Peter Dreier: Milwaukee's Berger One of the Greatest Americans

Roundup: Historians' Take

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His new book, "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame," will be published by Nation Books in June.

I recently spent several days in Milwaukee to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin about urban history and politics. My new book, "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame," includes a profile of Victor Berger, the leader of Milwaukee's vibrant Socialist movement, which ran local government for most of the years from 1910 to 1960. So I was curious to learn how he is remembered in his city.

Berger, who helped make Milwaukee one of the most progressive and well-run cities in the country, was an easy choice for my book's Social Justice Hall of Fame. Many of the ideas that he and other Milwaukee Socialists espoused in the early 1900s - such as municipal parks, sewers and sanitation systems, municipal ownership of utilities, old-age insurance, a minimum wage and women's suffrage - were considered radical at the time but are now taken for granted. Indeed, remove the now-maligned word "socialist" and much of Berger's agenda has broad support today throughout the country, including Milwaukee.

I asked almost everyone I met - including faculty, students, political activists, new arrivals and lifelong Milwaukeeans - if there were any buildings, streets or landmarks named after Berger. Many had never heard of him, but even those who knew about his accomplishments couldn't identify any physical tribute to the longtime leader of Milwaukee's Socialists....

...Milwaukeeans will look in vain for a landmark named for Berger, who was the genius behind the Socialists' initial triumphs. But this is exactly the moment when Milwaukee's progressives and liberals, its unions, the local historical society and other civic activists should mount a campaign to restore Berger's name to its rightful place in the city's history.

How? The Common Council could rename a major street "Berger Boulevard." The Milwaukee Area Labor Council could install a statue of Berger, the guiding spirit of the city's union movement during its heyday, in front of its headquarters. The school district could repent for erasing Berger's name from a school 20 years ago by identifying another building that could bear the name of this former public schoolteacher. The Milwaukee County Historical Society could sponsor a permanent exhibit about the city's illustrious Socialist past, including Berger's important role, so that current and future residents will learn about this important chapter of the city's history and its current legacy....

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