Civil Rights

Click the image to learn more. A group of protestors, led by Father James Groppi, participate in a welfare march from Milwaukee to Madison in 1969.

Milwaukee’s Civil Rights Movement was the culmination of longstanding efforts by African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and their white allies to improve social, political, and economic prospects for non-white Milwaukeeans. During the 1860s, a small group of African Americans struggled to win the franchise. With the arrival of thousands of Southern migrants during the Great Migration, the movement gathered steam under the leadership of the Milwaukee Urban League (MUL) whose work both reflected and mitigated class divisions among African Americans. During and after World War Two, an even greater migration of Southern African Americans raised the issue of race relations to the public consciousness and revived the class divisions that had lessened during the Great Depression. By the 1960s, as the direct action phase of Milwaukee’s Civil Rights Movement shifted its focus from school desegregation to fair housing, activists found unity in the fact that housing segregation affected both middle and working class African Americans. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Latinos and Native Americans organized to overcome discrimination in education, employment, and recognition of tribal sovereignty. Despite the resulting fair housing statute and growing minority participation in municipal and state politics, however, the inability to regain the movement solidarity of the 1960s and 1970s has allowed Milwaukee to remain one of the United States’ most segregated cities well into the twenty-first century.

Milwaukee’s earliest African American population focused on winning basic civil rights and building black institutions. In 1866, activists sued in the state supreme court to win the franchise for Wisconsin’s African Americans. During the late nineteenth century, black Milwaukeeans responded to increasing segregation by establishing churches, service agencies, self-improvement associations, women’s clubs, and a succession of weekly newspapers. Many of these institutions reflected, in the words of historian Joe William Trotter, Jr., the Booker T. Washington model of “self-help, race pride, and solidarity.” Perceiving working-class African Americans as lacking in these traits, however, elites often blamed them whenever racial strife worsened.[1]

During the Great Migration, Southern migrants encountered hostile white residents and “Old Settlers” who felt threatened by the “newcomers.” As black workers fought discrimination in the factories by building their own unions, Old Settlers, who initially resisted the migration, established branches of the NAACP in 1915 and the MUL in 1919. While the NAACP became a province of the black elite, the MUL emerged during the mid-1920s as Milwaukee’s most prominent civil rights organization, a position it held until the 1950s. Although the MUL tended to be conciliatory toward white employers and condemnatory toward black workers, it found factory and domestic jobs for thousands of African Americans whose wages supported black business owners and professionals. The hardships of the Great Depression, the curtailment of Southern migration, and the search for adequate housing brought racial unity to a highpoint just before the U.S. entry into World War II.[2]

An even larger migration during and after World War II increased class divisions between the Great Migration generation and postwar arrivals, but by the 1960s, the shared problem of residential and school segregation brought black Milwaukeeans together in a movement. Many postwar middle-class African Americans continued to believe that improved race relations depended on black acculturation rather than ending white prejudice. After the war, however, migrant leaders increasingly challenged the acculturation approach. In 1958, when a white policeman fatally shot Daniel Bell, an unarmed African American who fled after a traffic stop, migrant leaders attempted to organize a “prayer march” to force the officer’s resignation. Although the march was cancelled under heavy pressure from more conservative black leaders, the “Daniel Bell Incident” signaled the growing willingness of many of Milwaukee’s African Americans to protest racial discrimination.[3]

In 1960, the mayoral election of Henry W. Maier, who was unsympathetic to black concerns, contributed to an increasingly militant freedom struggle in Milwaukee when he announced a “go slow” policy on civil rights and opposed a municipal fair housing law. Maier’s intransigence, combined with the rise of a new generation of civil rights activists throughout the nation, helped to overcome some of the middle-class black opposition to direct action. At the same time, the 1956 election of Vel Phillips as Milwaukee’s first black alderwoman contributed to a growing middle-class acceptance of a more aggressive approach to civil rights. Once in office, the solidly middle-class Phillips, who was no less a victim of neighborhood segregation than the members of black working class, concentrated her efforts on residential discrimination. In 1962, Phillips proposed a strong municipal fair housing law that exempted only rental units in two-family homes. Under heavy pressure from Maier, the Common Council defeated the measure by a vote of eighteen to one. Phillips proposed the same law year after year during the mid-1960s, only to see it defeated each time.[4]

