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Remembering the struggle

Events in September honor James Groppi, civil rights leader

Aug. 23, 2007

Late in the summer of 1967 in Milwaukee, the chasm separating the city's black and white communities was wider than the Menomonee Valley. Spanning the valley, the 16th Street viaduct became the symbol of the city's racial divide as the Rev. James Groppi, a Catholic priest who grew up in Bay View, led a series of marches across the bridge to protest housing segregation in Milwaukee.

Next month, a series of commemorative events organized by March on Milwaukee will mark the 40th anniversary of Milwaukee's open housing marches, one of the most volatile chapters in the city's history.

Groppi, who in 1967 was serving as assistant pastor at St. Boniface parish, 2609 N. 11th St., led about 100 demonstrations with the NAACP Youth Council against racial discrimination. The demonstrations against segregation in housing were marches over the 16th Street viaduct from downtown to Milwaukee's south side.

Vel Phillips, Miwaukee's first black and first female member of the Milwaukee Common Council, had first introduced an open housing ordinance in 1962. It was defeated then, and in the many subsequent times she introduced it, with Phillips casting the only vote in favor of the law.

Polarized over integration

By the summer of 1967, racial tensions were raw and escalating, and the open housing marchers were met on the south side of the viaduct by white counter-protesters who hurled epitaphs and stones at them and, at least once, hung Groppi in effigy.

An article called "Groppi's Army" in the Sept. 15, 1967, edition of Time magazine quotes the late U.S. Rep. Clement Zablocki, whose constituency was Milwaukee's south side, as saying that much of the city had become "not so much anti-Negro as anti-Groppi."

The Groppi papers stored at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives Department include several large files stuffed with the hate mail he received during and after the marches. Some include death threats. Many challenge his credentials as a priest, insisting no man of God would support integration. The letters were usually anonymous, with signatures like "A Good Catholic" or "A Good Christian."

The archives also contain letters sent to Groppi by students who tell him that he is a source of inspiration to them, that he gives them hope for the future.

Parishioners split in views

Bill Sell of Bay View remembers the marches well.

"I was a Catholic priest at the time, too, in a west side of Milwaukee parish," Sell said. "White parishioners did not want (the marchers) anywhere near their homes."

Sell said he took his concerns about racism and discrimination to the marches.

"I went to the marches and preached about them from the point of view of the Sermon on the Mount," he said. "And of course, (the parishioners) didn't like that."

Sell added that not all parishioners objected.

"There was such a variety of people in the parish and many of them were very supportive of Jim," Sell said. "Father Groppi was a gentle, gentle soul. But when he got his arms around an issue, he didn't tire."

Activism rooted in family

On April 11, 1968, shortly after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a federal open housing law was passed. Days later, on April 30, 1968, the Milwaukee Common Council passed a similar open housing law.

Groppi left the priesthood in 1976 when he married activist Margaret Rozga. He died of cancer in 1985.

Rozga said she believes the roots of Groppi's passion for justice were on the corner of East Russell and Wentworth avenues, in his parents' grocery store.

She said Groppi told her his father, Giancondo, never tolerated racial slurs or derogatory comments about ethnic groups in the store.

In a 1967 taped interview with Frank Aukofer of the Milwaukee Journal, available in the Groppi papers collection at the UWM Golda Meir Library archives, Groppi talks extensively about growing up in Bay View.

He remembered that the area around Russell and Wentworth was known during his childhood years in the 1930s and 1940s as "Little Italy." He pointed out that earlier, Italians had not been welcome at the predominantly Irish Immaculate Conception parish just blocks away. The Italian families imported a priest from Milwaukee's Third Ward who would celebrate Mass in a storefront across from the Groppi grocery store.

By the time he reached school age, however, that attitude was waning, and Groppi attended Immaculate Conception School.

In the Aukofer tape, Groppi said he would never compare the discrimination experienced by the Bay View Italians to the oppression suffered by blacks.

Culturally diverse experiences

An incident that occurred when Groppi was a seminary student may provide some insight into his dedication to the civil rights struggle, Rozga said. He was assigned to a day camp where he coached young black people in sports.

"He got to know people and care very much about them," Rozga said.

One day, when a young girl from the blackteam tried to shake the hand of a player from a white team and was turned away, Groppi was reminded of the "greatest pain" of rejected love. He compared it to the love of Christ, which was rejected by the world on the cross.

Groppi, she said, was a deeply spiritual person and "took religion very seriously."

What would Groppi do?

Rozga said she believes Groppi's memories of his Bay View childhood were happy ones, such as swimming off the breakwater in Lake Michigan and playing ball in the neighborhood. As a student at Bay View High School, Groppi was captain of the basketball team.

If Groppi had survived, what issues might he be addressing today? Rozga said Groppi said in a 1978 conversation that the greatest issue is the "wasted potential of young people on the street."

"The graduation rate of African-Americans in Milwaukee Public Schools is abysmal," Rozga said. "I assume he would try to find a way to connect with those who are disenfranchised."

Today, the 16th Street viaduct is known as the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge and a monument describing Milwaukee's open housing marches has been installed near the bridge on the Hank Aaron Trail in the Menomonee Valley.

Nan Bialek can be reached at or (262) 446-6632.

Anniversary events

A series of events sponsored by March on Milwaukee, a group of educators and activists, will be presented next month to

commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Milwaukee open housing marches.

Documentary drama, "March on Milwaukee: A Memoir of the Open Housing Protests" will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Center, 790 N. Van Buren St., Milwaukee. The documentary was written by Margaret Rozga based on interviews with participants in the 1967-68 open housing marches. It is directed by Andre L. Ellis. For information, contact Mario Hall at or call (414) 374-9444.

A new permanent exhibit focusing on the 1967 open housing marches will open with a special event from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum, 2620 W. Center St., Milwaukee. Clayborn Benson, the museum's executive director, is encouraging social studies teachers to bring students to the museum as part of the curriculum on Wisconsin history and the civil rights movement. Benson also is developing a traveling exhibit for schools, libraries and other public venues.

A March on Milwaukee Community Conference is

scheduled from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Union Ballroom, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd. Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory is scheduled to deliver a keynote address from 7 to 9 p.m., following a series of sessions led by historians, community activists, policy analysts, politicians, teachers and students. Vel Phillips, Milwaukee's first female and black alderwoman, who led the battle for fair housing legislation in Milwaukee along with the Rev. James Groppi, will speak and lead a conversation during lunch. The conference is presented free of charge, but pre-registration is encouraged.

The 40th anniversary of Milwaukee's open housing marches will be marked with a public commemoration on Sunday, Sept. 30, at the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge (aka the 16th Street viaduct.) The program will feature a multicultural blessing of the bridge, tributes from public officials and music by the All Saints gospel choir. Campaign Against Violence, a poetry performance group, will focus on the present-day concerns of young people in Milwaukee. Participants in the Saturday conference at UWM will present the priorities for the city that emerged during the conference, and the work of young artists will be exhibited on the Hank Aaron State Trail near the bridge. The ceremony will include a calling of the roll of the 1967 marchers who have died. Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory will deliver the main address. The event is free and open to the public.

For more information on March on Milwaukee and events

commemorating the Milwaukee open housing marches, visit

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