The History Of Protests In Milwaukee

Jun 16, 2020

The recent protests in Milwaukee have drawn a lot of comparisons with the Civil Rights protests in the 1960s. Most notably, activists marched for 200 consecutive nights from 1967 to 1968 to protest the city’s fair housing standards.

But Milwaukee’s relationship with protesting extends back much farther than the 1960s, to the city’s foundation. And in some cases, these movements led to real systemic changes that speak to the very soul of the city. 

Historian John Gurda, who has written extensively about Milwaukee’s past, says Milwaukee was started as three distinct neighborhoods: the west side, the east side, and the south side. From the beginning, these neighborhoods did not get along and it culminated in the west side and east side turning against each other. 

"In 1845, the west siders took axes and hatchets to their side of the bridge," says Gurda. "The east siders wake up in the morning to find they can't get out to the west, so they react by cutting off the west side's bridges to the south. So for a while, no one could get anywhere."

This led to a reputation of Milwaukee being a lawless area as riots and violence continued to happen. The only documented lynching in Milwaukee and a bank riot both occur in 1861. 

A drawing depicting the Milwaukee Bank Riot of June 24, 1861.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

Later into the 1800s, labor protests began and Milwaukee was a hotbed for strikes for eight-hour workdays and five-day workweeks. The deadliest labor protest in Wisconsin history happened in 1886 in Bay View.

"There's a general strike that shut the city down May 1. There were gangs, crowds of protesters, strikers marching around the city to close other major employers. The last one open was the Bay View Rolling Mill," says Gurda. 

"When they got to the mill, they found the militia waiting for them, these were in many cases their neighbors and countrymen, sorta the early version of the National Guard. At a distance of nearly 200 yards, the militia opened fire, killing seven people," Gurda adds.

The deadliest labor protest in Wisconsin history happened in 1886 in Bay View. When marchers got to the Rolling Mills in Bay View, Gurda says the militia opened fire, killing seven people.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

The use of force led the working class to organize politically into the a party called the People's Party. Gurda says the success of the People's Party led to the socialism movement in Milwaukee.

Once black residents began to move from the South into Milwaukee's North and Northwest side during the 1940s and 1950s, white residents began to harass and attack the new community. He says this tension led directly to the housing protests in the '60s. 

In Milwaukee, there were 200 days of marching for open housing led in part by Vel Phillips and Father James Groppi from 1967 to 1968. There were also anti-war protests that started on the east side as the war in Vietnam grew more unpopular well into the 1970s.

The Milwaukee 14, a group of anti-war activists, watch as the draft cards they took from a Milwaukee government building burn on Sept. 24, 1968.
Credit Lynn Howell / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Protests continued throughout the 20th century and still are happening today. Gurda cites protests around the killings of Ernest Lacy, Sylville Smith, and Dontre Hamilton.

"The trouble was, and I think this is a national problem, when the violence ended, when it was quelled, there was this sense of victory of order over chaos rather than a wakeup call that something was seriously wrong and we had to address those problems that were deep-seated and had been around since the founding of the republic," says Gurda.