Protests in the 1960s initially focused on employment discrimination and public officials’ treatment of black Milwaukeeans. In 1960, Calvin Sherard organized a series of marches against police brutality and the picketing of inner-city grocery stores to force them to hire African Americans. Protests intensified in 1963 when the newly-formed Milwaukee chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) instigated a campaign against Fred Lins, a member of the Community Social Development Commission, who was overheard by reporters saying that African Americans all looked alike, were crime-prone, and had low IQs. After negotiations failed, CORE members began picketing the county courthouse, vowing to continue until Lins was removed from the commission. Drawing an average of over 100 protesters a day, the campaign also included nearly 500 “call-ins” demanding Lins’ resignation and a series of “sit-ins” at the office of the county board chairman. The protests ended unsuccessfully in late September, however, after the arrest of sixteen demonstrators during an overnight sit-in in Maier’s office.[5]

Momentum subsequently passed to even more militant leaders. In 1963, Wisconsin NAACP president Lloyd Barbee, along with Marilyn J. Morheuser, a white former nun, began a campaign against “de facto” segregation of the Milwaukee public school system. Rejecting backroom negotiations among elites, Barbee proclaimed his readiness “to wage both a legal battle in the courtroom and mass protests in the streets.”[6] Barbee and Morheuser initially challenged the school system’s practice of “intact busing,” in which black students were transported to schools in white neighborhoods but kept separated from children at the receiving school. Barbee demanded the immediate integration of bused students into receiving schools and a comprehensive two-year plan for the desegregation of the entire system. The school board responded by creating the Story Committee, named after its chair, Harold Story, a white corporate lawyer. Story attempted to exploit divisions among African Americans by refusing to allow the representatives of local civil rights organizations to join Barbee at the committee table. When Barbee and the other black activists marched out of the meeting, however, Story’s actions unified, rather than divided, the black community.[7]

In March, integration activists formed the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) to conduct a boycott of Milwaukee’s public schools. To build support, MUSIC deployed teams of demonstrators who formed human chains around buses to prevent them from transporting black students to “intact” classrooms. Nearly 11,000 students honored a May boycott, spending the day in churches set up as “Freedom Schools” where discussions of black history, human relations, equality, and justice were featured. The successful boycott reflected not only an unprecedented show of solidarity among black Milwaukeeans but also the broadening of the protests to include whites. Although the boycott had little immediate impact on school board policy, the event became a watershed in the city’s black freedom struggle.[8]

The spring of 1965 represented the highpoint of MUSIC as a mass protest movement, but Barbee’s decision to focus on a legal challenge undermined its direct action campaign. MUSIC mounted protests in late spring against intact busing that featured the blocking of school busses. In June, Barbee filed suit in federal court, charging the school board with deliberately maintaining a segregated school system. Highlighting the widespread support among African Americans for the school desegregation effort, a Milwaukee Journal poll found that eighty percent of black Milwaukeeans sympathized with civil rights organizations and that nearly thirty percent claimed to belong to at least one such group.[9] During the fall of 1965 as Barbee and Morheuser focused increasingly on the lawsuit, however, MUSIC’s protests began to lose momentum. After a second boycott was marred by the refusal of Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese officials to allow the use of parish facilities to host Freedom Schools and a third boycott that was only honored by about one-half of the student body, MUSIC ceased to exist as an organization.[10]

MUSIC nevertheless provided a foundation for subsequent direct-action protests. The 1965 demonstrations brought into the school segregation fight a group of inner city Catholic clergy who had taken part in the voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama. Led by James Groppi, a young assistant pastor at St. Boniface Church, the priests formed a core group of civil rights activists who would lead the next phase of Milwaukee’s black freedom struggle. In early 1965, Groppi became youth chairman of the Wisconsin NAACP and advisor to the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council. The next year, he established Freedom House as headquarters for Youth Council members and initiated a series of protests that culminated two years later in the adoption of the city’s first comprehensive fair housing law.[11]

The Youth Council began its campaign in February 1966 with demonstrations against the Fraternal Order of Eagles, an organization of business and civic leaders that barred African Americans. Picketing the Eagles’ headquarters and the homes of prominent elected officials who were club members, Groppi’s troops eventually focused their attention on a local judge who lived in the western suburb of Wauwatosa. For eleven days, Youth Council members descended on the judge’s home where they confronted crowds of angry whites who pelted them with eggs, bottles, bricks, and firecrackers. As the Wauwatosa demonstrations reached their highest pitch, a bomb destroyed the office of the Milwaukee NAACP. In October, after failed mediation attempts by local clergy, community leaders, and national NAACP officers, Groppi and the Youth Council suspended the protests, believing that they had brought the situation to the public’s attention. Although the Eagles Club lost some distinguished members, it remained segregated.[12]

The Youth Council then turned its attention to open housing, initiating a campaign that brought Milwaukee to the center of the national fair housing fight. The failure to pass effective fair housing legislation contributed to the belief among many African Americans that direct action was necessary to overcome residential segregation. The Youth Council, which now included an elite all-black “Commando” unit formed to deal with “especially tense situations,” initiated a series of open housing marches to force the Common Council into action. The Youth Council began in July 1967 by picketing the homes of white council members, especially those who represented African Americans. A riot in Detroit, followed by a “civil disturbance” in Milwaukee that closed down the city for nearly ten days, briefly curtailed these protests. When Groppi and the Youth Council resumed their campaign, they nevertheless raised the level of confrontation. They also courted an alliance with Vel Phillips, who embraced the Youth Council’s approach to direct action despite her middle-class upbringing and history of working within the system.[13]

In August, the Youth Council issued a “Declaration of Open Housing” and staged the first of a long series of daily marches across the 16th Street Viaduct to the all-white South Side. When the approximately 200 marchers reached their destination at Kosciuszko Park, a mob of nearly 5,000 whites attacked the protesters with projectiles and their fists while chanting slogans such as “We want slaves” and “Niggers back to the jungle.”[14] After retreating across the viaduct, Groppi and the Youth Council vowed to return the next evening. The next day, despite increased police protection, the marchers were again attacked. That night, as marchers, now besieged by police, gathered at Freedom House, the building was burned to the ground by a firebomb, according to police, or a tear gas canister, according to the Youth Council.[15]

Although Maier issued a ban on evening marches, the Youth Council continued the protests for 200 consecutive nights. After the initial confrontation, community leaders as well as Milwaukee’s major dailies and television stations deplored the behavior of the South Siders but suggested that the demonstrators had made their point. Insisting on their right to march peacefully, the protesters instead prepared to defend themselves. The Commandos, who were originally unarmed, began to carry weapons, adopting a policy of “Not Violent,” meaning that they would not initiate violence but would defend themselves if attacked. During almost every night of marching, the Commandos scuffled with either the police or South Siders as they tried to protect the protesters. In turn, a group of South Siders organized as the White Power Rangers performed a similar function for the segregationists. Asked about the meaning of “Not Violent,” Groppi responded: “Call it what you want, but I call it Christian self-defense.”[16]

The marches and counter-protests crested in early September with two nights of near-rioting. Heeding the calls of local and national civil rights leaders to participate in a “historic moment,” 2,300 activists marched on Sunday, September 10, from St. Boniface across the 16th Street Viaduct and along a fifteen-mile route through the South Side. They listened to speeches by Dick Gregory and other civil rights luminaries. In the wake of the march, however, South Siders fought police for six hours before being prevented from crossing the viaduct to reach St. Boniface. On Sunday, over 1,000 segregationists met 650 civil rights marchers just south of the viaduct. After a fifteen-minute battle, police separated the groups and sent the open housing marchers back over the bridge. While the intensity of confrontation diminished after the “South Side Riot,” the struggle continued, giving Milwaukee the moniker “the Selma of the North” and resulting in the arrest of hundreds of open housing protesters, including Phillips and Gregory.[17] During the fall, both fair housing advocates and their opponents adopted new tactics. The Youth Council augmented their marches with a boycott of Milwaukee’s major breweries and a “Black Christmas” protest to discourage holiday shopping, contributing to the loss of up to thirty percent of retail business. In December, after the Common Council approved a weak fair housing measure that covered only one-third of Milwaukee’s housing, segregationists collected 27,000 signatures to force a referendum on open housing in the April election. In early 1968, however, a federal judge ruled the referendum unconstitutional.[18]

