The Fight for Housing, 1967-68 & Milwaukee NAACP Commandos

Against the Current, No. 193, March/April 2018

Mike McCallister

Protesters on Milwaukee’s south side taunt NAACP Youth Council marchers in this file photo. Credit: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

AS BACKGROUND, IT helps to start with an understanding of where the city of Milwaukee was in the summer of 1967.

Largely after World War II, Black workers came to Milwaukee in increasing numbers to get industrial jobs at AO Smith, American Motors, Harnischfeger and the like. Where were these folks going to live?

Through racial covenants, Black people were essentially restricted to a four-square-mile rectangle called the “Inner Core.” It was bounded by Juneau Ave on the South (just north of downtown), Keefe Ave on the North, Holton Street on the East, and 20th Street on the West.
By the early 1960s, because these neighborhoods were also in the oldest part of the city, urban renewal led to the leveling of many homes in this area.

One small benefit of the concentration of Blacks in geographic areas led to the election in 1962 of Milwaukee’s first African-American alder, Vel Phillips. She took on the thankless task of introducing an open housing ordinance calling for an end to housing discrimination every spring, where it would be voted down 18-1.

At this same time, Lloyd Barbee and the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) were organizing the fight for school desegregation, including several single-day boycotts of the Milwaukee Public Schools. The committee filed suit against the school board in 1963, a legal battle that would not be decided until 1976.

Changes in the NAACP

Up until the mid-1960s, Milwaukee’s largest civil rights group, the NAACP, was as timid and oriented toward gaining civil rights in the courts as the national organization. Its youth council was mandated to be “constituent and subordinate” to the adult chapter by the national organization’s constitution. It even had a powerful adult “Adviser,” to chaperone the kids and make sure they didn’t get too crazy.

There’s a great quote from Ardie Hal­yard, longtime NAACP leader: “It had a constitution and program to follow .… Its aim, originally, was to train the young people to take over the program of the NAACP as the older ones retired.”

Watching the growing movement in the South, the young people began looking for ways to fight for civil rights closer to home. In 1963, John Givens became the Youth Council Adviser. He was willing to give the council a little bit freer rein.

When Marc’s Big Boy restaurants refused to hire Blacks, the NAACP organized pickets at the restaurants and the Marcus Corporation capitulated after three days. Yet the NAACP elders let it be known that they had no stomach for such rabble rousing.

In 1965, John Givens left the NAACP to form a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the newer nonviolent forces fighting Jim Crow in the South. The NAACP found a young Catholic priest to advise its youth council: James Groppi. A Milwaukee native (his parents ran the grocery store in Bay View), he had recently been assigned to St. Boniface Church on 11th and Clarke Streets in the central city.

Groppi had participated in Freedom Summer, registering Black voters in Miss­issippi, and the voting rights march in Selma. If the elders were looking for someone to keep the youth in check, you can bet they were disappointed.

In 1966, the Youth Council wanted to expose the city’s racist power structure, and found a symbol for it in the all-white Eagles Club. Many local politicians (including roughly half of the city council and county board) and other ruling-class types were members of the club, located then as now on 24th and Wisconsin Ave.

The council organized picket campaigns, not only at the club headquarters, but also at the homes of prominent judges and elected officials. The demand was that the club desegregate, or that members who opposed segregation should resign.

The campaign had some success in getting some liberal Eagles Club members to quit. The Milwaukee County Labor Council also moved their monthly delegate meetings out of the clubhouse. But the campaign’s more significant victory would come in the wake of a significant defeat.

The Commandos

On August 9, 1966, the Ku Klux Klan bombed Freedom House, the Milwaukee NAACP headquarters. Two days later, armed young men set up a security detail at Freedom House. They called themselves the Commandos. That October, the NAACP Youth Council Commandos was formally affiliated.

The formation of the Commandos was not universally applauded. The Milwaukee Journal compared the Commandos to the Hitler Youth and Chinese Red Guards. The morning Milwaukee Sentinel called them “vigilantes.”

Even the African-American weekly Milwaukee Courier asked “Will the Commandos’ existence add to the ‘domestic tranquility’ or some egos….The Courier and many members of the community have very grave concerns about the wisdom of a Commando unit.” The Labor Council passed a resolution opposing the Commandos by a vote of 225-1.

Commandos provided security at all movement demonstrations and pickets, in addition to Freedom House. Anyone who wanted to sign up with the Commandos had to be a male Youth Council member, prove his ability to follow orders, be neatly dressed, available, militant and “embrace fellow youth council and Commando members in the spirit of brotherhood.”

