MILWAUKEE — The images of rioting, hate-infused signs and shouting between two sides told it all.
Throughout the country, racial tensions were prevalent throughout the 1960s. Milwaukee was not immune to this scenario. In fact, the strife boiled over on a hot summer night in 1967 in a scene reminiscent of the battles that had ensued in the Deep South.
The struggle in Milwaukee was so strong that scholar Patrick D. Jones compared it to what had been transpiring in Alabama. He chronicles the civil unrest – and how the Catholic church had a pivotal role in mending tensions – in his new book, “The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee.”
St. Francis of Assisi Church, a parish on the city’s north side, held a special program Feb. 5 in honor of Black History Month. Jones, an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, discussed his new book and Capuchin Fr. Matthew Gottschalk, who served as St. Francis of Assisi’s pastor throughout the 1960s, also was on hand.
The program was funded through a joint effort between the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order and the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s Office of Intercultural Ministries.
While the government ultimately ensured blacks and other minorities would have the same rights as whites, Jones emphasized that grassroots movements by everyday people, including Catholics, were a fundamental part of making the change.
“The fact ordinary people came together … has had an impact on movements for justice all across the planet,” Jones said.
Then-Fr. James Groppi, ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1959 but who left the priesthood in 1976, was at the forefront of the civil rights movement throughout the 1960s, calling for change. He worked alongside Fr. Gottschalk and other local Catholic leaders to provide a local position on the state of race relations in Milwaukee.
Jones said Fr. Groppi, who died in 1985, and other Catholic leaders from that era helped transform the Catholic Church and its mission to the community from a more insular role to the groundswell of mission-minded social justice initiatives at the forefront of modern discussions.
“There was an incredible sense during that time that something had to be done,” Jones said. “That debate continues to this day.”
Local Catholics, and leaders across the country, had mixed reactions to Fr. Groppi during his most influential days. Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. never visited Milwaukee, he sent a telegram to Fr. Groppi, praising him for his efforts.
“For some, Fr. Groppi was the manifestation of our hopes,” Jones said. “For others, he was viewed as someone who was part of everything that was threatening. They viewed him as someone of disobedience.”
During the discussion, Jones described Fr. Gottschalk as a mentor to Fr. Groppi – a description Fr. Gottschalk deemed humbling.
“(Fr. Groppi) was the perfect example of a charismatic person starting a movement,” Fr. Gottschalk said. “I spent a lot of time listening to him. He’d talk, and I’d listen because his faith was unleashed.”
In the 1960s, Frs. Groppi and Gottschalk visited Alabama and Mississippi to get a feel for what was taking place in the South.
“I’m grateful to have been involved during that time,” Fr. Gottschalk said. “(The movement) was an extension of my faith.”
Milwaukee’s racial profile changed dramatically after World War II. Few blacks lived in the city prior to the 1940s, but a migration took place in the ensuing years as people within the minority population sought a better life from the oppression that had been commonplace in the South.
“Unfortunately, they were met with more struggles,” Jones said. “Overall, they weren’t able to carve out a good life and they were segregated into some of the more older, ghettoized parts of the city.”
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Jones said blacks were marginalized in Milwaukee, given an unfair disadvantage over whites in a number of areas, including housing, education, employment and relations with the police.
In the 1960s, an effort was underway to have the Milwaukee Common Council pass an open housing ordinance that would have ensured people of all races equal opportunities to live in areas throughout the city.
Frustrated by five years of stalled action, the NAACP Youth Council in August 1967 marched in a predominantly white neighborhood on the South Side, calling for action. Fr. Groppi was part of the movement. Police arrested hordes of protestors, and violence took place.
“The sight of a white, Catholic priest getting arrested for racial justice was unusual and raised curiosity,” Jones said. “Fr. Groppi had a very special connection with young people.”
Fr. Groppi’s legacy lives as the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order works toward racial harmony, according to Fr. Gottschalk, co-director of the House of Peace, who said social justice has been a cornerstone of the Capuchin movement.
“There’s been a long history of this,” Fr. Gottschalk said.
While progress has undeniably been made in Milwaukee since the civil unrest of the 1960s, Jones said Milwaukee continues to struggle from the aftermath.
“The reality is Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated cities in this country,” he said. “It continues to be a shameful situation, and we have to ask ourselves why this is and what we can do about this as children of God.”