Although the direct action campaign ended in March with a peaceful procession through the lower North Side, it contributed to the April 1968 passage of a strong municipal open housing ordinance. The fair housing fight came to a head after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded to King’s assassination by pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which featured an open housing provision that covered eighty percent of the nation’s housing. Milwaukee reacted to King’s death not with riots but with a memorial service attended by 7,000 persons and a peaceful march of some 15,000 people through the inner city. Maier quickly proposed a municipal law based on the federal statute. The Common Council passed an even stronger measure that exempted only two-family dwellings and, surprisingly, gained the support of four of the six South Side aldermen. The adoption of the open housing law brought an end to the African American direct action civil rights movement in Milwaukee.[19]

Inspired by the African American freedom struggle, Latinos and Native Americans also organized. In 1968 Latino leaders began to call for an end to employment discrimination, and the development of bilingual programs and multi-cultural activities in the public schools. Many Latinos also participated in the United Farm Workers’ national grape and lettuce boycotts. Others joined Groppi’s forces as members of the Latin American Union for Civil Rights in a 1968 campaign to force Milwaukee’s largest employer, the Allen-Bradley Company, to hire minority workers, and as “Brown Berets” in the 1969 “Welfare Mothers March” on the state capital in Madison.[20] In 1970, a contingent of Native American parents established the Indian Community School, which found its first home in 1971 when local members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized an abandoned Coast Guard station on the shore of Lake Michigan. The school’s need for funding prompted the 1991 opening of the Potawatomi Bingo parlor in Milwaukee as the first off-reservation Indian casino in the nation. Although the Brown Berets and AIM have passed from the scene, the school and casino remain, and the Milwaukee-based Fair Housing Council has worked since 1977 to counter residential segregation in all its forms.[21]

Milwaukee’s open housing movement was the most successful attempt by an interracial civil rights movement to confront discrimination in the urban North, but by the 1980s the unity exhibited during this campaign was gone. When MUSIC won its lawsuit in 1979, school reformers divided between those who advocated the construction of a new inner-city high school as a flagship black institution and those who continued to push for integration. By the next decade, the struggle for educational equality separated those who sought school vouchers from those who attempted to strengthen public schools. As the dispersal of the black population undermined the African American political base, deindustrialization and federal government neglect exacerbated the problems of non-white Milwaukeeans.[22] Thus, although many middle-class African Americans and Latinos lived comfortable lives, Milwaukee developed an inner-city underclass whose poverty remains intractable. Uneasy relations between African Americans, Latinos, and other minority population groups further undermined efforts to work together. These divisions have prevented the resurgence of the movement politics of the 1960s in the continuing search for political, economic, and social equality for Milwaukee’s non-white citizens.

