By Richard G. Carter
“All I want is to enter my house justified…” Joel McCrea, “Ride the High Country” (1962)
In late November 1985, I got word of the death, at 55, of Father James E. Groppi, noted Milwaukee civil rights activist. I was touched, as are
most of us, at the finality of the passing of a friend or hero, for true friends and real heroes, are few and far between. And yet, reading about Father Groppi in the Milwaukee newspaper my mother sent to me in New York City, where I was working, I was more appreciative than sad. I joyously recalled the early days of his deep involvement in the civil rights struggle in my beloved hometown, which coincided with the
beginning of my newspaper career.
When we first met, in 1963, I was associate editor of The Milwaukee Star — the pioneering Black weekly — and pleased as punch at finally
getting an opportunity to write seriously about important issues for others to read. Although a member of a different Catholic church (St. Francis) from the one which now welcomed Father Groppi, my news gathering activities in the Black community brought me into occasional contact with this dynamic young priest. And it also was the beginning of an acquaintanceship I was to cherish.
Father Groppi radiated conviction to a cause whose time, he was convinced, had come. And his conviction enveloped those around him like
the crackling blaze of a warm fireplace on a cold, winter night. The fact that Father Groppi was assigned to St. Boniface, on the heavily Black near North Side, from a post on the predominantly White South Side – and began throwing his weight around so effectively — totally amazed
all of us.
In those days, most Black people in Milwaukee were aware of housing inequities in the city. Many of us had suffered from blatant discriminatory practices and, working with the local Urban League and NAACP, some had attempted to redress some of our grievances. But it was not until Father Groppi — a White man — began speaking his mind, did things really get moving for us. Yet, Father Groppi’s activism, as everyone came to know, didn’t restrict his zeal for pressing the city into passing, in 1968, an open housing ordinance. And as everyone who knew him also will attest, he had other fish to fry.
For example, I well remember a day in May 1964 when, as a young reporter with the Milwaukee Sentinel, I was assigned to cover the city’s first
real show of public determination by civil rights groups of that era. At the 12th Street School, 593 of the normal morning attendance of 778
elementary pupils, had boycotted classes to protest what was seen as de facto segregation. Four adults carrying signs proclaiming “Freedom Now”
and “Integration is Education,” marched on the sidewalk, followed by four without signs. The latter chanted “Freedom, freedom, freedom.” All
the marchers were Black. But across the street, outside North Division High School, another group of pickets marched, and this one was integrated.
In the midst of the group of about 25 — closely watched by six policemen — was Black comedian Dick Gregory and Father Groppi. As I approached those pickets, Father Groppi asked me to join in. When I told him I was working, he winked, clapped me on the shoulder and said: “That’s OK. We’ve all got to do what we’ve got to do.” To which Gregory chimed-in: “Amen, brother.” On the other side of the street, we were startled by the increased volume of chanting and then, noting how the number of pickets had almost tripled in the last few minutes, Father Groppi grinned broadly at the sound of their words. “Come on. Get on board. The freedom train is moving down the line.” “How do you like that, my friend?” he said to me. “Make sure you get that in your story. And don’t forget, this is happening at 18 other elementary schools and one other high school with predominantly non-White enrollments.” “You can count on it, Father,” I replied.”
The following year, three months after marching with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, Father Groppi was arrested for the
first time when he and four other clergymen formed a human chain in front of yet another school in protest of racial imbalances. And if
there was any doubt in anyone’s mind about his conviction to the cause of equal rights, it was dispelled once and for all. I left Milwaukee a couple of years later but, owing to his growing fame and the success of the many marches he led in town, Father Groppi never was far from my thoughts. His work continued apace and then, 30 years later, he was gone.
When I think of him these days, I remember all the good he stood for, and all he did, in his relatively short life. In so doing, I am reminded of Western movies in which the good guy saves the town, gets the girl and rides triumphantly into the sunset. Make no mistake about it, Father Groppi was that good guy who, indeed, did triumph in the end. He was, and still is, mightily missed.
Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist