do better by those who look up to them, may need some friendly, practical advice. Herewith, then, are suggested New Year’s resolutions for some more-or-less famous men and women:


Michael McGee: to procure a very large megaphone — not to more loudly broadcast your goofy ideas, but to harmlessly dissipate all the hot air and blather you generate, like the praise you offered to whoever firebombed the home of School Board member Leon Todd.



Lighting a fire under a few explosive issues

McCann Online
Dennis McCann
April 30, 1997

Act III, after which I will bow if you applaud.

You can call it curious that Mayor John “Casey Jones” Norquist would court his old enemy, Michael McGee, to advance the cause of light rail, but I call it brilliant strategy.

When Norquist starts throwing burning tires on Waukesha County highways — and in the mood he’s in, don’t bet against it — McGee will get all the blame.

Bow. Hey, come on.

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