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Joe William Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 18-20, 29-33; St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Historical Society, Comprehensive Historical Review of St. Mark Methodist Episcopal Church: 1869-1989 (Milwaukee: St. Mark AME Church, 1989), 17, 18, 26-28.
  2. ^ Letter to Mabel Raimey from J. Harvey Kerns, February 7, 1924, Board of Directors Minutes, Milwaukee Urban League Records, Microfilm, and Milwaukee Urban League, Eighth Annual Report, 1929-30, both cited in Michael Ross Grover, “All Things to Black Folks’: A History of the Milwaukee Urban League, 1919-1980” (M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1994), 38; see also 57 and 62; Trotter, Black Milwaukee, 65, 66, 127, 219.
  3. ^ Harold Mason, interview with author, June 27, 1996; Milwaukee Journal, February 12, 1952, February 13, 1956, March 18, 1958, and March 21, 1958; Kevin D. Smith, “From Socialism to Racism: The Politics of Race and Class in Postwar Milwaukee,” Michigan Historical Review 29 (Spring 2003): 89; William F. Thompson, The History of Wisconsin, vol. VI, Continuity and Change, 1940-1960 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1988), 227.
  4. ^ Vel Phillips, interview with author, September 28, 1996; Milwaukee Journal, March 10, 1960 and April 6, 1960; Milwaukee Star, May 5, 1962; Henry Maier, The Mayor Who Made Milwaukee Famous: An Autobiography (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1993), 107-110; Smith, “From Socialism to Racism,” 88, 91.
  5. ^ Milwaukee Journal, March 6, 1960 and September 3, 1963; Milwaukee Sentinel, September 21, 1963; Milwaukee Star, August 25, 1962 and April 27, 1963; Frank Aukofer, City with a Chance (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1968), 39-42; Thompson, History of Wisconsin, 379, 380.
  6. ^ Jack Dougherty, More than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 72.
  7. ^ Milwaukee Star, September 14, 1963; Aukofer, City with a Chance, 50-52; William John Dahlk, “The Black Educational Reform Movement in Milwaukee, 1963-1975” (M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1990), 40, 41; Dougherty, More than One Struggle, 71, 72, 88, 91, 95-98, 100-102.
  8. ^ Milwaukee Journal, May 19, 1964; Aukofer, City with a Chance, 57; Dougherty, More than One Struggle, 104; John Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999), 367, 368; Thompson, History of Wisconsin, 383.
  9. ^ Milwaukee Journal, February 12, 1966, cited in Dougherty, More than One Struggle, 125.
  10. ^ Eugene F. Bleidorn, In My Time: Aspects and Perceptions of Personal Experiences (Milwaukee: n.p., 1994), 68-73. Bleidorn was pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church during the mid-1960s. See also Aukofer, City with a Chance, 61, 76; Dougherty, More than One Struggle, 125, 126; Thompson, History of Wisconsin, 383, 384.
  11. ^ For discussions of the personal roots of Groppi’s activism, see Aukofer, City with a Chance, 88-96, and Bleidorn, In My Time, 62, 63; Patrick D. Jones, The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 80-84; Dahlk, “The Black Educational Reform Movement in Milwaukee,” 109.
  12. ^ Aukofer, City with a Chance, 104; Bleidorn, In My Time, 82-86; Jones, Selma of the North, 116-131.
  13. ^ For a discussion of Milwaukee’s “riot” that is sympathetic to the aspirations of civil rights activists, see Aukofer, City with a Chance, 7-30; for an opposing view, see Maier, The Mayor Who Made Milwaukee Famous, 63-92.
  14. ^ Quoted in Aukofer, City with a Chance, 112.
  15. ^ Bleidorn, In My Time, 93-95; Thompson, History of Wisconsin, 390.
  16. ^ Quoted in Jones, Selma of the North, 220; see also 134-135, 216-217; Aukofer, City with a Chance, 119-126; also Maier, The Mayor Who Made Milwaukee Famous, 94-97.
  17. ^ For a detailed discussion of the marches during the fall of 1967, see Jones, Selma of the North, 179-209; see also Aukofer, City with a Chance, 125-131; and Bleidorn, In My Time, 95-98.
  18. ^ Aukofer, City with a Chance, 131-135; Jones, Selma of the North, 203-207.
  19. ^ Aukofer, City with a Chance, 143; Jones, Selma of the North, 207-209; Thompson, History of Wisconsin, 395.
  20. ^ Jones, Selma of the North, 237-239, 245, 246.
  21. ^ John Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999), 380; The Fair Housing Council, “Our Mission Our History,” accessed August 26, 2016; Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, “Our History,” August 26, 2016.
  22. ^ Clayborne Benson, founder of the Milwaukee Black Historical Society, interview with author, April 18, 1996; Dougherty, More than One Struggle, 166-185.

For Further Reading

Bleidorn, Eugene F. In My Time: Aspects and Perceptions of Personal Experiences. Milwaukee: n.p., 1994.

Dougherty, Jack. More than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Jones, Patrick D. The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Smith, Kevin D. “From Socialism to Racism: The Politics of Race and Class in Postwar Milwaukee.” Michigan Historical Review 29 (Spring 2003): 71-95.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr.. Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985.


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