Born and raised in Milwaukee, Demetrius Williams was the last of eight children in a faith-focused, education-obsessed family who grew up not far from the Sherman Park neighborhood in which he is now the pastor of Community Baptist Church.
After completing a bachelor of arts degree in Comparative Religion from UW-Milwaukee in 1986, Williams moved to Boston, where he received a Master of Theological Studies, a Master of Divinity and then a Doctor of Theology degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1997. Oh, and while at Harvard he also played a bit of basketball with a young law student named Barack Obama.
Williams later spent some time in New Orleans teaching at Tulane, before moving home to Milwaukee. With more than 30 years of ministerial experience and extensive service to both the faith and academic communities, he now finds his church and his neighborhood at the center of the recent local turmoil, and negative national attention, in Sherman Park.
We sat down with Williams at his parish house and spoke with him about the events in and around Sherman Park, his experience and insight into systemic racial issues (and possible solutions) from his time spent in Boston, how language and Milwaukee’s history affect how we talk about and try to address problems in the city, and the church’s evolving role in the black community. Be sure to watch the video, at the end of the article, in which Williams offers his idea for one basic thing to make this a better place to live for African-Americans.
Here is our Milwaukee Talks Race interview with Demetrius Williams, unfiltered and (only slightly) edited for length.
How did you hear about the shooting and neighborhood response in Sherman Park? Can you take me through that weekend, how you processed everything that was happening and what the impact on you was? Did your thoughts change at all over the next few days?
Demetrius Williams: Actually, I was in Madison. I love to fish, so I was fishing in Madison. My brother-in-law and me, and I received a frantic call from my wife. She said to me, “Burleigh is a war zone. The kids and I were driving home, they had been out shopping and eating.” And she said, “It’s a war zone. The police aren’t doing anything. I mean, the gas station is on fire,” which had already been in the news before because of the incident there with the owner’s son firing the gun. She said, “It’s crazy.” She was very afraid. I said, “I’m on my way home.”
I made it from Madison at about 11:50 p.m., and once I settled in I was able to catch the news where the Council President, Ashanti Hamilton, and other Aldermen and the Mayor were speaking, and that’s when I really got a little sense of what had gone on. I knew there had been some rioting, several buildings had been placed on fire and that some of this may have been organized by social media which, in some cases, may have exacerbated the problem.
So I get to church on Sunday morning, and that’s on everyone’s mind: “Our community is falling apart, what’s going on with our young people?” It’s only in the subsequent days that I get a fuller idea of what’s going on. That a young African-American male was shot by – it happened to have been an African-American cop, but this is what sort of ignited this response over the community. I’m still attempting to process that.
We have a Tuesday Men’s Network that’s an outreach ministry for men in our community. That was the topic of conversation. Not only from the perspective of older individuals like myself, in our 50s and 60s, but we have several young men, one 19 and one 20, who gave their perspectives on what they feel is taking place in Milwaukee, and it was quite eye-opening for me, because they were so articulate.
One young man, 20 years old, was doing very well in school but he talked about the situation in literacy and he emphasized that for so many of the young people of his age. He said improper education, he said they can’t read, he said if you introduce many of them to a new world they may not be able to transition because of the real lack of understanding.
That had enormous impact from a young man. He said, “If it were not for my mother and father shaping me, I wouldn’t be who I am today.” Apparently the young man – the family made a few missteps, not too serious, but he realizes now that education is a key to his own personal formulation.
Another young man, 19, mentioned that he was very much involved in the street life, if you will, saw a friend shot in the head, and that transformed him. He said, “I work 12, 13 hours a day,” but his emphasis that he talked about was parenting. He said, “Parenting is important. If you raise children, put more time in.” These are perspectives from young men, and it’s from their perspective, looking at one aspect of the problem. We know there are systemic issues.
We don’t want to blame the victims, although there is personal responsibility for everyone, but hearing that from those young men had an enormous impact on myself and the others there. Others spoke, but those are the two that really impacted me, so I’m still trying to sort through it. I’ve learned not to reach judgments too quickly, to look at all sides of an issue before I even offer what could be could be considered an opinion. I’m still processing the information because I know that police and particularly minority urban community relationships have been fractured for some time. And trying to find ways to mend that relationship, it’s something that’s increasingly important for me, returning back to Milwaukee.
