James Groppi’s Battle
Milwaukee’s defiant civil rights leader
After attending grade school at Immaculate Conception and Bay View High School, Groppi studied at both Mount Calvary Seminary from 1950-1952 and St. Francis Seminary from 1952-1959. He was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in June 1959 and assigned to St. Veronica Parish on Milwaukee’s South Side. In 1963, Groppi was transferred to St. Boniface Parish on 11th and Clarke streets in the heart of Milwaukee’s “inner core,” as the largely African-American central city was then known.
After participating in the 1963 March on Washington and devoting his two-week vacation in 1964 to the Freedom Summer Project in Jackson, Miss., Groppi’s interest in the cause of civil rights for black Americans downright became a passion during a trip to Selma, Ala., in early-1965.
Marching beside Martin Luther King Jr., Groppi was, according to John Gurda’s The Making of Milwaukee, “struck by the hypocrisy of Northern liberals who traveled hundreds of miles to confront Southern racism but ignored the prejudice in their own back yards.”
Soon after returning to Milwaukee, Groppi joined the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) and logged his first arrest during a protest against what was then a policy of the Milwaukee School Board: the busing of African-American children from overcrowded inner-city schools to schools in outlying areas where they were segregated from the neighborhood children who attended those schools. By the end of the year, Groppi was the adviser to the Milwaukee Youth Council of the NAACP.
The novelty of a white Catholic priest leading a group of young blacks in civil rights protests alone was enough to garner media interest, but Milwaukee earned national attention in August 1967 when Groppi led the Youth Council in a 200-day campaign to secure a citywide open-housing ordinance that would give citizens the right to rent or own property anywhere, regardless of race, color or creed. Angry counter-demonstrators hoisting effigies and hurling epithets, as well as rocks and bottles, greeted the initial marches into the predominantly white South Side neighborhoods.
As 1967 drew to a close, the Associated Press voted Groppi “Religious Newsmaker of the Year.” The Priest Senate of the Milwaukee Roman Catholic Archdiocese and three Wisconsin Lutheran district presidents made public statements urging the passage of legislation for open-occupancy. In April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included robust open-housing provisions, Milwaukee passed its own strong open-housing measure.
After resigning as adviser to the Youth Council in 1969, Groppi led a march to Madison to protest cuts in welfare benefits, and participated in actions to support American-Indian rights and end the war in Vietnam. He left the priesthood in 1976 and married fellow activist Margaret Rozga, with whom he had three children. Groppi became a bus driver for the Milwaukee County Transit System in 1979 and remained in that capacity until he succumbed to cancer in 1985.