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Crossing "The Longest Bridge in the World"
Transcript of Crossing "The Longest Bridge in the World"
"Milwaukee's Mason-Dixon Line"
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city was essentially dissected by the Menominee River Valley. The River Valley, called “Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon Line” was spanned by long bridges, called viaducts, which connected Milwaukee’s primarily black neighborhoods on the north-side with largely white, immigrant populations on the south-side (Rozga, 34).
The 16th Street Viaduct (now the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge), was jokingly referred to as “The Longest Bridge in the World”, because it connected both black and Polish-immigrant neighborhoods and therefore, Milwaukee habitants joked, it connected “Africa and Poland” (Rozga, 34). More importantly however, the 16th Street Viaduct marks the route of the of Civil Rights marchers in Milwaukee during the 1960's who demanded, of city officials and whites in south-side neighborhoods, the break-down of segregationist housing restrictions and the enactment of open-housing ordinances.
Father Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council Commandos
The marches themselves were organized by the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council and well-known civil rights activist and Catholic priest Father James Groppi. They were joined by supporters and activists, as well as the Youth Council’s Commandos, a group of young men, whose goal was to cultivate and nurture black leadership in Milwaukee’s “inner core” and protect Groppi and the other Youth Council members. Their approach was “non-violent”, however, one Commando noted of his duties, “If the police or the white crowds came after us, or the marchers, we weren’t afraid to mix it up, to fight back” (Stotts, 733).
August 29, 1967-"Our Constitutional Right"
The next day, Father Groppi and his Commandoes, met with the local Milwaukee press and promised to march that same night, on the same route, into the south-side (news clip, 29 August 1967). He stated that they were practicing their constitutional right to continue to march, and even made the threat to start marching in suburban communities without fair housing legislation (news clip, 29 August 1967). He openly chastised the media for being the “white man’s press” because they had so exhaustively covered the north-side civil disturbances at the end of July, as they were caused by blacks, but they had failed to even report on the local news, the disturbing and brutal treatment by whites the marchers had received the day before (news clip, 29 August 1967).
August 28, 1967
On August 28, 1967, the marchers, totaling over one-hundred, arrived at the Freedom House, the Council’s and Groppi’s headquarters located at 1315 N. 15th Street, for a march across the 16th Street Viaduct to Kosciuszko Park on the south-side. On the northern side of the viaduct, the marchers were met with support and encouragement by “members from St. Veronica Parish”, a former parish where Father Groppi had been assigned on the south-side (Rozga, 34).
On the southern-end of the viaduct, however, nearly three-thousand white counter-demonstrators met the Youth Council marchers. They held signs and jeered, held back by City of Milwaukee Police (Stotts, 91-2). At 930 S 16th Street, angry south-siders sat atop the used cars in the parking lot of Crazy Jim’s Motors Inc., and yelled at the passing marchers (Rozga, 34). They did make it to Kosciuszko Park, where they had planned to hold a picnic; however, by the time they reached the picnic area, three miles from the viaduct, five-thousand white counter-demonstrators were waiting in hopes of disrupting the march (Stotts, 92). After leading a short prayer, Father Groppi led the Council and their supporters, back toward the 16th Street Viaduct (Rozga, 34). Again the group was met by a crowd of counter-demonstrators, but this time the whites “hurled a barrage of rocks, bottles, and garbage” (Rozga, 34) and blocked the way with an old hearse with “Father Groppi’s Last Ride” scrawled on the side (Stotts, 92). Police dispersed the angry counter-demonstrators with tear gas and Groppi and the marchers returned to the safety of the north-side.
August 30, 1967- " A Double Standard of Justice"
Back at Freedom House later that night, tensions ran high with Milwaukee City Police, as many marchers felt they should have been protected better during the marches (Stotts, 95). After police demands for the crowd to disburse were ignored, the officers fired tear gas into the structure, and the building caught fire, and as “flames engulfed the house…the fire department was nowhere to be seen…[and] before the night was over, all that was left of the 15th Street Freedom House was a charred and crumbling frame” (Rozga, 35).