Interestingly, I spent 10 years where I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I pastored a church in Dorchester, Roxbury area, and when I was there at that time – in school, young pastor, doctoral student – the crime … Well, youth violence was at an all-time high in Boston, and so I was aware of what’s become known as the Ceasefire Initiative, or the Boston Miracle, where many groups, particularly pastors, social agencies, the police, they really formed a committee where they worked together, and there was a significant reduction. A two-thirds reduction, 70-some-odd percent, and, depending on who you are asking about it that do statistics, a drop in violence for about five years.
Then when they ended the program, some of the pre-program rates began to rise again. So there is a model. I was there involved in some of the initial discussions, but I did not engage in some of the real work of getting to the streets, as many pastors did. They spent years working with troubled youths, those who may have been spearheading the violence, and there was significant reduction. There is a model out there of police, community with supporting agencies, all the criminal justice system and juveniles working together to have a significant drop in violence in the city. That’s been on my mind. Can that model be somehow vamped, tweaked to fit the Milwaukee situation, because in every city the context is different.
Then in New Orleans, another major city where I saw extreme disparities in terms of poverty. I could be on St. Charles Avenue, million-dollar homes, then you go around the corner and you are like, “I’m lost. What’s going on?” In both cities, with the violence, some educational and economic disparities there, and I’m thinking, “Wow. That’s not like Milwaukee, where there’s parks everywhere. I was raised here.” The park system, I loved it, libraries down the street, so … I had a kind of ideal of Milwaukee.
I’m originally from here. I have experiences as a child of various exchanges of, yeah, you don’t want to go to the wrong side of town. A lot of that has changed to some degree, in terms of you can get around various parts of the city, but it’s still fairly segregated. At any rate, my experience in all these cities began to impress upon m: Well, are these problems so difficult that, can they ever be resolved?
Maybe that’s too nihilistic. I think there are ways to resolve them, but some of the systemic issues of poverty … It’s really amazing to me that with the city about 40 percent minority, of African-Americans being here – that’s fairly high, higher than it was when I was living here 20, 30 years ago. Are they thinking of ways to mitigate the kind of negative attention and disparities that exist?
Those systemic issues, it seems like we always talk about them in this long litany of major problems, and then they almost become the end points of their own discussions. Like, “well, we can’t solve poverty or education right now because they’re such huge things…” You mentioned nihilism; do other places you’ve lived in, like Boston and New Orleans, big cities with their own problems, have that same sort of feeling of despair, like it’s too big a challenge to tackle?
I think so. With Boston the educational disparities are there too, where in Roxbury, Dorchester, the South Side, the educational system is not compared to what it was in Cambridge, for example, where I lived. In New Orleans, which had horrible schools, if your child was not in a private school, they were fairly under-educated – very much so. And there it seemed like, What are we going to do? For some people there, to be honest with you – I returned (to Milwaukee) because of the Katrina hurricane; I didn’t have anywhere to live – some of the residents were saying, “Hey, we are glad. Now we don’t have to deal with that, with that particular demographic (when many poor New Orleans minorities were displaced).” Really. In certain public discourse it was, “Let them stay in Texas, in Atlanta, so good, that’s a problem we don’t have to be worried about.”
It is interesting. I remember one exchange. I was there in 2006, I had to teach one last semester – I taught at Tulane University, and I had to teach one semester before I transitioned here. Peggy Wilson was running for Mayor and she said, “No. We don’t want those drug dealers and welfare queen back here.” I thought about that: “drug dealers and welfare queens.” Well, when did all this come about?
First of all, the war on drugs initiated in 1984 when, according to Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow,” prison population was declining, and you went from community policing to a military kind of policing. The federal government put a lot of money and resources in, so you need a target. Well, isn’t it nice that crack cocaine was introduced in, let’s say, ’86, so it made the war on poverty seem real. It was real, justified, and who became the poster child for that time? The black male. Then under Clinton with welfare reform, who became the target? What they call the welfare queen. So whether you are a black male or a black female, public discourse and public policy has been targeted to bring you down.