The Commandos proved to be an essential part of what was to come.

Following the Eagles Club campaign, the Youth Council and Commandos sought a new target. When Vel Phillips’ latest attempt to pass her open housing ordinance in spring 1967 was defeated again, the NAACP Youth Council decided to take up this fight.

Over the summer, the open housing campaign began with demonstrations at the homes of four white aldermen who represented parts of the Black community outside Phillips’ district to demand that they support the ordinance. Among those targeted in this campaign was the father of Marty Schreiber, the future Democratic lieutenant governor.

At this point, Democrats held virtually every office in the city of Milwaukee. While all these alders met with demonstrators, none changed their position on the open housing bill. Schreiber argued that the weak state law, which only applied to about a quarter of the dwellings in the city, would overrule any local ordinance.

On August 23, the Youth Council and Commandos announced that the first citywide march for open housing would be five days later, on Monday, August 28. Marchers would cross the 16th Street Viaduct, known locally as “The Longest Bridge in the World — from Africa to Poland,” and rally for open housing at Kosciuszko Park.

Night One: the Fight Begins

Peg Rozga, participant in the march, sets the scene:

“On Monday, August 28, 1967, more than one hundred Youth Council members and supporters, flanked by Youth Council Commandos, proceeded from the 15th Street Freedom House to the 16th Street viaduct. At the north end of the viaduct stood a contingent of members from St. Veronica parish on the far south side. Alderman Anderson’s territory, but also the place where Father Groppi had been assigned fresh from ordination. They held signs reading ‘We South Siders Welcome Negroes.’ Theirs were the last friendly faces the Youth Council met.

“At the south end of the viaduct, crowds of counterdemonstrators were being held back from the marchers by a line of Milwaukee police officers. The marchers were able to move past them, and past those sitting on used cars in the lot at Crazy Jim Motors. Then they advanced to the Kosciuszko Park picnic area for which they had a picnic permit.” (“March on Milwaukee,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, Summer  2007, 34.)

Be aware that when Alabama Governor George Wallace ran in the 1964 Democratic primary against Lyndon Johnson on a “Segregation Forever” platform, he won 30% of the vote in the South Side of Milwaukee.

Some 250 open housing marchers were met by up to 8000 racists that first night, including 5000 at the park. Coming back to the viaduct from the park, they faced a crowd that hurled a barrage of rocks, bottles and garbage at them, and those who carried picket signs held them over their heads for protection. In the end, 22 people got hurt but there were just nine arrests.

The next night, the marchers were met by as many as 13,000 racist rioters. Another 22 people got hurt; arrests were up to 45.

The third day, August 30, Mayor Henry Maier demanded an end to the demonstrations for 30 days. Groppi and the Youth Council agreed to cancel that night’s march but held a rally at Freedom House instead. Guess what? The police declared an unlawful assembly and arrested 50 people!

The next night, August 31, the march began at Freedom House, but the cops started busting people at 9th and North Ave, starting with Groppi and Phillips. In total, 117 adults and 17 juveniles were arrested that night. Thus was the point where the fight in Milwaukee attracted national media attention.

On September 4, Dr King sent a telegram of support for the marchers. By September 10, the largest march for civil rights in Milwaukee’s history to that point occurred, with 5000 marchers. Yet the demonstrations continued, and continued, night after night.

Into the Fall

From the vantage point of 2017, you might think that liberal politicians and the local media would describe these attacks on nonviolent disciples of Martin Luther King with horror, as they did in Selma, Montgomery and Mississippi.  Nope, they said this was all the fault of Father Groppi and the Commandos.

By all accounts, Groppi was determined to not be the white man leading this movement of Black people. He worked to develop Black male leadership from the Commandos involved in the struggle:

“It raises problems in the sense that I am white, and that we are trying to develop indigenous black leadership,” he said. ‘Right now the Youth Council has developed to the point where I can play a more self-liquidating role . . . you can’t give yourself to the point where you will overshadow and stifle the indigenous black leadership that is developing.’”

Tensions between elders and the Youth Council remained. Again, NAACP leader Ardie Halyard: “Some may disagree, but it is my feeling that Father Groppi took something out of the Council when he helped to turn it into a picketing organization.”

The elders kept a close watch on the purse strings, and many didn’t want to fund the Youth Council, the Commandos and their militant projects. This eventually led to the Commandos becoming an independent organization in 1968.

As the younger members of the youth council returned to high school in the fall, those Commandos out of school came to the forefront in organizing. They planned the march routes and worked out security details.