The next morning, the local press interviewed Father Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council Commandos regarding the fire in front of the burned-out structure. Groppi and the Commandos accused the police of using a tear-gas bomb to start the blaze (news clip, 30 August 1967). Groppi also accused Mayor Maier of a “double standard of justice” because Maier had failed to protect the citizens of the north-side during the marches and the fire, which stood in stark contrast to his actions during the civil disturbances in July, in which the National Guard had been called in to help establish peace (news clip, 30 August 1967). He roundly stated for cameras that they would not stop their fight for fair housing until they got “what is ours”, the equal right to live where we choose, both in Milwaukee and on the national scene (news clip, 30 August 1967).
August 29, 1967-"Battered and Bleeding"
That night, the marchers again met at the 15th Street Freedom House and again set out to cross the 16th Street Viaduct to the south-side. This time they were met by nearly thirteen-thousand counter-demonstrators who chanted threats, racist insults, and battered them with rocks and bottles, and the police again resorted to tear gas, however they made it the three miles to Kosciuszko Park and the three miles back to the viaduct (Rozga, 35). As they walked back to the viaduct, it [took] Father Groppi and the lead marchers twenty minutes to walk from Scott Street to National Avenue, a distance of two blocks” (Rozga, "March...).
Milwaukee Fair-Housing Marches, August 28-30, 1967.
During the 1960's, the fight for civil rights throughout the nation included a call for open housing in many of America's segregated cities. In Milwaukee, the NAACP Youth Council and supporters took to the streets and marched across the 16th Street Viaduct in the late summer of 1967, into Milwaukee's white south-side to demand housing desegregation.
Menominee River Valley, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The 16th Street Viaduct, renamed the James E Groppi Unity Bridge, Milwaukee, Wisconsin..
NAACP Youth Council Commandos
Father James E. Groppi (center)
NAACP Youth Council Fair Housing Demonstration
Open Housing Demonstration, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1967-68.
Open Housing March, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1967-68.
1. Rozga, Margaret. March on Milwaukee: A Memoir of the Open Housing Protests (Kindle Locations 1168-1169). Benu Press,2010-03-02. Kindle Edition.
2. Rozga, Margaret. “March on Milwaukee”. Wisconsin Magazine of History. Summer 2007, 28-39.
3. Stotts, Stuart. Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights (Badger Biographies Series) (Kindle Locations 733-734). Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013-02-25 . Kindle Edition.
4. Wisconsin Historical Society. (2014) “Desegregation and Civil Rights”. Turning Points in Wisconsin History.
Retrieved on 8 May 2014 from https://www.wisconsinhistory.org.
5. Maier, Henry, W., Mayor’s Statement to TV and Press, Friday, September 1, 1967, Maier Administration, Box 171, Folder 1, Speeches, 1967 September, March on Milwaukee-Civil Rights History Project, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, 2010.
Accessed 5 May 2014 from http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/wiarchives.uw-whs-milw0044.
6. News film clip of a press conference with Father Groppi and NAACP Youth Council Commandos announcing the second fair housing march, August 29, 1967. March on Milwaukee-Civil Rights History Project, WTMJ-TV, Archives, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, 2010.
Accessed 5 May 2014 from http://collections.lib.uwm.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/march/id/1465/rec/82
7. News film clip of an interview with Father Groppi and the Commandos after the burning of Freedom House, August 30, 1967. March on Milwaukee-Civil Rights History Project, WTMJ-TV, Archives, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, 2010. Accessed 5 May 2014 from
8. News film clip of the second fair housing march and the freedom house fire, August 29, 1967. March on Milwaukee-Civil Rights Project, WTMJ-TV, Archives, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, 2010. Accessed 5 May 2014 from http://collections.lib.uwm.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/march/id/1464/rec/12.
9. News film clip of fair housing march, likely the night of August 29, 1967. March on Milwaukee-Civil Rights Project, WTMJ-TV, Archives, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, 2010. Accessed 5 May 2014 from http://collections.lib.uwm.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/march/id/1362/rec/88.