The 1960s: A Decade of Turmoil and Change in Milwaukee
Effects of long term discrimination in Milwaukee rose to a boiling point in the 1960s. The period included a nearly decades long push for fair housing. That struggle was interrupted in 1967 by a violent disturbance which some people still refer to today as the Milwaukee "riot."
In the early 1960s, the local economy was booming. But a current of segregation flowed just beneath the tide of prosperity. Exclusionary practices were common.
One example was at the Milwaukee Eagles Club on 24th and Wisconsin. It was a fraternal organization complete with work-out areas and a dance hall. Many elected officials, including judges, belonged to the club despite its “white’s only” policy. In 1966, activists began protesting against those discriminatory practices.
Peggy Rozga was among those who marched in front of the houses of some Eagles Club members, including Judge Robert Cannon.
"There were hooded, robed, Ku Klux Klan people who came out. Governor Knowles called out the National Guard who stood between us and the hostile crowds," Rozga says.
Judges and other public officials eventually shed their Eagles Club memberships. In time, the “Whites Only” policy ended. Marches here however were just beginning. So was the presence of the National Guard.
On July 30, 1967, just weeks after race riots erupted in Detroit and Newark, a summer night in Milwaukee exploded. Police radios crackled with calls of gunshots and arson fires. One of the first calls came from this location, a former tire store at 18th and Fond Du Lac ransacked by looters.
During the civil disturbance, one policeman was shot and killed; two others were seriously wounded as overnight mayhem spread from the city’s near north side to downtown. Mayor Henry Maier summoned the National Guard to help police restore order and he imposed a dusk to dawn curfew.
The unrest left a lasting impact on Milwaukee. The city’s population, which had hit a zenith in the early 1960s, began to decline. However, there was no decrease in the frustration of many African Americans. They were still unable to live wherever they wanted because of housing discrimination. Alderwoman Vel Phillips repeatedly failed to convince the Common Council to pass a fair housing law. So a Catholic priest named Jim Groppi took up the cause.
"We had a Marine come here, the guy spent six months in Vietnam, lady won’t rent to him and his wife because they’re black people," Groppi told a crowd.
Groppi became the leader of a group of teenagers called the Youth Council Commandoes of the NAACP. In August, 1967, they launched a series of demonstrations demanding passage of the ordinance.
"We’re going to get fair housing, not only for the city of Milwaukee, but we’re going to get it on the national scene and it’s going this consistent type of courageous protest that’s going to bring about fair housing legislation," Groppi said.
In what would become the most memorable, symbolic event of the protests, Groppi and supporters decided to march across the 16th Street Viaduct from the mostly black north side of Milwaukee to Kosciusko Park on the city’s predominantly white south side. Here’s Groppi speaking to supporters the night before.
"If there is any man or woman here who is afraid of going to jail for his freedom, is afraid of getting tear gassed, or is afraid of dying, you should not have come to this meeting tonight," Groppi told an audience at St. Boniface Church.
The next night, hundreds of mostly black people crossed the bridge where a hostile crowd was waiting. Some pelted the marchers with rocks and bottles. Mayor Henry Maier responded to the seething anger.
"People who throw bricks and bottles anywhere in this city ought to be arrested and I don’t care if they’re for Fr. Groppi or against Fr. Groppi. And, I agree entirely with the Archbishop’s statement that another demonstration of the kind we’ve had serves little on no purposes. Now this means that we need to have a time free of tensions," Maier said.
Groppi and the Youth Council proceeded to march on 200 consecutive nights. In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Milwaukee passed the Vel Phillips ordinance.
That fight to end housing discrimination however, was just a prong in the chase for equality according to civil rights activist and former Milwaukee police lieutenant Lenard Wells.
"Demands after the 1967 civil disturbances was mostly centered on housing, and housing is very important. But, school desegregation brought on a whole different paradigm here in the city of Milwaukee. You had to address the issue of busing and housing and employment all at the same time," Well said.
Some of the audio for this story is courtesy of WTMJ-TV, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Archives Department, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.
This story originally aired in June 11, 2009 as part of WUWM's Project Milwaukee: Black & Whiteseries, which looked at race relations in Milwaukee.