So, yeah … that’s why I’m glad when you say we’re not going to talk about systemic things, because it gives me a headache. When I really think about the legal system, the police system, in some ways – in many ways – became involved in targeting minority communities and justifying their actions.
Whenever I hear crime, I’m sorry, when I hear Donald Trump say, “Ah, we are going to deal with crime.” Well, whenever you speak of crime there’s a black face on there; there’s a connotation that it’s people of color.
Those are the things, whether in Washington or the news or even in the political campaigns, I’m like, “OK. It’s such a part of who we are in America that …” Well, I’m not being racist or mean, it’s just the language we use continues to reinforce ideas and values that contribute to divisiveness within community.
The language we use to talk about race is really interesting to me, because it seems like we’re not very good at it. And sometimes not even really interested in talking about it. But I do think there are white people who are like, “I’m progressive, I want equality for everyone,” and because they’re not overtly racist, in language or actions, they think segregation and these structural problems are no big deal or will resolve themselves. Do white people need to be more proactive in trying to address these issues and how do we become more comfortable talking race?
I have to be honest, all of my life I remember the tennis player, Arthur Ashe. He said, “I wish I didn’t have to spend so much of my life dealing with race.” In many ways I feel like that too. I went to Fratney School in the ’60s and busing was going on and heard things like, “We don’t want them here,” all that language. I was consciously aware of being different, of not being accepted, being chased home, “Go back to Africa, jungle bunny,” all these kinds of things. My consciousness, I would have to say, was shaped as a racial consciousness. I was aware that my phenol type, my skin, my history made me different, and in many cases unappreciated and not wanted. Speaking for myself, the first kind of challenge of my psychology was accepting who I am, in a society that did not accept or necessarily validate me.
This is not a scholar talking; this is me thinking of the struggles of childhood, at 6 years old being chased home by teenagers. I happened to be at Kern Park – talking about this now, it’s so benign – but I was at the park, got chased home, pulled off my bike, fell and fractured my shoulder, so I had to wear a harness. Why? I wasn’t doing anything wrong; I was playing basketball. But young white teenagers just felt, “You are in our park, get out of our park, we don’t want you here.” I was beat up at the age of 5; a guy hit me with a tennis racket because, whatever, I happened to be a little black kid playing with his sister and he didn’t want that. Just making the point that many African-Americans – and I’m speaking perhaps particularly, but the story can be re-duplicated – are raised with that kind of consciousness. Race is a part of our conversation, we talk about it, but I don’t want it to always be a conversation about victimization.
Sometimes when race is discussed, it’s always how we’ve been victimized, and that’s an important element there, also. But race as a way of structuring society and human relationships – how do you dismantle that? Where you have institutions, laws, social morays, language and even everyday exchanges built upon this concept that’s not real. It’s a social construction.
How do you unpack that? It’s not about, well, let’s put more money into it. I mean, things can help, education certainly helps. I think that’s what pulled me out of poverty, gave me the kind of intellectual power to claim who I am with some kind of dignity and not to respond with anger. If you don’t have, I’d say the intellectual moral tools, then anger becomes, in some cases, a valid response. What else am I going to do to get attention of those who are in power, who are not giving me a response to my plight?
There are many things I disagree with, maybe that’s my age, my own kind of temperament, but I think burning and looting your own community is not a good response to injustice. I think there are other ways. But then on the other hand, across the country, many young people, many of whom are living in poverty, lacking the kind of education, jobs – as a young man mentioned on Tuesday, “Am I going to pay my bills or feed my kids?” – when you have to live that, I think, anger sometimes can become a response, whether valid or invalid, to perceived injustices.
In the aftermath of Sherman Park, you heard different messages. Scott Walker and some people saying, “Sherman Park is a good neighborhood; this doesn’t represent Sherman Park.” And many others, like Khalif Rainey, saying, “Because of the institutional issues in this city, this was a powder keg; it happened in Sherman Park, but it could have happened anywhere.” This is your community, your congregation, your church is in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Hindsight being 20-20, did you see this coming? Was it inevitable? And, on some level, do you hope or believe all the upheaval and negative attention on racial inequality here will ultimately produce positive change?
