50 years ago, a group of primarily black marchers attempted to change the city.
On Aug. 28, 1967, a group of civil-rights protesters left the house they used as their headquarters – Freedom House on the city’s North Side, in the “black part of town” – and set off for the South Side, where thousands of white counter-protesters awaited them. Not trusting the police to protect them adequately, the protesters, many of them young members of the local NAACP chapter, were flanked by their own unit of NAACP Youth Council guards called the Commandos.
The procession crossed the 16th Street Viaduct spanning the Menomonee River Valley, which served as the city’s unofficial Mason-Dixon Line. On the other side, they were met with young white men sitting on the hoods of cars at Crazy Jim’s Motors, holding signs, one of which said, “Groppi – the Black god,” referring to Father James Groppi, the white priest and activist helping to lead the march.
The march slogged its way to Kosciuszko Park, where a rally for fair housing was planned, but the police feared they couldn’t hold back the angry crowd of counter-protesters. Thinking better of staying, Groppi said a quick prayer, and the 200 or so protesters began to wade through the opposition. “I remember people holding picket signs over their heads to keep off the rocks and bottles that were being thrown,” says Margaret Rozga, a march who later married Groppi and is now his widow.
The next day, they marched again and re-crossed the 16th Street Viaduct, running directly into thousands more counter-protesters, whom the police dispersed using tear gas. After the marchers returned to Freedom House, police began to receive misleading reports of sniper activity in or around the building and fired more tear gas inside, and a fire broke out shortly thereafter that destroyed the structure.
Undeterred, the protesters continued to march, every night for 200 days, fanning out to all parts of the city. “The story that we’re talking about should be national history, but it’s barely even local history,” says Adam Carr, one of the organizers of March on Milwaukee: 50th Anniversary, a grassroots initiative to honor the semicentennial.
The inspiration to march came from the experiences of people such as Ronald Britton, a black Marine home from Vietnam who, during the holiday season of 1966, attempted to rent a duplex outside of the central city, where the city’s black population was crammed into substandard housing, and was rebuffed. Turning down the Brittons, the owner said, “What would my neighbors think?”
Afterward, Britton sought out Father Groppi, whose parish, St. Boniface, was located in the heart of the central city. Groppi and the Youth Council had already received press for picketing outside the homes of local judges who belonged to the whites-only Eagles Club, and in response to Britton’s story, the priest, alongside the NAACP Youth Council, sang Christmas carols to the landlady. Groppi also contacted Ald. Vel Phillips, who had long sought to pass a fair-housing ordinance in the Common Council barring discrimination based on race.
Daily marching endured until March 1968, when Groppi, the Commandos and members of the Youth Council decided to stop without the desired fair-housing law on the books. A few weeks later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, spurring Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits “discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Milwaukee approved its own fair-housing ordinance shortly thereafter.
The anniversary celebrations start this year on Aug. 28 and will run for 200 days, coinciding with the timeline of the marches. “We’re hoping for one [event] every day, but it’ll at least be a regular rhythm,” says Carr. After an opening commemoration at City Hall, there will be home-buying workshops, history lectures, art workshops and informal get-togethers. Scheduled “History Harvests will record the stories of firsthand witnesses and scan in any photos or source documents. The results will be added to an existing archive at UW-Milwaukee.
“We’re really hoping to connect the community to itself,” Carr says. ◆
The NAACP Youth Council and Father James Groppi begin two months of picketing at the whites-only Eagles Club.
The Youth Council forms a security detail, the Commandos.
JULY 30, 1967
Protests in the central city boil over into unrest. Four people are killed and 1,740 are arrested.
AUGUST 28, 1967
Groppi and the Youth Council stage the first housing march.
AUGUST 28, 1967
Fire destroys the marchers’ Freedom House.
SEPTEMBER 7, 1967
Youth Council members take over Mayor Henry Maier’s office.
MARCH 14, 1968
The daily marches for fair housing end after 200 nights.
APRIL 4, 1968
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated.
APRIL 30, 1968
A fair-housing ordinance passes the Common Council with the leadership of Ald. Vel Phillips.