Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights

Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights Leveled Essay | Wisconsin Historical Society
Father James Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights. A Badger Biography Book from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
EnlargePortrait of Father James Groppi.

Father Groppi, 1968

Born: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 16, 1930
Died: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 4, 1985

Childhood

James Groppi was born November 16th, 1930. His parents emigrated from Italy. James grew up in Bay View, Wisconsin. He had 11 brothers and sisters. He worked at his parents' grocery store.


High School and College

James graduated from Bay View High School. Then he went to seminary. James paid for seminary by driving buses in Milwaukee.

EnlargeFather James Groppi in the Fair Housing March, 1966. WHI 25167.

Fair Housing March, 1966

EnlargeGroppi speaking through a megaphone from the hood of a bus. Groppi stands with Alderperson Vel Phillips. WHI 48149.

Father Groppi and Vel Phillips

EnlargeFreedom House in flames after Milwaukee Police fired tear gas into the building. Two armed officers stand in front of the burning building. Both officers have gas masks on their heads. WHI 48147.

Freedom House Burning, 1967

EnlargeFather James Groppi speaking at a demonstration at the Wisconsin State Capitol Assembly Chamber protesting welfare cuts. WHI 4933.

Father Groppi Speaking, 1969

EnlargeCertificate of Merit presented to Father James E. Groppi of Milwaukee on January 7, 1968, for his work as Advisor of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council. WHI 48161.

NAACP Certificate of Merit for Father Groppi, 1968


Becoming a Priest in Milwaukee

He became a Roman Catholic priest. Father Groppi worked at the church named St. Boniface Parish.

His church was in Milwaukee's Inner Core. White leaders in Milwaukee kept black families stuck in the Inner Core. They would not rent to black families. The Inner Core was run down. Homes were falling apart. Schools were in bad shape. There were few jobs.


Advocating for Civil Rights

Father Groppi had marched down south with civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This convinced Father Groppi that changes were needed back home. He became a leader of the civil rights movement.

Father Groppi became an advisor to the Youth Council of the NAACP. The NAACP used nonviolent protests. They demonstrated against unfair laws, including unfair housing laws.

People wondered why a white priest cared so much about equal rights for blacks. Father Groppi did not care about the color of someone's skin. He believed everyone should be treated fairly.


Milwaukee's Race Riots

Riots broke out in Milwaukee in 1967. Four people were killed.

Father Groppi led 200 nights of marching after the people were killed. He marched with Vel Phillips and many more. Vel was on the Milwaukee city council. She was trying to get a Fair Housing Law passed. The marchers crossed the 16th Street Bridge. Every night their march ended in South Milwaukee.

Angry white men and women lined the streets against the marchers. They swore at the marchers. They threw rocks and bottles at them.


Fair Housing and Other Reforms

In 1968 Milwaukee passed the Fair Housing Law, the law that Vel Phillips introduced and that Father Groppi helped to get passed.

But Father Groppi did not stop helping people after the law passed!

  • He led a march to help people on welfare.
  • He supported American Indian rights.
  • He marched to end the war in Vietnam.

Eventually he left the priesthood and got married. Together he and his wife had three children. He also went back to being a bus driver in Milwaukee.


Father Groppi's Legacy

James Groppi never stopped helping people get where they needed to go.

Later a bridge was named after him: the 16th Street Bridge in Milwaukee that he marched on. It was renamed The James E. Groppi Unity Bridge.


Learn More