I’ll start with this. I do think – although some of my colleagues, you know, the redemptive suffering, they will get me on this (laughs), they have a problem with that concept, theoretically, that somehow all suffering is redemptive – but given that caveat, I’m thinking about what happened in Charleston with Dylann Roof. He goes in and he kills nine African-Americans, hoping to start a race war, and many of them say we forgive you. But before this you have a big debate about Confederate flags at state buildings.
Well, they began to come down, in response to him claiming the Confederate flag. One might say that in response to that tragedy, it got the attention of people over a particular issue that had been extremely divisive within the community. So there are examples of how tragedy can produce a kind of desired result that communities have been seeking. But hopefully that does not have to happen in all cases.
Did I expect it? I have to say I really did not. I was thinking of some of the protests that had taken place had been done without violence. There was no … Well, anger was expressed but it seemed to be controlled, many of the leaders did not encourage it and, as a matter of fact, they denounced it. I think this was not necessarily a part of that protesting element. Perhaps these young people, maybe they’re angry, maybe not from here; social media certainly played a role in garnering the kind of numbers there.
There were already some heated tensions, as I mentioned with the gas station, and I think I didn’t see it coming, and when it did, I have to admit I was rather surprised. Milwaukee? I really did feel that way. Ferguson, okay. What happened in Baltimore, other places, but I have to say it caught me off guard. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to admit, one would hate to admit they’ve been caught off guard, but I think I was.
We have problems in Milwaukee that aren’t going to be solved by just saying, “Well, let’s all come together and integrate and live happily together,” and also not by simply cutting a big check for some inner city social services agency. I wonder what that formula is for wanting people to come together and love each other and strive for equality, without regard to differences, but also acknowledging that that really hasn’t happened in this city and social issues aren’t naturally addressing themselves. So how much do you need to force it?
That’s a question that’s been plaguing me, I would say, all my life. How to resolve that? I don’t know. I think about – if you’ll allow this sort of example – a famous theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, said, “A moral man, an immoral society.” That, on a personal level, individuals can love each other and overcome whatever barriers of race, but it can never happen, like, on the social level. That’s why society does not love, it’s not the way societies work. Maybe among individuals, but (Martin Luther) King decided, “Hey, I’m going to challenge that. I’m going to use love as a force for social change.”
I think Reinhold’s still around, I wonder what his response would be (laughs). But that was King’s challenge: Can love be an effective force in society to bring about change? Well, he wasn’t the only one who did that; Gandhi had already shown in India, through his own traditions about use of nonviolence that you could bring about social change without revolutionary war, so to speak. But I really don’t know. I mean, I really have trouble trying to answer, what is the solution to some of these problems? I don’t know. But I know there needs to be some solution to the disparities.
Again, we fall back on those traditional categories, maybe through education, employment. … But if no one has the answer, then maybe all of us coming together is the beginning to a solution.
What do you see as the church’s role? On a local level, what is your church’s role, in this neighborhood, for being there for the community? Obviously, you were in Sherman Park long before last weekend, but does anything change or need to change now?
Well, I have my own criticism of many churches, that we worship and we go home. But when I was in Boston, I was young, maybe 29. As I mentioned already, you had gang violence, you had youth homicide, and the people are like, “Well, we are just going to pray. We might get hurt out there.” And I go, “Why are you here?” So I started this campaign. There was a building I had, a three-story building, it was huge. I said, “We are going to start the Pleasant Hill Family Life Center. It’s going to be a center for the community, for young people, for seniors, a meeting place.” You know all the traditional stuff, where we had job and mentoring programs. Because to sit here as a church and do nothing is crazy.
I was preaching that message. Didn’t have any money, on my first pastorship, you could say I was being idealistic. But a Jewish man, who became very successful in business, came to the church one December and he said, “I want to help a family. Is there a family where I can help?” I said, “Well maybe you could help several families.” I shared with him our plan, our proposal. He loved it. His daughter was, I think she was at U-Mass and she was in architecture, so she pro bono with her clients made our Pleasant Hill Family Life Center their project. They did the research, the demographics, everything was coming together. I gave up part of my salary, hired a strategic planner, gave her my office, because I’m really sold on this. And so we had a big meeting on Sunday, different officials there, and said, “We are going to raise a million dollars, and we are going to get …” But what my members heard is that we have to raise a million dollars, and they would not support the program. I said, “You are working against your better self-interest.” We had people that said, “No. We are going to be in debt. You just have this nice language about what you’re going to do in the community.” I was devastated.
