“Me? My philosophy has always been about Black nationalism,” Mikel Holt said, leaning back in his office chair, a raised brow creasing his forehead. “Some people think that I’m a racist because I say black people were the chosen people of God. I’ve never deviated from that platform. The same platform I was talking about 40 years ago, I’m still talking about today.”
Holt, a UWM graduate, edited one of Milwaukee’s oldest black newspapers, the Community Journal, for 42 years and now serves as associate publisher. Two articles from his popular 44-year-running “Signifyin’” column, one on civil rights and another on education, earned him two A. Philip Randolph Messenger Awards.
He also spent 22 years discussing politics on Charlie Sykes’ radio (and later) TV show, and he has been commemorated with “Mikel Holt Day” on two different occasions. On October 20, the Milwaukee Press Club commemorated Holt’s storied career by inducting him into their Hall of Fame.
Samuel Cornish, an abolitionist freeman, and John Russwurm, a biracial abolitionist who became a governor in Liberia, were co-editors of America’s first African-American newspaper, “Freedom’s Journal.” As a young journalist studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Holt adopted their motto, “We wish to plead our own cause,” wholeheartedly.
When Trisha Thomas founded the Community Journal in 1976, she asked Holt to join her, creating a staff for one of two black newspapers in Milwaukee, along with the newly-combined Milwaukee Star Times and the Milwaukee Courier.
Holt came of age during the late 1960s — an era of redlining, Open Housing Marches and Vel Phillips. Phillips was Wisconsin’s first black alderwoman, judge and elected secretary of state. From his grandmother’s house situated across St. Boniface Catholic Church, Holt watched demonstrators prepare to march in support of then-Alderwoman Phillip’s Open Housing Ordinance.
“When Milwaukee had the so-called riot,” Holt said, “the news was just so slanted. The (Milwaukee) Sentinel was actually conservative and the Journal was supposed to be liberal, but they were both saying the same thing, misrepresenting Black people. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to be a journalist: So I could tell the truth.”
- Holt explains his philosophy on the Black press at the Journal’s front office, which used to seat a receptionist area for the dentist’s office. Photo: Talis Shelbourne
Holt was raised in a family of entrepreneurs. His family started the first Black nursing home in Wisconsin and one of his aunts started a successful home healthcare service called Convalescence (later, Stevens and Bryant). His father’s family owned a trucking business. Yet Holt said they all experienced their fair share of racism.
Holt’s father, who became blind in his late 30s, had roots in Georgia where his family had sharecropped. Holt’s mother was fired from the Kaiser Knickerbocker Hotel for watching Sammy Davis Jr. perform in a hotel he was not allowed to patronize.
When the Milwaukee Sentinel’s only Black reporter, Ray Moore, recruited Holt as a copyboy, he experienced racism firsthand.
“[After] the riot, their attitudes changed towards me and this other black guy who worked there,” Holt said. “And they were standoffish. They looked at us strange, you know. It was like night and day.”
To this day, the Journal Sentinel remains 88% white, according to a recent national study.
Holt’s early experiences with racism, coupled with the ongoing challenge of being black in a majority-white field, later prompted him to co-found the Wisconsin Black Media Association.
Greg Stanford, a 36-year veteran of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has followed Holt and his career over the years.
“We journalists of color are forever thankful to him for [the Wisconsin Black Media Association],” he said in a phone interview.
Stanford currently co-owns Ayzha Art Gallery with his wife Cynthia Henry. He, like Holt, got his journalistic start at a traditionally Black newspaper, the Milwaukee Courier.
“Journalistically, he wasn’t afraid to take on black politicians,” Stanford said, emphasizing Holt’s position on school choice as an example. A role model and pioneer, Stanford said, Holt deserves to be inducted into the Milwaukee Press Club’s Hall of Fame.
Holt was drafted for Vietnam and joined the Naval Special Forces. When his tour was up, he applied for a year-long extension to take advantage of a program which allowed veterans to study at a university.
Holt studied photojournalism in Chicago. Then, protests of a fatal police shooting brought him back to Milwaukee.
“This police officer supposedly tripped up a flight of stairs and shot around the corner and killed her,” Holt recalled. “So my cousin . . . asked me to come up. The next thing I know, I was going to UWM.”
The Milwaukee Star Times plucked him out of college as a sophomore, where his fellow journalists dubbed him the “militant midget.”
