The Power of Fear: Milwaukee Clergyman Fights Grip of Segregation

Mar 7, 2017

For clergyman Joseph Ellwanger, the battle to end racial injustices across the U.S. involved overseeing the desegregation of the pews of his church.

Ellwanger is pastor emeritus of the Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. During his stewardship, from 1967 to 2001, Cross Lutheran evolved from a predominately white congregation to an integrated one.

He explains the decision to integrate as a move motivated by scripture. "Separation is not of God," Ellwanger says, bluntly. "Togetherness and unity and acceptance and reconciliation and redemption and all of that is what God is about." 

Before he came north in 1967, Ellwanger was active in the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, where he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and participated in the funeral of one of the 4 girls killed in a church bombing there. He says he has seen, firsthand, how segregation can decimate a community. 

"If we do not learn how to live together and work together and walk together, we have continuing issues, problems that make matters worse for us as a nation, not better," he says. 

"The results of that kind of legal segregation do not vanish easily."

Ellwanger worked with the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s, fighting for the end of segregation and Jim Crow. But decades later in the city he calls home, segregation is still an issue. He believes that part of the problem is the lasting legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. "The results of that kind of legal segregation do not vanish easily," he contends.

"Even when we no longer have legal segregation, we have the de facto segregation," Ellwanger continues. "It's in the air, it's in the culture. And that's what people breathe when they get to be teenagers and adults and begin picking up on what our culture says." 

"There are people on the edges, white people specifically, who just literally will not come into the central city or even downtown Milwaukee, because of their fears of what?"

Milwaukee, like many cities around the nation, experienced intense white flight during the Civil Rights Era, when many were trying to desegregate neighborhoods and institutions. Ellwanger believes the causes of white flight can be summed up in one word: fear. "There's the fear of the unknown, the fear of blacks, the fear of 'losing my investment,'" he explains.

Ellwanger admits that white flight is a difficult concept to unpack, because the rationale for a white family moving to the suburbs varied from family to family. "It's such a complicated thing to unpack because there probably were many reasons why each family moved," he admits. 

Still, while fear may not have been the only motivation for white families to leave Milwaukee, it remains a factor in what keeps them away from the city. "There are people on the edges, white people specifically, who just literally will not come into the central city or even downtown Milwaukee, because of their fears of what," he asks. "And that's what has to be unpacked. What are people really, really afraid of?" 

"The culture is self-perpetuating. It has to be challenged and it has to be broken, or otherwise it just continues the same."

Pastor Ellwanger says if people can overcome their fear and prejudice, they will be "freed in the process." He believes it's up to the whole community to reach out to people from different communities, in order to make real, sustainable changes to our culture. 

"Both blacks and white have to be very conscious of reaching out and making sure that, especially the children, get an experience of diversity. Without that, we know what's likely to happen," says Ellwanger. "The culture is self-perpetuating. It has to be challenged and it has to be broken, or otherwise it just continues the same." 

For more on this topic, explore our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

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