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Racial injustice didn’t end with the passing of the Voting Rights Act in August, 1965. On the heels of the Last Great Parade, a mass march from Selma to Montgomery headed by Martin Luther King, came Father James Groppi, a white Roman Catholic priest, to carry the civil rights torch through the slums of his hometown.
In the mid sixties, the African American population in Milwaukee, Wisconsin had increased by 600 percent in twenty years to 92,000 concentrated in the Inner Core. So had the gap in fair housing and earning wage employment opportunities, a calamity that Groppi dedicated his vocation to rectify. During his 18-year reign (1961-1979) as a prominent, controversial human rights activist, Milwaukee, a microcosm of segregation, captured the national spotlight.
Groppi took his freedom message from the pulpit to the streets as his inner city pastoral experience at Saint Boniface church shifted his mindset from existentialism to pragmatism. His mission was building a bridge to cross-cultural relationships through provocation and agitation. On August 28, 1967, Groppi lead over 200 constituents (including members of the Milwaukee Youth Council of the NAACP) “from Africa to Poland”* across the 16th Street viaduct bridge which was later named the James Groppi Unity Bridge, to the nearly all white south side. His August 1968 march would last 200 consecutive days.
On the southeast corner of South 16th Street and West National Avenue, young white men sat on the hoods of cars at Crazy Jim’s Motors, holding other signs including one that read “Groppi—the Black god.
Groppi lit a fire under the feet of civic leaders such as the Common Council president, police patrols and the longstanding Mayer Henry W. Maier who called on the National Guard and imposed a curfew to block Groppi’s marches. By stepping out of his “white privileged” comfort zone and turning over the money tables of social injustice, it could be said that the Jesus figure Groppi pledged an oath to was the disturber he inhabited. Forsaking reputation and job security, he relentlessly challenged the limitations of civic and religious institutions while struggling to resolve the rules that were counterintuitive.
As lifelong residents of the nation’s most segregated city (according to the most recent 2017 Brookings Institution study) we’ve witnessed Groppi’s significance to our collective heritage as both a model of loving one’s neighbor and a reminder of the long bridges left to be crossed. We’ll uncover the story within the story of segregation in Milwaukee of a clergyman who questions a religious institution in order to pursue his higher conscious. As lifelong artists, we will peer through the narrative to the nuances of meaning/implications behind the legacy as a tool of empowerment for today’s activists.
As the dilemma and idealization of social justice percolates our current cultural conversation, Groppi’s story continues to shed light on how we got here and where we need to go.