Growing up in Dallas, Texas in the Jim Crow South, Marvin Pratt experienced first-hand the water fountains marked “Colored” and “White”; sitting in the back of street cars, and eating lunch at H.L. Green’s Department Store, but in the basement—not at the lunch counter, because Blacks were not allowed there.
“We grew up in public housing in Dallas. It wasn’t bad, certainly there was a stigma attached to living in the projects; but the dwellings and living conditions were not bad. I experienced segregation first-hand, but as I got older, I was idealistic enough to think that politicians and people in public service could make a difference. My mother was politically astute and I recall as a kid that when Dwight Eisenhower won the presidential election she said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll be eating beans and cornbread from now on.” The next day, we had pork chops, so I remember thinking, it must not be that bad,” he said.
After Marvin’s family moved to Milwaukee, he attended North Division High School and entered the United States Air Force following graduation. Since he was always well read, Marvin knew about the civil rights and Black Power movements, but he didn’t get involved until after serving four years in the military.
“The first time I really became engaged with politics was with was the Kennedy presidential campaign. I was intrigued by Kennedy’s challenge of ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ It was a time of high idealism and I got caught up in it, making real changes in life.
“I wasn’t in the forefront of the open housing marches here in Milwaukee, but I participated in the marches organized by Father Groppi. I remember that former city council member and judge Vel Phillips would attend the meetings at St. Boniface and fire up the crowd. I recall national figures coming to Milwaukee to support Father Groppi, including Congressman Ron Dellums (who later became the Mayor of Oakland, California), Dick Gregory and others. I was involved with the marches, but at the time it was just something to do; I wasn’t fully aware of the significance or impact at first,” he said.
Upon graduating from Marquette University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Marvin set out to put it to good use. His job working as an intern for Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier marked the beginning of a long and extraordinary political career. In 1984, he ran unsuccessfully for alderman against Roy B. Nabors and, in a 1986 special election for the same seat, Marvin ran and won. After that election, he was appointed to the common council’s Finance and Personnel Committee. As a committee member, one of the initiatives that Marvin worked on was the Residents Preference Program, which helped to create employment opportunities for City of Milwaukee residents.
In 1996, he was elected as chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee, a position he held until 2000, when he was elected Milwaukee Common Council president, a position he held until 2004.
In 2004, when Mayor John Norquist stepped down, Marvin was appointed as the acting Mayor of Milwaukee, the first African American to hold that position. He subsequently ran for Mayor in 2004, but lost the election to Tom Barrett. In 2006, Pratt began his own consulting firm, Marvin Pratt and Associates LLC, which specialized in government relations.
In 2011, he was elected as interim Milwaukee County Executive, making him the first person to hold both the positions of mayor and county executive in Milwaukee. In 2016, Milwaukee Public Schools named an elementary school in his honor— Marvin E. Pratt Elementary School. Pratt also holds the rank of major in the United States Army Reserves.
Over the years, Marvin has made himself available to mentor several younger politicians, including current Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton, who once served as his aide.
“I continue to believe in the political process. I’ve heard people use the analogy that changing the system is like turning a large vessel or yacht—the process is slow. As I reflect on service, I think I accomplished a few things after becoming more politically involved. One of the initiatives I’m proud of creating is the Code Enforcement Internship Program, as a way to build up the number of Black building inspectors. Participants had to live in the block grant area where most African Americans lived. They became interns, went through the necessary training, including a year-long course at MATC, and afterwards were able to get good jobs, earning family-sustaining wages,” he said.
Pratt and his wife, Dianne, have two children, Michael Pratt and Andrea Pratt-Ellzey, and five grandchildren.