I had been a mulling an offer to teach at Tulane University, so I said, “I don’t want to spend 20 years arguing with folks about working against their better self-interest. I think I’ll take the teaching position.” So I did. Then I find myself here again in Milwaukee at the Community Baptist Church. My predecessor, we were neighbors, he was an alderman, very much involved in politics on the local level. Community Baptist Church had a history of being very engaged. He initiated the Community Village program. Unfortunately, before I came here, many of those things became defunct, but the church has a history of being engaged in the community.
I’m trying to renew that. We have our Men’s Network Outreach Ministry. We work with individuals who have been recently released from the prison system. They work. We’ve been training. We have men who have skills in carpentry, they are electricians, and so we are trying to work in that particular area. We meet with the young people from the city, the second Saturdays. We have a property across the street in the form of a Christian Science Reading Room, that’s our outreach center. They discuss issues. We have mentoring programs. So we are trying to do that.
But even more so, we are trying to initiate kind of an adopt-a-neighborhood program. Not just a block. We’ve been working with our alderman, he has adopt a block, and I said, “Why one block? We are here.” We’ve done neighborhood walks. One thing that I did, that I wish I should have continued. They had a town hall meeting; we put together questions: What do you need? What do you see as problems in the community? We had about 75 people from the community come to church, and as a matter of fact there was a sitting judge who lived around the corner from me, he was there also. He said, “I love what you are doing. Keep it up.”
Well, being a pastor, a university professor, I was working with Common Ground and doing some grassroots organizations, I kind of burned myself out. We are trying to renew some of these initiatives, because what amazed me about the neighborhood walk is that people invite me into their homes. “Hey, please, come sit down, no one has ever done this before.” It was amazing. The image of the urban neighborhood is that people are standoffish, “don’t come in.” No, they were so welcoming, it really amazed us. So I think I had to break down some barriers of the assumptions that I had.
The issue with any church is consistency. I’ll never forget, about a month after that meeting, a lady – I didn’t know who she was – she said, “Pastor, I love what you are doing. Please don’t let us down.” That haunts me to this day. So we are really trying to redouble our efforts, to be at least – we may not be able to reach all of Milwaukee, but there are some city blocks around here, I think, that could really use the kind of stabilizing influence that a religious institution can provide, and traditionally provided. Especially for the African-American community. I’ve done work where the church was a surrogate world, where you could sing, you could act, before you could do those things anywhere else. It really was the center of the community. But that, again, changed after the ’60s. And I have my ideas about that too. But trying to make the church, if not the center, an important part of that nucleus. Those are some of our efforts, and we’ll see what comes of it.
Since the protests, how do you weigh and process all the things that have happened in Sherman Park over the last few days?
I think after that sort of expression of anger, then you need some organized, sustained, honest action. Several people had said, “Well, we need to do a vigil and we need to pray.” I said, “I don’t want to do a symbolic act. What can we do that will be sustainable over several years? Where we don’t come and put a Band-Aid on the issue, but we really try?” That was our sermon, that’s what we are trying to do.
The young men who spoke on Tuesday, we formulated them into a committee. “What can you do? You have a voice that can speak to your peers that I don’t have.” So we are trying to get them to bring other young men to talk with us, older men who want to offer something, and that’s what some of them said: “We want a better way, and we are looking to you all to provide that.” There are certain men who are very much involved on the ground level, they are working with these young people. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, there may be other programs, but we want to do something that’s not just reactionary and symbolic. It may have seemed discouraging to some of the men, because that’s sort of what we do – if something happens, we go for five or 10 minutes, show some concern, then it’s business as usual.
That’s also often the nature of media.
And maybe that’s my reaction too. For several weeks I watched what was going on in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, and then in other cities. I said, “Wow.” I sat back just as an observer, but then it comes home, and believe it or not, I felt myself as an observer again. I’m watching this three to four blocks down the street from my house.
But then my reaction was this: “Okay. Well, what am I going to do now? That’s not Ferguson. It’s not Baton Rouge. This is right in my front yard, so what am I going to do now? Not that I have not been thinking about it already, but now my own sense of urgency is there. That’s part of our process.”
