Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Marching for Civil Rights

A Brief Biography of Father James Groppi

Father Groppi: Priest and Activist | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeFather James Groppi in the midst of a group of people.

Father James Groppi, 1968

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Father Groppi helped pass Vel Phillip's Fair housing Law in 1968. View the original source document: WHI 26543

Note: This is a grade-level appropriate biographical essay about a significant figure from Wisconsin's past and was originally part of the "Essays for the Elementary Student" series.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

Father James Groppi

What does it mean to be brave? As Father Groppi led his followers across the 16th Street Bridge, he could see the angry mob ahead. Thousands of white men and women were waiting. They began yelling insults, throwing bottles and stones, and threatening the marchers. But they kept marching. Father Groppi and others would march for another 200 nights. They wouldn't stop until fair housing came to the city of Milwaukee. 

James Groppi was born on November 16, 1930. His parents emigrated from Italy. James grew up in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin neighborhood of Bay View. He had 11 brothers and sisters and worked at his parents’ grocery store.

Marching for Civil Rights

James graduated from Bay View High School. Then he went to seminary. He wanted to become a Roman Catholic priest. James paid for seminary by driving buses in Milwaukee. After he graduated and became Father James Groppi, he worked at St. Boniface Church. This church was in Milwaukee’s Inner Core. White leaders in Milwaukee kept black people in the Inner Core. The Inner Core was run-down. Homes were falling apart. Schools were in bad shape. There were few jobs.

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

Father Groppi and Vel Phillips on hood of bus

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 48149

Father Groppi had marched in the American south with civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The marches were part of the civil rights movement. His time down south convinced Father Groppi that changes were needed back home in Milwaukee too. He decided to do what he could to help his city.

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

Vel Phillips' Fair Housing Law

Riots broke out in Milwaukee in 1967. Four people were killed. Something had to change. Father Groppi led 200 nights of marching. He marched with Vel Phillips and many other civil rights workers. Vel was on the Milwaukee City Council. She was trying to get a Fair Housing Law passed, to make sure African Americans could live wherever they chose. The marchers left the Inner Core and crossed the 16th Street Bridge. Every night their march ended in South Milwaukee. Angry white men and women lined the streets. They swore at the marchers. They threw rocks and bottles at them.

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

Father Groppi Speaking in Assembly Chamber

1969 View the original source document: WHI 4933

In 1968, Milwaukee passed Vel Phillips’s Fair Housing Law. But Father Groppi did not stop helping people. He led a march for people on welfare. He supported American Indian rights. He marched to end the war in Vietnam.

Later in life, Father Groppi left the priesthood and got married. He and his wife had three children. He went back to being a bus driver in Milwaukee. After he died, the 16th Street Bridge was renamed the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge in his honor. Father Groppi never stopped helping people get where they needed to go.

Reading Level Correlations

  • Level U (5th Grade)

Learn More

Read more about Father James Groppi in the Badger Biographies book "Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights" available from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

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