It Really Is 1968 Again

By Peter Waldheim

It was a time when political polarization between the Left and Right had grown so intense that there was widespread concern that the country was in peril. There were the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy; the independent presidential campaign of arch-racist (and former Alabama governor) George Wallace; the growing strength of the Far Left (then called the “New Left”) comprised of groups like the Youth International Party (Yippies) founded by Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman among others, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), factions of which would soon evolve into the violent Weather Underground. There were the massive protests at the Democratic National Convention and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley calling out 12,000 police officers and 15,000 National Guardsmen to counter the protests. The list continues.

For years, “But this isn’t 1968!” was a common rejoinder to those who believed that the polarization between the Left and Right in politics had, again, grown so severe that the very fabric of our society would be endangered.

I shared the belief that we hadn’t reached that point, although our trajectory lay in that direction. But now we’ve witnessed the horrific behavior of the Far Left in places like UC-Berkeley, Middlebury College, and myriad of campuses across the country.

And now there is Charlottesville. Where repugnant “representatives” of the Far Right such as neo-Nazis and KKK members, took advantage of loathsome “Open Carry” laws to march with semi-automatic weapons and clad with armored bullet-protective clothing to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and the renaming of the park where it stood. (There were some on the Far Left, who were armed with guns as well).

It really is 1968 again.

Father Groppi and the Fair Housing Campaign

Monday, August 28th marked the 50th anniversary of the first Open Housing march. Most people who lived through this period in the Milwaukee area think of Father Groppi, the NAACP Youth Council, and the Open Housing campaign as a local story, not realizing its national impact. In fact, it played a major role in building national support for Congressional action on Fair Housing. Dr. King’s assassination provided the final push that led to passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, just as President Kennedy’s assassination made it possible for President Johnson to garner Congressional support for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Milwaukee became known as the “Selma of the North” because, like Selma Alabama, it played a pivotal role in expanding public support for the civil rights movement. The Open Housing campaign in Milwaukee is considered to be the first major civil rights initiative in the northern states.

In the night of November 1, 1985, I stared down at the man lying in front of me. I had just brought his 2-year old son into the room, and I gently turned the paralyzed man’s head so that he could gaze at the youngest of his three children.

Hanging on the wall was a framed letter from one of his many friends and admirers, expressing his deep affection for this man and his great admiration for all that he had accomplished. It was signed simply “Your friend, Martin”… but the name on the letterhead ended in “Luther King.”

The man in front of me was James Groppi, husband, father, most recently president of the local bus driver’s union, who had previously served for many years as a Catholic priest.  The man who, according to Associated Press, one year made more news worldwide in the field of religion than the Pope. The man who would play a role in searching for peace between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland; who would be released from imprisonment in 1972 by a 7-0 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court. The list goes on.

I was part of a group that would donate two nights every month to take care of this courageous individual, who had been the last major white leader in the American civil rights movement.

I clutched his hand and talked to him as I was leaving, not realizing that It would be the last time I would see him. He died three days later.

But my thoughts that evening raced back through the years that I was privileged to know him.

It was the Fall of 1964, I was a high school sophomore, and had signed-up through the “Youth Incentive Program” run by the Milwaukee Public Schools to spend my Saturdays tutoring five small classes of inner city students in Algebra and one in classical music.

We met in the old St. Boniface School directly behind North Division High School and the contact person at the school was Father Groppi (or “Grup” as we called him).

Skip ahead to August of 1967, I had recently graduated from high school and had been given the extraordinary opportunity to develop a program for the U.S. Labor Department called “Project LEAP” (Labor Education Advancement Program). The goal was to develop a programmatic model that would lead to integrating the nation’s unions – more than a third of U.S. households at the time were union households – and Milwaukee had been picked as one of four or five cities to develop competing models. But this wasn’t a paper model – you actually had to make it work. Amazingly, the program I ran in Milwaukee achieved the greatest success and was rolled-out nationwide.

One afternoon, I stopped at Leo Malkasian’s mom-and-pop store down the block from North Division. I ran into Father, who I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, accompanied by two NAACP Youth Council “Commandos”. He had become adviser to the Youth Council, which had made headlines picketing the home of Judge Robert Cannon for membership in the all-white Eagles Club. It raised the issue nationwide as to whether or not public servants could honestly fulfill their roles if they belonged to exclusionary organizations.

Activities were centered around St. Boniface Catholic Church, and a rat-infested slum dwelling on 15th and McKinley called “Freedom House”. Grup asked me why I had never come there.  I told him that I strongly agreed with the goals of the civil rights movement, but wasn’t sure that I agreed with the civil disobedience tactics that the group employed, despite their adherence to nonviolence. Plus, I knew Judge Cannon’s sister and didn’t like the fact that he was being targeted.

I was told that I should come and see for myself, and that he had no doubt that I’d change my mind once I had a better understanding of the issues.

I went to the Freedom House a couple of nights later. In the coming weeks, I’d return almost nightly, sitting in on meetings and witnessing the economic, social, and moral decay inflicted by racism.

I did indeed alter my views.

Within weeks, the Youth Council announced that we would march across Milwaukee’s 16th Street Viaduct on August 28.

I spent the afternoon of my eighteenth birthday writing my will. After blowing out the candles on my cake, I was one of approximately 100 civil rights activists to march across Milwaukee’s infamous 16th Street Viaduct.  Cynically called the longest bridge in the world because it “connects Africa to Poland,”(i.e., the north side of the city to its all white south side), we sought to demonstrate residential segregation in the Milwaukee metropolitan area in a campaign that would ignite the civil rights movement in the north.  

