Before Bernie Sanders, There Was Zeidler, a Religious Socialist

Then-Mayor Frank Zeigler, right, with his wife Agnes on election night in 1952 in Milwaukee.

MILWAUKEE — One night in April 1948, when Bernie Sanders was a 6-year-old boy in Brooklyn, Frank Zeidler was elected mayor of Milwaukee on the Socialist Party line. He would hold the office for a dozen years. Until Mr. Sanders undertook his presidential campaign, Mr. Zeidler had been the last prominent and successful Socialist politician in America.

While Mr. Sanders is a secular Jew, though, Mayor Zeidler was a devoted Christian, who remained active in the Redeemer Lutheran Church here until his death in 2006 at age 93. As Mr. Sanders brings his quest for a “political revolution” into the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday, Mr. Zeidler’s legacy, both religious and ideological, lives on in a series of public conversations held by his lifelong church.

Perhaps it did not qualify as revolutionary, but on a balmy evening last month, the line of attendees for a discussion on the topic “Interrupting Racism” stretched out the back door of the Redeemer church. Hobbling on canes, hoisting backpacks and bike helmets, clad in hoodies, kente cloth and down vests, they represented a convergence of races, ages and political beliefs that is unusual in one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas.

Eventually, more than 150 people formed discussion circles of five or six throughout the church’s rooms. For 90 minutes, they spoke, but they mostly listened about one another’s encounters with racial hate. In one group, a middle-aged white man admitted his lasting shame at not confronting a boss who made a racial slur about a black employee.

Across the scuffed parquet of the social hall, a white woman in another circle spoke of her shopping trips to the affluent suburb of Shorewood, where she noticed that the police routinely pulled over black drivers. Such things, she said, left her able only to pray, and then feeling inadequate in her prayers.

Such discussions were surely in the Zeidler spirit. As a mayor, he presided over a city begrudgingly accepting African-Americans who had moved northward in the Great Migration. His home state was so politically schizophrenic that during Mr. Zeidler’s Socialist heyday, one of Wisconsin’s senators was the Red-baiting Joseph R. McCarthy.

Even as socialism provided Mr. Zeidler with an ideological lens, the church supplied the moral teachings that he considered the essential complement. Far from resisting religion’s voice in the public square, he welcomed it, as does the program of topical discussions that bears his name.

“My father always said, ‘You do nothing alone,’” said the mayor’s daughter Anita Zeidler, a senior lecturer in educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “And when I need people to work together with and to make social change, I look to the religious. Because these are people of good will, who will put effort into doing what needs to be done.’”

Her father, the son of a barber, graduated from high school just before the stock market crash in 1929, which set off the Depression and cast global doubt on the capitalist order. After enlisting in the Army, a reliable way of getting a paycheck, he washed out of boot camp with rheumatic fever, often a fatal disease in the era before antibiotics.

During a yearlong convalescence, Mr. Zeidler methodically read books of political philosophy in search of a belief system. “Essentially, what he said is that he was drawn to socialism because they believed in brotherhood and equality and getting things done through democratic cooperation,” Dr. Zeidler recalled. “It was all about fairness.”

Mr. Zeidler’s decision placed him within a long tradition of socialism in Milwaukee, tracing back to the liberals and intellectuals who immigrated here after the failed revolutions in the mid-1850s in Germany and Austria. They and their descendants proudly and puckishly called their American version “sewer socialism,” for its practical approach to solving urban problems.

He eschewed the secular vein in socialism, struggling to reconcile it with his Lutheran faith. At one point in his young adulthood, while teaching Sunday school to teenage boys, he was fired by Redeemer’s pastor for having brought up Darwin and evolution. Decades later, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a congregant placed an American flag in the sanctuary. Mr. Zeidler responded by installing the United Nations flag next to it.

In his post-mayoral life, Mr. Zeidler worked as a mediator, even toting his oxygen tank with him to hear cases in his 90s. Sensing his coming death, Mr. Zeidler confided to friends at Redeemer that he wanted to be remembered through “a place where people could gather for civil dialogue on the topics of the day.”

One problem was that Mr. Zeidler was not wealthy enough to endow such a place himself. Another was that Redeemer Lutheran had seen its membership dwindle to about 100. The newly founded Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion held only a handful of events from 2006 to 2010.

But one of Mr. Zeidler’s lifelong friends, a professor named Mildred Templin, bequeathed about $70,000 to the Zeidler Center. Some of the money went toward hiring a part-time director, the Rev. Lisa Bates-Froiland, who became Redeemer’s part-time pastor in 2011. On Ms. Bates-Froiland’s first day in the two jobs, she held a public conversation with 200 people, a sign of her intent to resuscitate the Zeidler Center along with the congregation.

Ms. Bates-Froiland has handed over the center’s leadership to Katherine Wilson, a scholar who wrote her doctoral dissertation on survivor testimonies about genocide.

The center has trained 250 facilitators and holds public events monthly on issues ranging from immigration to gun violence to interfaith relations.

It also conducts private meetings between residents of Milwaukee’s nonwhite neighborhoods and its mostly white police force.

Most recently, the center has worked in partnership with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to convene discussion after performances of its show “American Song,” which concerns a mass shooting and its aftermath.

Nothing might have pleased Frank Zeidler more than the involvement of someone like Allan Knepper.

Mr. Knepper, 70, is a self-described “conservative right-wing gun-owner white guy from the suburbs.” He was active for several years in the Tea Party movement and said he expected to vote for Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primary.

Even so, he had always enjoyed political conversation that crossed partisan and ideological divides. It was just increasingly hard to find.

So when he spotted an article in The Milwaukee Journal -Sentinel about Redeemer’s program, he joined a discussion on Wisconsin’s concealed-carry law.

With Ms. Bates-Froiland coaxing along the conversation, Mr. Knepper talked about having grown up on an Iowa farm, where hunting was part of life. Nobody in his family, he said, had ever harmed anyone with a gun.

Under the rules of the Zeidler Center conversations, the other people in the circle had to listen in silence as he spoke, and pause for a moment’s reflection before saying anything in response.

And Mr. Knepper had to do the same thing as other people spoke of losing children to gun violence.

“What I have gotten out of it is the ability to listen to others,” said Mr. Knepper, a veteran of about 10 Zeidler Center events over four years. “I have gotten better at explaining what my background and experience is, and thinking about whether it’s a positive or a negative in my life. What does someone get from me? I’m a distinct outlier among all the do-gooders, but I like that role. Because if we are going to accomplish some of the things we say, if we’re going to talk diversity, we better be ready for some.”

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