Since Summer, a Groppi Again Marches for Social Justice in Milwaukee

Christine Groppi feels the legacy of her father’s historic protests – but also the pull of today’s cause.

RELATED: PROTESTERS MARK 200 DAYS OF MARCHES

Christine Groppi, who has a bit of family history in Milwaukee social justice demonstrations, has been a dedicated participant in the marches that began this summer and have continued uninterrupted ever since.

She’s carrying on a legacy established by her father, the Rev. James Groppi, who led the famous open housing marches with the NCAAP Youth Council that began in the summer of 1967 and carried on for 200 consecutive days into the early part of 1968, a mark matched by protesters on Monday night. 

Only 4 years old at the time of her father’s death in 1985, Groppi nonetheless is fully aware of his lasting achievements and felt the pull early on to join in the daily demonstrations and marches that have taken place throughout the Milwaukee area every day since May.  

“If I had been sitting at home and I wasn’t doing anything, I don’t know if I could have lived with myself,” Groppi said. “It was like a sense of moral obligation, or a sense of integrity and being true to the principles that I was raised with. I’m trying to walk that path.”

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Groppi lost count long ago of the number of days she’s marched with protesters who are part of The Peoples Revolution, a group that has been working tirelessly to draw attention to issues of racial and social injustice and police brutality. 

“I’m a teacher, so I had more time in the summer.” Groppi said. “Once the school year started, I’ve been out about once or twice a week. But over the summer, I was out quite a bit. I stopped counting after 10 days.”

The 200-day milestone is certainly significant, Groppi admitted, but her motivation to keep marching stems not just from her father’s legacy but also by the values ingrained in her by her mother, Margaret.

A memorial was set up on Monday night on the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge where marchers gathered to remember more than 30 people killed or injured at the hands of law enforcement in Milwaukee. Photo by Rich Rovito

“I was raised mostly by my mom, who also was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, so she definitely also instilled that value in us,” Gropp said. “Being out here and thinking about what they stood for and what they did, that’s still alive because it lives on in what everybody else is doing now.”

The marches and rallies have rekindled conversations and memories about her father’s actions, which she finds heartening. 

“I think that story started coming up very early on in these marches,” Groppi said. “It was like day eight or nine and people started saying, ‘Wow, we are going to get to 200 (days). It’s kind of nice. It’s become part our story and history, and everybody has a stake in that.” 

Early on, Groppi’s presence at the marches caught the attention of Khalil Coleman, who had been a lead organizer of The Peoples Revolution until transitioning out of the leadership role in October.

“The beautiful thing about Father Groppi and the 200 days is that his daughter walks with us,” Coleman said in an interview with Milwaukee Magazine this summer. “She shows up and walks with us. It’s amazing because it seems so natural.”

At the time of the open housing marches, James Groppi, a Roman Catholic priest, served as an assistant pastor at St. Boniface Church in Milwaukee’s Central City. He led marches that started in late August 1967 after the killing of four people during an uprising in the city’s core. 

The daily demonstrations continued uninterrupted until March 1968, with Groppi marching in step with the members of the NAACP Youth Council and many of the city’s civil rights activists, including Vel Phillips, the first Black person, as well as the first woman, elected to the Milwaukee Common Council. 

The attention generated by the daily marches eventually led the council to adopt an open housing law in April 1968. 

Groppi would later break with the Catholic Church when he married Margaret Rozga, a fellow activist. He died in 1985 at the age of 54. 

Even though the marches led by her father took place more than a half century ago, many people still look to them for inspiration, Christine Groppi said. “It has been bringing people strength,” she said. 

But the intent of the daily demonstrations goes far beyond a establishing a new milestone, she insisted.

“It is a big deal, but that was never the goal,” Groppi said. “We’re not out here just to get to 200 days, but I think it’s an achievement, regardless.”

The marches have drawn attention to social justice issues and ongoing concerns about police brutality and the killings of young Black and Hispanic men, including Alvin Cole, Jay Anderson and Antonio Gonzales, all who died at the hands of Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah. Nearly half of the daily marches have taken place in Wauwatosa.

“When we started, nobody was talking about them,” she said. “Nobody was talking about getting Joseph Mensah off the police force.”

The families of those killed by Mensah demanded that he be fired and charged in the shooting deaths. Prosecutors declined to file charges in each of the cases. The embattled officer, who had been suspended with pay since July, resigned from the force in November.

Groppi took part in Monday’s protest as the marches reached the major milestone.

“It’s been a long road,” she said.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.