MILWAUKEE -- Night after night, the images of the Milwaukee Commandos went into homes by newspaper and television.
The pictures of tough, young blacks striking military poses in fatigues, berets and boots invoked fear and hatred in many burgers of the rather conservative city known for its beer and Teutonic background.
Milwaukee had been shaken by a brief riot just weeks before that summer of 1967 and the Commandos -- formed to protect demonstrators during 200 consecutive days of open housing marches -- became a symbol of the confrontation.
Today the organization -- now Commando Project I -- is Milwaukee's largest inner city social services agency and is respected by both whites and blacks.
The para-military accouterments have long been put aside for business suits and briefcases. The group is funded by state and federal programs and such establishment organizations as the Milwaukee Association of Commerce which has contributed about $1 million since 1968.
'We have always thought that the Commandos is the best program of its kind in the country,' said John Duncan, association president. 'What's important at the Commandos is that it is not imposed upon by government.'
'A lot of the people in those days thought of the Commandos as a gang of thugs,' recalled Jesse L. Wade, the project's executive director.
The Commandos were originally a force of about 100 mustered by the Youth Council of the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
A veteran of those days and the stormy open housing marches, Wade is now 40, a stocky, friendly man who still answers to 'Hook,' a nickname he acquired for his youthful boxing prowess.
'When we were marching out there, we weren't marching because we wanted to be tough guys. I was marching for something I believed in. Just like I'm still marching right now for something I believe in,' said Wade.
But he admitted the future of the Commandos is uncertain.
Proposed government budget cuts, Wade said, will threaten the organization he and several other Commandos started in 1968 when they broke away from the NAACP and made a successful application for state funds to start a counseling program for parolees.
'We saw a need and tried to fill it. We're still trying to do that,' he said.
The organization is headquartered in a two-story building on Milwaukee's near north side. It provides adult and youth counseling, youth employment, vocational training for ex-offenders, prison work-release job placement, recreation and community improvement programs.
About 25 of the Commando staff of 60 are parolees, aged 18 to 50, who work full-time providing pest control and repairing and winterizing inner city homes for the elderly and physically disabled. They have helped improve more than 300 homes since 1979, Wade said.
Opened in 1974, the Commando Academy assists dropouts and chronic truants whose academic skills average third or fourth grade levels. It does not grant diplomas, but classes count for credit at local high schools.
Instructors teach basic educational skills using such unorthodox methods as a pool table to teach geometry or dice to teach the theory of probability. In the afternoon, the students work on home repair or other projects designed to give them job skills, Wade said.
'What we are trying to do is compete with street life, to relate to things these kids understand so we can develop the basic skills of reading, writing and math,' Wade said.
One of the most important things is discipline, he said.
'We tell them that this school is operated for them. It's theirs so they better behave and take care of things. And, if they are going to learn to 'make it' they had better learn self-discipline,' he said.
The organization is especially proud of its counseling of parolees, youths on probation and troubled youths.
Less than 10 percent of the Commandos' youth parolees return to institutions. The state average in 1979 was 40.4 percent.
Wade, a school dropout and ex-offender himself, said he knows his organization gets the rejects, the people regular service agencies have given up on.
'With understanding, most change,' he said. 'I try to tell them, cut the mistakes I made. I believe, if you can make mistakes, share them. Someone can learn.'
The Commandos exist today because the organization adapted to the times and learned to work with bureaucrats, according to Michael A. Schoenfield, Wade's assistant, who is white.
'When they get money for their programs, they like to run them their way. It costs less and works best for their clients,' he said.
Sufficient state and federal funding has always been a problem, Wade said. Now, more private money will probably have to be sought to keep the programs operating. He worries that unemployment, less money for social programs and hard times may create an explosive situation.
'I know what time it is,' he said. 'I move around out there.'