In 1967, two years after Martin Luther King Jr. led bloody voting rights marches in the South, open housing advocates conducted marches in Milwaukee over 200 consecutive days. But Milwaukee was not Selma.
“The difference was … the authorities here did not confront the marchers with violence,” says Michael Phillips, attorney son of Vel Phillips, the local civil rights pioneer who helped lead marches across the 16th St viaduct over the Menomonee Valley into then-white South Side neighborhoods.
“Here in Milwaukee the violence that greeted (the marchers) was the violence of the citizens,” he says.
One only has to look at the angry white faces in the Wisconsin Public Television documentary “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams” for confirmation (stream the documentary at wpt.org).
“I always felt, and this may sound strange, that the police were almost there to protect us,” says Vel Phillips, 91.
The documentary’s writer-director Robert Trondson said that less high profile marchers have less positive memories of interactions with Milwaukee police, under the guidance of law and order absolutist then-chief Harold Breier.
They told Trondson that after being arrested they “would walk into the elevator on the first floor of a police station innocent and by the time you reached the next floor they had beaten you so badly you admitted to the crime.”
Vel Phillips was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Madison law school, the first African American and first female Common Council member in Milwaukee, and the first African American in the U.S. elected to an executive office in state government when she became Wisconsin Secretary of State.
But her high profile did not make her immune from the taunts of often swastika carrying protesters during the 1967 marches.
They may even have sought her out.
“They didn’t just throw eggs at us,” says Phillips. “They threw urine and (feces). I had to come home and wash my hair. It was very frightening, but very invigorating.” But “no matter how bad it was … I never felt I was in real danger. Maybe I should have.”
During the first two nights the protestors marched to Kosciuszko Park, on S. 7th St., in the Lincoln Village neighborhood, where they were confronted by about 7,000 white protestors.
Father James Groppi, the Catholic priest and civil rights activist who was one of the leaders of the march grew up east of there in nearby Bay View.
That neighborhood’s connection to Groppi and the march continues this summer when the Bay View Historical Society sponsors a screening of the documentary and talk back at the Avalon Theater, 2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
The event will be held June 1. Tours of the newly restored theater will be held at 5:30 p.m. and the documentary will be shown at 6:30 p.m.
The historical society group’s president Susan Ballje says she is in “the quiet process” of researching the 1967 marches and “we really hope to have descendants of the protestors” and of the marchers in attendance.”
Any resemblance to the 1967 marches and current racial acrimony in cities like Ferguson, Milwaukee and Madison saddens Vel Phillips.
Things “have gone backward,” she says. “I never would have guessed.”
But Ballje hopes the screening becomes a small step in a march toward bridging the racial gap.
The event, Ballje says, is “really about community engagement in understanding our history of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee, being reminded of that work and to engage the community in conversations about the impact these events had on Bay View, and what are we doing today to pursue equal opportunity.”