As the national news media aimed their cameras, more than 8,000 enraged white citizens met us aiming their epithets, rocks, bricks, bottles, and bags of urine.

The next evening, I would march again. Police estimated the mob swollen to 13,000, reporting that some people came armed with knives and guns. At one point, what police estimated as more than 1,000 members of the mob overwhelmed police lines, forcing us down a street while police pulled out shotguns and started pumping dozens of rounds into the air to try to stop us from being overrun.

The Captain in charge of the small army of police officers surrounding us conferred with Father Groppi, pleading with us to turn back. I will never forget his words: “My men can’t hold them back any longer.  If you don’t turn around, you will all be killed, and so will we.”

After returning to Freedom House, I watched as the slum building burned to the ground, it’s wooden floor ignited by police tear gas canisters (Father Groppi Speaks at 45 Seconds).

The marches lasted 201 nights.

The “Commandos”, referenced earlier, were a body of more than two-hundred men who would protect Youth Council members and other marchers against anyone seeking to harm them. “Commandos” were selected, in part, for their fighting abilities since they were unarmed, but often faced hostile police or others with weapons. There were only three white commandos and I was one of them, but most definitely picked for any fighting abilities whatsoever.

Many of us went to jail, including me on several occasions.

Dr. King’s assassination further demonstrated the need for Fair Housing, and finally led to Congress passing national Fair Housing laws, to be copied by many states, counties, and cities throughout the north. Milwaukee was one.

Milwaukee would never again play as prominent a role in the civil rights movement. On a personal level, I continued to be involved with civil rights, working on issues like school integration, prisoner recidivism, jobs, police-minority relations, internet access and more. I’ve worked with organizations like the Urban League, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center, People for the American Way, and, of course, directly with the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, and various Democrats in both the U.S. House and Senate.

Milwaukee should be as proud of the role that it played at the height of the civil rights movement, as it should be ashamed of today being known as America’s most segregated city.

Dick Gregory

I awoke to the news that comedian and civil rights leader, Dick Gregory died recently in a Washington DC hospital.  “Discovered” by Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, Dick became the first black comic to break through the color-line. Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and others have all credited him with paving the way for their success. He worked with, and was admired by, African-American leaders like Dr. King, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson and many others.

As a high school freshman in spring 1964, I first saw Dick speak at the Milwaukee Elks Club at 2708 N. 3rd Street (now King Drive) in Milwaukee. It was one of the “Freedom Schools” that had been set-up to protest Milwaukee’s largely segregated public schools. I was awe struck by this man who used his dazzling wit like a saber to skewer the racist ideologies and practices so widely in vogue then.

In the first week of Open Housing marches, Father Groppi announced that Dick Gregory would be coming to town to join us. I was incredibly excited and told Father of my experience seeing Dick Gregory four years before. One day, I was in the St. Boniface rectory and Grup asked me to run something to a friend of his waiting on the second floor. I did, and walked into the room to find Dick Gregory himself.

As it turned out, we became good friends. There were several occasions when, after marches, he would tell me, “Let’s get out of here” and the two of us would head-off to some bar or party. I’ve known plenty of funny people in my life, but you have no idea what it was like to spend three or four hours perched on bar stools in some tavern, where Dick could offer accurate, yet hilarious observations about nearly topic that came up in conversation.

The most dramatic moment I remember was in 1968, when Dick accompanied Father Groppi and a busload of Youth Council members to a meeting in St. Louis with probably the most militant black leader at the time, H. Rap Brown. Brown, who was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which most definitely advocated violence under his leadership, may best be remembered for his rallying cry of “Burn Baby Burn” in reference to riots. (Brown is presently serving a life sentence in Georgia for the murder of a policeman).

We were under constant criticism by the ultra-nationalists in the black community because we were an integrated movement, led in large part by a white man. I don’t remember exactly, but I’d guess that there were about a hundred of us, evenly divided between our group and SNCC members who met in the evening in an auto repair garage in East St. Louis. Somehow, someone made a sudden move that spooked everybody and seconds later virtually everyone in the room had pulled guns which were pointed at one another. Grup, Dick, and I may have been the only three people in the room without guns.

Dick jumped up on some table, raised his hands, and yelled at everybody to “be cool, now!”  The SNCC people recognized him immediately and, after a minute, the guns got put away, I remembered to breathe, and it was definitely the most memorable moment I ever had with Dick Gregory.

Despite the difference in our ages – not to mention that I’m not a world class comedian or CR leader – we became fast friends.

Later, Dick would go on a number of public fasts, to protest the Vietnam War or other issues. Some of them left him close to death, and I’ve always suspected that they may have also led him to become the hyper-conspiracy buff that he remained for the rest of his life. We eventually dropped out of contact as he kept moving more deeply into his conspiracy beliefs (which were truly new to him).

I last saw him in 2007, when he was the keynote speaker at a University of  Wisconsin-Milwaukee event honoring the 40th anniversary of the Open Housing marches. When we spoke, he didn’t recognize me, and I didn’t tell him my name.  

But any time I ever hear the name “Dick Gregory,” I’ll smile, because he was one of the funniest people on earth.  And I’ll miss him, because of the extraordinary leadership and courage that he demonstrated time and again.