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The Selma of the North

Thirty years ago, Richard Bernard and Bill Lueders wrote of Father James Groppi and what led to the 200-day march for better open-housing laws. We’re revisiting this story now to better understand what has and hasn’t changed for racial equality in the decades since.


The air was thick with tear gas; rocks and bottles hailed down by the score. It was dangerous to demand equal rights for blacks in the ’60s. But for Father James Groppi and hundreds of others, it seemed even more deadly not to.

On August 29, 1967, less than a month after the worst racial conflict in Milwaukee history, a fiery young priest named James Groppi led some 200 black youths across the 16th Street viaduct for an open-housing rally in Kosciuszko Park, smack in the heart of the city’s rigidly segregated South Side. Everyone knew there would be trouble.

A similar event the night before had ended in disarray after some of the estimated 5,000 white spectators surged forward, flinging stones, bottles and epithets at fleeing blacks. More than 100 police officers in full riot gear escorted the marchers back to the viaduct, which Groppi had dubbed “Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon line.”

Tonight, the bigots would be back – and they would be more determined and organized than ever. Mayor Henry Maier, in his call for restraint, had denounced the marches as an “unworthy cause.” Father Groppi, he charged, was “looking for noise and adulation, along with the national attention he thinks will result from it.”

Groppi and the marchers headed south across the viaduct, accompanied by dozens of policemen and television crews from the three major networks. They were met at Crazy Jim’s used car lot by several hundred whites. Some held a Confederate flag; others tossed eggs and stones. A hideous effigy of Father Groppi, with painted on swastikas, swung by its neck from a pole.

Angry whites flanked the sidewalks, showering Groppi with cries of “nigger lover” and chanting, “We want slaves.” Suddenly, just as the marchers were about to turn into the park, a mob of whites, which one reporter estimated to be more than 1,000 strong, charged. Police responded by firing shotgun blasts into the air.

“We were surrounded,” recalls marcher Larry Harwell, now an administrative assistant to State Representative Polly Williams. “We didn’t know which way to go. The cops were firing all kinds of tear gas at the white group, but they picked up the canisters and threw them back. So there was all this smoke. Finally, the crowd dispersed and we had to run into the park. We got in, sat down, and the cops announced the park was closed, you gotta leave.”

The marchers beat a hasty retreat. The air was full of tear gas; rocks and bottles were being hurled by the score. “We were being stoned,” says Booker T. Ashe, a Catholic brother. “We ran for shelter to a certain South Side church. The person in charge locked up the doors and would not allow us to enter. That just tore me up.”

It was a crazy night. Before it was over, the marchers’ headquarters, the Freedom House on North 15th Street, had burnt to the ground. Groppi charged that the blaze had been started by police, who then prevented firefighters from arriving at the scene. White racists counter-demonstrated and the 200 days of open-housing marches followed, earning Milwaukee the nickname of the “Selma of the North.”

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