After holding a press conference Tuesday, November 30 at Milwaukee’s city hall demanding that the mayor and aldermen impose a moratorium on the taxing and taking of churches, Reverend Jesse Jackson held an impromptu sit-in when told he could not see Mayor Tom Barrett.
It was a standoff inside Mayor Barrett’s city hall office where Jackson was accompanied by Bishop Tavis Grant, national field director for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition; Reverend Janette Wilson, senior advisor for Reverend Jackson; and Reverend Steven Tipton of El Bethel COGIC, who initially lost his church after being billed for delinquent taxes of $16,000, fought and regained possession of the building.
The latest sit-in by Reverend Jackson occurred 61 years after the then 19-year-old Jackson led a sit-in at the downtown Greenville, South Carolina library that refused to allow Jackson and “Negroes” the right to use its segregated facilities.
Back then, Blacks had a separate library full of outdated books. In 1959, Jackson needed to do research when he came home for a school break. He was enrolled at the University of Illinois at the time. Jackson’s Greenville 8’s actions desegregated the libraries.
Decades later, in the tradition of the Civil Rights movement, Reverend Jackson refused to budge until Mayor Barrett returned to his office and met with his delegation.
At issue is the Milwaukee assessor’s office practice of taxing churches. If the pastors cannot pay, the city is foreclosing on their buildings.
Reverend Jackson and the clergy are asking the mayor and the aldermen to support a moratorium on taxing the churches. Jackson is also demanding reparations for the clergy in the form of reimbursements for taxes paid.
In reaction to Reverend Jackson’s sit-in, Bishop Grant said, “He did what he trained us to be. He has trained us not to take no for an answer. It’s civil disobedience at its best. He refused to leave and could have been arrested, but he walked out with the mayor standing by his side saying he supports a moratorium. The mayor said it is wrong to have churches taxed and foreclosed on, all on the same day.
“It is a victory of sorts, but it really highlights the work of Reverend Jackson, of being arrested at a library (in 1960) to now—at 80—telling a mayor of a major city ‘I’m not leaving.’
“You had to be there to see it and on the same day, got the mayor to take his side,” Grant said. “Reverend believes that being arrested or sit-ins, still works. He has to prove that it still works.”
When asked to react to Jackson’s dramatic sit-in occurring on the eve of the 55th anniversary of Reverend Jackson’s being in the movement, Bishop Grant said, “It was a golden moment. While Reverend Jackson is fighting his own personal battle with Parkinson’s, he still has the moral fortitude to fight for others.
“Many of the pastors he is fighting for don’t know he is fighting for them, don’t know how to fight like he is fighting. Some of these pastors have paid money that had we known about it months ago, they wouldn’t have to have paid this money,” Bishop Grant said.
Bishop Grant added, “For Reverend Janette and others to have been in that room when he, out of nowhere decided, ‘I’m not leaving, and neither are you’ was a classic civil rights strategy. I think that is one of his traits. When he believes the cause is just and right, the law, people don’t have to be on his side, and it doesn’t have to be popular. He is going to do it anyway.”
When the mayor agreed with Jackson that taxing churches is wrong, Grant said, “I think it is a personal victory, but I also think it is a hallmark in terms of him continuing to use the tools that work. Not only will he not give up, he won’t stop using what works and we proved today, it works.”
Most of the press had left when Mayor Barrett finally reappeared. Earlier, his aides told Jackson that the mayor’s schedule was full and that it did not include an appointment with the civil rights icon. “I am not leaving,” Jackson said, “not until I see Mayor Barrett.”
After meeting with Reverend Jackson and his delegation, Mayor Barrett emerged with Reverend Jackson and his team by his side.
Reverend Tipton said the taxing and taking of churches has been “distressful” and that many of his colleagues have had to pay thousands of dollars, which “they cannot recover.”
When Reverend Jackson and the clergy demanded reparations (refund of all taxes paid), Mayor Barrett said, “We believe we followed the state law. I think the question is whether the assessor has more discretion. We don’t see that right now, but we’re looking to see whether there is an opportunity under state law to refund the money.”
Mayor Barrett said the problem as he sees it is, “If you have a church that has not filed in a timely fashion, what should be the remedy? If it is a legitimate church, it should not be a lawsuit for foreclosure. What happens if you have a legitimate church that has not filed (a waiver) appropriately, what should the penalty be?
“This has to come before the Common Council” for an answer. “This is not intended to be a trap in any fashion,” said the mayor.
The Common Council is slated to meet on this issue on December 14.