“Our first newspaper, I was blasting the desegregation program. I was calling it racist . . . we were the only paper in Wisconsin to push for school choice,” Holt said.
And school choice has been a vital issue for Holt. He served as a lieutenant in “Polly Williams’ School Choice Army,” writing speeches and accompanying her on nationwide travels. Later on, he said the Teachers’ Union attempted to shut the Community Journal down due to his advocacy for school choice.
“I do occasionally get some critiques because I have been known to anger a lot of folks and a lot of institutions,” Holt sheepishly confessed. “We editorialize. And I’ve never said anything about an unbiased press because the Black press has always been like an arm of the Civil Rights movement.”
- Holt and Mitchell talk about when they first met. Photo: Talis Shelbourne
Thomas Mitchell started as an intern at the Milwaukee Courier, spent 30 years at the Journal and is currently editor of the Community Journal. He first met Holt at a journalism convention.
“The first time I saw him in action,” he said, “he was peppering [someone] with questions, some of which [the subject] couldn’t answer.”
Holt himself couldn’t understand why a city populated with Black faces was so sparsely represented in Milwaukee media. In response, he co-founded the Wisconsin Black Media Association to support other Black journalists like Bill Taylor, who was accused of being too militant for his goatee, according to Holt.
“We said we’re going to boycott your station until you, you know, become a little more progressive. And we would do that around our issues. The Black press has an agenda,” Holt said, smiling. “We’re just the only ones who aren’t lying about it.”
Holt has written several controversial articles in pursuit of this agenda, including one about former County Executive candidate Chris Larson and a soap opera parody of infighting among Black politicians’ with “All My Chillins.” Holt has also noted that under President Obama, the Black poverty rate rose.
“There’s really no difference between Democrats and Republicans,” he remarked. “They’re just different wings on the same bird.”
Holt’s ability to transcend political parties led him to meet Charlie Sykes at a school choice event.
Holt said his appearance on the Charlie Sykes’ radio show and his 12-year stint on the TV show, Sunday Insight, familiarized him to an audience outside of the Black community. It also meant that, for once, he shared political stances with a staunch conservative.
“As you get older,” Holt explained, “you find that things are about issues, not about personalities.”
Holt’s son, Malik, died at the age of 27 in a car accident. Still grieving, Holt volunteered to continue teaching Malik’s students at the Young Leaders Academy and at the end of the semester, personally donated scholarship funds ranging $500-$2,000 for 26 of his “Kids of Kemet.”
“My grandfather’s favorite saying was education only teaches you how to spell experience,” Holt said, chuckling. “[But] to be quite honest, it was one of those things; I fell in love with those kids.”
Holt remained motivated even after his triple bypass surgery and a more recent infection, which Holt said was systematically shutting down his organs.
“It affects me,” he admitted. “It made aware being that I’m not immortal. [But] the Supreme Being was saying, you can’t rest. So I had to continue on.”
And continue, he did.
- The Community Journal digitally lays its papers out in this newsroom. They have since moved on from the previous process of laying the paper out by hand, although Holt and Mitchell say it was, “more fun” that way. Photo: Talis Shelbourne
In addition to his two A. Philip Randolph Messenger Awards, Holt is also a multiple winner of the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s best columnist award and he wrote a book in 2000 examining Milwaukee’s School Choice Program, “Not Yet ‘Free at Last.’”
Before his latest accolade, being inducted into the Milwaukee Press Club Hall of Fame, Holt was honored on October 16 at Messmer High School for a Portrait and Leadership Award.
Despite his achievements and health setbacks, Holt said he has no plans to slow down.
“It’s like [a] lifetime achievement, like winning the academy award,” he joked. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to retire from acting in the movies.”
Holt said his induction will have larger implications for how the role of the Black press is perceived.
“It means a lot to me because it recognizes me individually for [my] contributions but it’s also is an award for the Black press. This is further proof of our value,” he concluded.
Holt said he’s looking forward to writing an article critiquing history books which sugarcoat the early traumatic African-American experience. He’s also thinking of gathering his articles into a book, in an effort to demonstrate how they’re still relevant today.
“I did an article on Ronald Reagan and said, I’m glad he was elected because he’s going to force Black folks to finally get together. I can take out Ronald Reagan’s name and put in Donald Drumpf and run that article next week.” Holt shook his head. “We haven’t progressed.”