Over the course of the 200 days, the Commandos led marches in every corner of the city as well as the downtown area. The marches brought thousands of people, clergy and laypeople, into the city to support and march with the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council.

Even brutal winter temperatures did not stop marchers from keeping the heat on the city council. On Sunday, December 31, 1967, temperatures in Wisconsin dipped to seven degrees below zero, but 50 hardy demonstrators showed up to march with Groppi and Phillips for about a mile and a half. On New Year’s Day, it was even colder (-11 degrees), but 60 marchers covered a mile on the North Side.

The Commandos also planned and carried out a boycott of Schlitz beer in the Black community to turn up the heat on the city’s corporate powers. The largest local brewer, it saw a 35% drop in sales in the Black community in October, as marchers chanted “No more Schlitz” as they passed local taverns. I’ll guess that some folks left out the “L” as they chanted.

Eventually the time came to end the campaign, and the 200th and final march was held on Saturday, March 30, 1968. The next days would prove historic. On March 31, Lyndon Johnson told the nation he would not run for re-election. Two days later, anti-Vietnam War Senator Gene McCarthy won the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary.

On April 4, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. The Commandos organized a memorial march on April 8 through downtown Milwaukee, and 15,000 people turned out, then the largest civil rights demonstration in Milwaukee history. A week later, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, including strong fair housing provisions.

Capitulating to the national mood, on April 30, the Milwaukee Common Council finally passed Vel Phillips’ Open Housing ordinance by a vote of 14-5. The ordinance is stronger than the federal act, covering apartment buildings with three or more units.

After the Victory

You would think that with a victory in the open housing campaign, the movement would expand and start challenging other oppressive structures in the city. Sadly, that isn’t what happened.

The Commandos had formally split from the NAACP so they could raise money independently, which they did.

At the same time, the new civil rights bill that offered fair housing provisions that codified the movement’s win also handed out a great deal of money to fight Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The state also put up $1 million in aid to the central city.

While many Commandos sought to maintain and develop a mass action strategy to win more battles, a majority decided to apply for some of those ruling class crumbs to provide summer jobs and other social service projects in the community.

At this point, Groppi dropped out of activity with the NAACP Youth Council. One report said “He screamed ‘this is a sellout!’ He didn’t want to receive government money because he felt that once you did, you were at their mercy and they could control you. Groppi pleaded with them not to do it, but if they did, he didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Erica Metcalfe describes the Commandos after the split:

“Commandos Project 1 would negotiate contracts with agencies such as the State Department of Public Instruction, the Division of Correction, the Division of Community Service, the Milwaukee County Department of Social Services, and the Social Development Commission to manage various programs.

“By 1980, the Commandos had become a major inner-city social service agency, providing programs that included adult and youth counseling, full-time employment for ex-offenders, two group foster homes/halfway houses, youth employment during the school year and summer months, year-round recreation, an annual summer camp held in rural Wisconsin, and the Commando Academy, an alternative high school.” (“Commanding a Movement: The Youth Council Commandos’ Quest for Quality Housing,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, Winter 2014-2015, 13-14)

But when Ronald Reagan cut the budgets for the War on Poverty, Commandos Project 1 effectively went out of business. Groppi, it turned out, was right.

Where Are They Now?

John Givens: Joined the contract negotiating team for General Motors for a brief time. Got hired as an assistant by Mayor Henry Maier in 1968.

Jim Groppi: After resigning in 1969 as adviser to the Youth Council, Father Groppi led a march from Milwaukee to Madison to protest cuts in welfare benefits. He also participated in actions to end the war in Vietnam and to support Indian rights. Left the Catholic Church in 1976 to marry Peg Rozga. Got a job driving a county bus, became a leader in the Amalgamated Transit Union. Died in 1985.

Vel Phillips: Moved from Common Council to a judgeship. Later became Wisconsin Secretary of State. First African-American woman elected to statewide office. Still attends the Community Brainstorming Conference.

Prentice McKinney: Joined the fight for school desegregation 1976-78 — People United (for Integration and Quality Education). One of the driving forces behind the 50th anniversary commemoration.

Further Reading

Community activists marked the 50th anniversary of the marches at:

Many historical resources are displayed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee library:

The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee, Patrick D. Jones, 2009: Harvard University Press. An academic study of the period.

City with a Chance: A Case History of the Civil Rights Revolution, Frank A. Aukofer. 2007: Marquette University Press. Reprint of an original 1968 account by the Milwaukee Journal reporter covering civil rights.

March-April 2018, ATC 193

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