During Black history month, attention is focused on famous national Black luminaries like W.E.B Dubois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X and Shirley Chisolm. Often overlooked are local grass roots leaders who were the foot soldiers in the movement for racial justice and equality.
Recently, one of Milwaukee’s own, Cassie B. Downer, a fearless Black woman, passed away.
Cassie was a devoted mother, grandmother, great-and great-great-grandmother. She was a Milwaukee trail blazer, a woman who spoke truth to power, an activist and leader who organized hundreds of women of all races in the fight for dignity and equality.
Born in Wynder, AR, Cassie attended all-Black Manassas High School in Memphis, one of ninety so-called “colored schools” in Tennessee. Later, she continued her education at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Cassie was the chairwoman of Milwaukee’s Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) in the late 1960’s and early 70’s when it waged a militant battle against the Republican-dominated state legislature’s welfare benefits cuts that slashed payments from $228.66 to $188.56 a month.
Under Cassie’s leadership the MWRO occupied the state capitol, organized large marches and rallies, met with elected officials, and petitioned the Milwaukee County Welfare Board seeking a $100,000 allocation so that welfare mothers could buy clothing for their children.
She was the leader of a mass movement that brought national civil rights leaders including Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph Abernathy, Dick Gregory and Jesse Jackson to Milwaukee to support their efforts.
Long before a guaranteed annual income (GAI) was a hot topic in city halls and Congress, Ms. Downer, a single mother of six children, was its unwavering champion. “A guaranteed annual income will recognize the work that is now paid for by society,” she said, “I think the greatest thing a woman can do is raise her own children and our society should recognize it as a job. A person should be paid an adequate income to do that.”
Her efforts to secure a GAI were supported by the Black Congressional Caucus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Black Panther Party, and the National Association of Social Workers.
On October 31, 1970 Cassie was named “Milwaukee’s Outstanding Black Woman of the Year,” by Operation Breadbasket and Black and Brown Trading Stamps. As he presented the award, Reverend John T. Witherspoon said Cassie, “…set a high standard for other women in the movement for freedom, justice and equality…. You have won the respect of the Black, Chicano, Red, and White community alike. By possessing a keen sense of stick-to-itiveness and unfaltering determination to achieve a goal, you have shown as unlimited potential for humanity. Those traits are vital to the successful accomplishment of building a nation whereby all are equal.”
In her acceptance speech, Cassie asked all the MWRO mothers present to stand, explaining many of us have gone to jail together and without the hard work and support of her WRO sisters she would not be receiving the award.
Like Dr. King and the leadership of SNCC, Cassie opposed the war in Vietnam, recognizing the connection between poverty and racism at home and aboard. She urged the government “to stop subsidizing the rich, the corporations, and the military, and start assuring an adequate income for all Americans – through wages, welfare, or both…poor people are the backbone of this country. We fight the wars, we do all the menial work, but the country can’t even start thinking about paying a just wage.”
Cassie continued her activism in following decades with the Committee to Oust Judge Seraphin, a notoriously bigoted Milwaukee judge, and in the Coalition for Justice for Ernie Lacy that led to the resignation of racist Police Chief Harold Breier. She also served on Milwaukee’s 9 to 5 Board of Directors.
Congresswoman Gwen Moore wrote,” During Milwaukee’s Civil Rights Movement Ms. Cassie became one of the first woman and people of color to become a social leader…Women and African Americans like Ms. Cassie knocked down barriers for women and people of color like myself to be able to sit in these positions of leadership. The historic number of women and people of color in positions of power today would never have been possible without the works and sacrifices of people from Ms. Cassie’s generation. For that we all owe Cassie a big thank you for her timeless service and perseverance.”
Even as age and illness took its toll, Cassie continued to be engaged in political developments. She was concerned about the plight of her community as well as the threat to democracy, and the nation’s growing inequality.
Betty Glosson and Cassie were best friends. She was at Cassie’s side when they took over the state capitol and when they protested for their children at Boston Store. “Cassie was a third rib to me, “recalls Betty. “When we first met, we developed an unbreakable friendship. We always had each other’s backs in the community and also personally. Cassie is one of Milwaukee’s unsung heroes. Before she died, I held her hand and she squeezed tightly. She said thank you for being my friend. We both cried as I thanked her for being my lifelong friend. I will always miss her.”
We love and miss Cassie Downer already. She fought to make Milwaukee a better place. She devoted her life to this city’s invisible women and their children. We will never forget Cassie or the values she devoted her life fighting for. It is up to us to continue that fight.