In an unprecedented television address to Milwaukee’s 700,000 Catholics, Archbishop William E. Cousins declared that “Wanton destruction, arson, potential murder can never be condoned.” These strong words aired Aug. 2, 1967, one week after riots devastated parts of Milwaukee, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the struggle for civil rights for the city’s African-American community.

Decrying the violence, Archbishop Cousins also called on Milwaukee’s Catholics to work for the common good, noting, “The Catholic Church is an essential and a vital factor in community life,” adding the Church serves the entire community “by standing ready to direct its resources and its spiritual influence to the good of all.”

Recalling the work of the Second Vatican Council, which had ended only 19 months before, the archbishop insisted upon the “inalienable right of all men to life, liberty of conscience, and pursuit of eternal happiness,” as he denounced all persecution based on “race, color, condition of life, or religion.”

And yet, for many in Milwaukee, the sense of dignity and freedom the archbishop celebrated seemed like a distant dream. In fact, for Milwaukee’s African-American community, even the Catholic Church had been an inconsistent ally in the struggle for equal rights.

Decades before, responding to the needs of the growing African-American population, some urban parishes, including the Jesuit parishes of old St. Gall’s Church (Second and Michigan), Holy Name Church (11th and West) and the Gesu Church (12th and Wisconsin) made conscious efforts to provide outreach to the largely non-Catholic African-American community. In 1908, an African-American Catholic, Capt. Lincoln C. Valle, and his wife, Julia, began a ministry in the downtown area with the help of Fr. Nicholas Becker of Old St. Mary’s Church. These efforts led to the establishment of St. Benedict the Moor. In time, the Capuchin Franciscans, who staffed the nearby parishes of St. Francis (Fourth and Brown) and St. Elizabeth (Second and Burleigh), assumed spiritual care of the new parish. Fr. Stephen Eckert, O.F.M., Cap., worked to secure the future of the community, often going door-to-door to reach out to prospective parishioners. A school followed a few years later and, in 1931, the Capuchins established St. Anthony Hospital, the first integrated hospital in Milwaukee. In the 1930s, St. Boniface Church, a historically German parish, also opened its doors to the growing black community. This parish would come to play an important part in the civil rights movement in Milwaukee.

Despite these efforts to provide a spiritual home for the black Catholics, parishes in other parts of the city were less welcoming, with some pastors and parishioners preferring isolation and segregation. This stance reflected the complex social realities of the time, particularly as the African-American population grew exponentially during the “Great Migration” that took place during and after the Second World War. Official policy of the time was marked by a preference for segregated parishes, similar to the model of the “ethnic parishes” that were so common in cities and towns across the United States. To that end, Archbishop Moses Kiley of Milwaukee had ordered the erection of Bl. Martin de Porres Mission (Seventh and Galena), helping isolate the African-American community in an area that came to be known as “Bronzeville.”

Further complicating the issue of growing populations was a series of city and state laws intended to ensure that African-Americans remained isolated in strictly defined areas. In his book, Confidence and Crisis: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee 1959-1977, Fr. Steven M. Avella has noted that, “The growth of the African-American community and the various freeway building and urban renovation projects that took out housing stock increased the demand for housing … unscrupulous real estate agents (block busters) on the North Side panicked whites into selling their homes at a financial loss and then re-selling them to blacks at a steep price.”

The policies of banks and insurance companies, as well as legislation like the “Oak Creek” law of 1955, placed nearly insurmountable obstacles before black Milwaukeeans, creating the open housing crisis that finally erupted in 1967.

Inspired by events in other parts of the country, members of the black community and civic and church leaders began to advocate for change. Among these was Fr. James Groppi, a controversial Milwaukee priest who was at the forefront of the city’s struggle for equal rights.

Born in Bay View in 1930, Fr. Groppi and his family soon moved to Milwaukee. He was baptized at Our Lady of Pompeii Church (once located in the “Third Ward”) and later attended Immaculate Conception Church (1023 E. Russell Ave.). As a teenager, Groppi began attending the Capuchins’ St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary. It was through the influence of the Capuchins that he began to become aware of the plight of the poor.