So what have I been doing? What was my response? I sat back on Monday, in my office, alone. I said, “What am I going to devise? What are we going to do?” Interestingly, I thought about the Boston Miracle. I have been researching, I downloaded a number of articles, I said, maybe there’s something in there that may be able to help. When you get all of the agencies together, you have the TenPoint Coalition, the black pastors in the community, the activists, working with law enforcement. All these groups came together and for five years, you know? So I will say, “Give me five years” (laughs).
Maybe within those five years you can do some other things, like – I mean, education. I have colleagues who have kids in charter, choice choices. I grew up in MPS when we had neighborhood schools. I loved to walk home, me and my friends walked home together. I wasn’t on a bus, I didn’t have to get up at 5 a.m. and make the bus. I’m like, what happened to that model? It seemed to work for me, and I knew everybody. Most of the kids I went with, we lived in the same neighborhood.
All summer I could go to any neighborhood school. I learned how to play chess, checkers. We had baseball teams, we played basketball, we did archery. Then all that’s gone; so what are kids doing now? They have nowhere to go. We went on trips; I think that was all (MPS) money well spent.
Another thing I have to say is neighborhood policing, or community-based policing, I knew the officers who walked the beat. “You guys going to school?” “Yeah.” “How are you doing?” “I’m doing well.” We played basketball, they’re watching, saying, “Good shot.” We got along, “Hey, I heard you weren’t doing well in school today.” Then, as I mentioned before, it switched to the military approach; now it’s us vs. them. All of those things helped exacerbate the problem.
I’ve heard about other cities, like Los Angeles in the Watts neighborhood, where the police department has a program and the officers coach local sports teams. So these kids’ impression of cops isn’t just enforcement, but serving the community too. Beyond policing, are sports a big part of this conversation?
I can tell you, or as you already know, sports can help. I mean, as a team, it can help break down those barriers. We’ve seen that on TV, “Remember the Titans,” all those other things, where you see people come together, at odds, but through struggling together they break down barriers. I think that’s still effective today. As a matter of fact, here’s another thing: In the late ’60s, early ’70s, at certain parks they would leave the lights on, and we played basketball till midnight. You get tired. What are you going to do? You are going home, you were playing ball all day.
I think sports are some ways, at least, to reach some of the young people and get them interested. I learned discipline playing sports. Responsibility. Your teammates are depending on you, so you give it your all. Those are character-building values, and exercise, that sport can provide.
There are so many stories about a guy staying off the streets or “getting out” of his neighborhood through playing sports. But is that a double-edged sword of a message if you’re telling kids the only way “out” is through getting really, really good at sports? Or through music? It seems really limiting.
The way out for me was family and church. I didn’t know I was poor until I started school and I got free lunch. I’m like, “What is poverty level? My mother and father go to work every day.” For me it was the foundation of family and church that shaped my worldview. The worldview that I had to be a responsible person, I owe something to my community and that your life has value and worth, and so does the lives of others.
My parents’ goal was that their children would have a better opportunity than they did. I was encouraged as early as I can remember that, “You are going to go to school. You are going to do the best you can while you are in school, because education is an economic foot up to a better life.” To me, it was those foundations in church and school. School had a great impact on me because I had a teacher who read to us the last 45 minutes of every day. I’ll never forget “Old Yeller.” In the summers I was in the library.
I think a key, one key – although I’m very careful, I don’t want to blame the victim – but even through some of the most terrible Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan activity, black families still managed to hold together and to promote positive values, encourage education, and African-Americans achieved. That may sound so … but I think about that. My parents were poor, they experienced the same kind of struggles like everyone else and many people in my community. No family structure is perfect, but at least they had that structure.
There are parents who worked, who instructed and instilled in their children a sense of purpose. I can’t emphasize that enough. As a matter of fact, the 19-year-old man who spoke said that – that’s one way to buffer yourself from any kind of social struggle. You have an internal sense of purpose and value, and that’s what has driven myself, my siblings, so that I guess you could say – in sort of worldly terms or social terms – we have had some degree of success.
I’m really not saying that in a judgmental kind of condescending way. What I really want to emphasize is the role that parenting and family can play in shaping a generation of young people to have values, purpose and self-worth.