In the mid-1950s, Groppi and other seminarians were invited to take part in “Father Stephen’s Day Camp,” a program named for the founding pastor of St. Benedict the Moor Parish and which provided recreational opportunities for African-American youth during the summer. This proved to be a seminal experience for Groppi, introducing him to the needs of the African-American community and the hard realities of racism within the Church and broader community.

Following his ordination in 1959, the young priest spent four years serving at the South Side parish of St. Veronica. Fr. Groppi was then assigned to the African-American community at St. Boniface Church. Here, he saw the effects that poverty, poor schools, limited employment opportunities, and unsuitable housing were having on his parishioners and others in the community. Responding to the need, Fr. Groppi received permission to take part in the 1963 March on Washington as part of the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago. This experience, combined with his participation in the historic “Selma March” in 1965 left an indelible impression on the young priest.

As events continued to unfold, Fr. Groppi and other priests, religious and lay Catholics became increasingly involved in the civil rights movement. Initiatives such as the “Freedom Schools” brought rights advocates into direct conflict with Church leaders. By the summer of 1966, Fr. Groppi and other advocates had begun to focus on the housing crisis, recognizing that ending institutionalized segregation would allow for increased educational and employment opportunities.

The mounting tensions finally erupted at the end of July 1967. Following a brief altercation outside of St. Francis Church  on July 29, a riot broke out July 30, with around 300 black youths setting fires, breaking windows and clashing with police. Intermittent violence continued over the next few days. The rioting brought about a state of emergency in Milwaukee and movement into the city center was strictly limited by the presence of the National Guard. In the end, the violence claimed three or four lives, and more than 100 people were injured. There were 1,740 arrests.

Although Milwaukee did not suffer the extensive destruction seen in cities like Detroit and Newark, the racial divide intensified. The historic “open housing marches” would take place in the weeks that followed, bringing civil rights activists — including priests and religious sisters and brothers from several communities — into conflict with white residents.

Now, 50 years later, the story of civil rights in Milwaukee is one that is still being written.

Looking back over these historic events, Capuchin Fr. Mike Bertram, the pastor of St. Francis and St. Benedict the Moor, believes that it’s important for Milwaukee Catholics to remember and honor the work of so many courageous women and men who sacrificed so much in the quest for civil rights for all.

“I’m a student of history and there’s something to be learned and celebrated of history,” Fr. Mike said. It is this conviction that history has something to teach us that inspired him to help organize two events commemorating the 1967 civil rights demonstrations. “I think it pays for us to go back and celebrate, commemorate the role the Church played. Granted, it isn’t a perfect record,” he said, “and we can certainly cite names of priests who were opposed to the actions of Fr. Groppi. But I think the Catholic Church can and should be proud of its social justice teachings and this is one example of how the Church can celebrate its teachings. But it’s also too glib to say the struggle is over and that everything is fine.”

With this in mind, two celebrations July 27 and 28 will be a time to remember where we have been and to consider the way forward in the ongoing struggle for equal rights for all.

The first event, a Mass “for the Preservation of Peace and Justice,” will be celebrated at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 27, at the Gesu Church. Bishop Jeffrey Haines will be the principal celebrant and Fr. Bryan Massingale will be the homilist. The liturgy will be preceded by the traditional African ceremony of libation, during which the assembly will remember those who contributed to the civil rights movement all those years ago, including Fr. Groppi and Archbishop Cousins. A number of individuals who have been involved in the Milwaukee Civil Rights Movement through the years will take an active role in the liturgy. Music for the liturgy will be provided by a gospel choir representing a number of area parishes.

On Friday, July 28, St. Francis Church will host a panel discussion exploring the present state of civil rights in Milwaukee and possibilities for the future. The panel members include Lois Quinn of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, James Causey of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Fr. Bryan Massingale. The panel discussion will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the St. Francis Parish gym.

“There’s work to be done and for us to recommit ourselves to say ‘The struggle’s not over.’ We need to keep it on the front burner,” Fr. Mike said. “This is an important need not just for our Catholic Church but for people of color or people who are persecuted in any way. We recommit ourselves to equal rights for all people as a basic human dignity.”