White Milwaukee lied to itself for decades, and in 1967 the truth came out

When the Long Hot Summer came to Wisconsin, the reality of race relations was impossible to ignore

A woman struggles with police on the second night of unrest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1967. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Sometimes, I dream of the burned out rot of Third Street. For a time, the riot area was my neighborhood. Second Street between North Avenue and Lloyd Street was my known universe in 1979, a quiet residential strip where a church and my great grandparents’ home posted on opposite corners like sentinels. In the dream, black soot sticks on my baby fingers when I brush my hand against the bank building on the corner of Third and Garfield, a block west of our apartment and where I attended Head Start. In other dreams, the descent along Third Street into the valley darkens like the maw of a wolf.

Growing up there, I knew very little of the riot that had burned those blocks, but one cardinal rule I did know: we weren’t welcome on the south side of town.

Milwaukee has a peculiar relationship with its black population. The city imagined itself exceptional to the kind of deep racial tensions that gripped most of the North. But still the atmosphere was heavy with suspicion and contempt, mystery and fear. The climate is familiar to southern folk: Severe cold at times, extreme humid thick heat at others, frightful storms and twisters that level whole communities in a matter of minutes. The North Side harbored African Americans, and the South Side was home to generations of white ethnics of German and Polish descent. The topography of Milwaukee’s communities was a microcosm of the racialized lines of the United States.

My family arrived in Wisconsin in the 1950s, part of the hundreds of thousands of black migrants who fled to northern industrial cities, which promised something closer to the freedom and prosperity that had eluded them in the South. The population of African Americans in Milwaukee grew far more rapidly than the housing and communities could absorb. Between 1930s and 1970, the city’s black population increased by 700 percent, from a mere 13,000 to 105,088.

We came in the decades after World War II for jobs in breweries, refineries, tanneries, and factories. They were the worst jobs the North had to offer, and yet they were better paying than what was available in the South. We faced an ethnic white majority resistant to hiring us or permitting us to join their unions. The schools here were better resourced, but remained segregated. Our representatives in the city’s common council were, with one exception, white.

A portion of Interstate 43 still under construction in 1968. The freeway split Milwaukee between its predominantly white South Side and black communities of the North. (Milwaukee Public Library)

When federal, state, and local governments began construction of Interstate 43, the fabric and core of the black community was disrupted. Walnut Street, a major retail corridor that serviced black Milwaukee, suffered and merchants shuttered their stores. Tracts of houses were razed and their residents were relocated into nearby working, lower-middle-class white communities — which resented their new neighbors. My grandparents and their young lot were displaced by that highway construction.

Third Street, the main corridor of the North side, also took a hit from those earlier policy decisions. By 1967, Third Street, a major north-south thoroughfare that ran through Milwaukee’s predominantly black neighborhood, had already become an anemic retail strip of taverns, discount stores, a supermarket, and a Nation of Islam mosque, peppered with vacancies and social service outposts, nearly none of which were black-owned. Barely any hired locally. My great grandmother Lottie was an exception; she had a job at a women’s clothing boutique located at Third and North Streets. My great grandparents were homeowners and lived in what would end up being ground zero of the 1967 riot, on Second Street off North Avenue.

“You have to understand, Third Street was like downtown,” my mom said to me recently. Her memory of the riot is foggy. She was just a middle schooler, and remembers the Beatles and Motown hits with clarity, but the riot itself has mysteriously disappeared from her mind. It is only etched from footage aired on the nightly news. This is the case for most of my family who I talked to. It reads to me as a kind of PTSD. The majority of the working-class blacks kept to their schedules and aimed to do as little as possible to upset white people. Milwaukee was bad, they believed, but at least it wasn’t the South. On that night my family, like most of black folk, stayed indoors and bore witness.

It wasn’t a particularly balmy summer night Sunday, July 30, 1967, when all hell broke loose. Midsummer Milwaukee temperatures peaked around a comfortable 70 degrees, and probably drew dewy, yet cool breezes from Lake Michigan, east of the inner core, the 5.5-square-mile community that was home to the city’s 80,000 African Americans.

No one was certain about what started the whole thing. The night before, 350 onlookers watched two women duke it out just outside a nightclub on Third Street. Police tried to disperse the crowd but met bitter resistance. The damage was mild. A few smashed windows, rocks, bottles, and trash, cuts and bruises.

But the following night would be an entirely different story. Late Sunday into early Monday, a 30-block area of the inner core became embroiled in an uprising that left four dead, 1,740 arrested, and $500,000 in property damage.

A Milwaukee police officer rests in the wake of the Third Street riot. (AP/Paul Shane)

The following day the Milwaukee Journal ran a story reporting the distribution of “Stop Cops” leaflets and urging Milwaukee’s inner core residents to file complaints against the police department along with instructions on how to do so. George Sprague, a former police captain of the 5th District, which included the inner core, charged that the leaflets were designed to harass police and violated provisions around the distribution of federal antipoverty funds. “This is the same thing that happened in Newark,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted him as saying. “It worked successfully in… Rochester and Detroit …these people are looking to Milwaukee.”

Tensions between Milwaukee police and the black residents of the inner core were longstanding. Both Police Chief Harold Breier — a native of the city’s white ethnic stronghold, known simply as “the South Side” — and the department he helmed had a rep for being brutish to Milwaukee’s black residents. The 1958 killing of a black migrant motorist named Daniel Bell by police was credited as the spark that set off Milwaukee’s civil rights movement. (Thirty years later, the city would award the family $1.4 million dollars for wrongful death.) From that moment forward, black leaders agitated for the removal of restrictive covenants and housing discrimination in Milwaukee’s north and south neighborhoods, picketed against job discrimination outside white owned businesses in the inner core, and mounted a campaign to desegregate Milwaukee’s public schools. These efforts were met with fierce resistance from the white power establishment, and achieved mixed success.

At Breier’s instruction, the department employed surveillance tactics that rivaled the FBI in monitoring the movements of prominent civil rights leaders and groups in the city. Moreover, Breier had a specific interest in the emergent militancy of the city’s NAACP Youth Council and their adult advisor, a white catholic priest of the South Side, Father James Groppi. Officers routinely harassed Youth Council members, citing them for minor offenses like jaywalking or littering. One member was arrested for discarding a cigarette outside Freedom House, the headquarters and gathering place of the movement. Breier’s police officers would patrol in unmarked cars and remove badges to avoid complaints of brutality.

It wasn’t only the police who battled with the city’s black population. The NAACP Youth Council waged a series of protests outside the Eagles Club, which boasted a white-only membership that included many of the city’s political leaders, some of whom even represented precincts in the inner core. By the spring of 1967, the tone and temper between Milwaukee’s whites and blacks had escalated the point that Groppi said, “The elements are all here, and if they fall into the proper place on the proper night, there will be danger in Milwaukee this summer.”

Fresh rumors spread Sunday that police had roughed up black teens outside a dance, and beaten a kid pretty badly at Third and Walnut Streets. Milwaukee exploded.

Roving groups smashed store windows. Some set cars aflame. Police call logs chronicled flare-ups of looting, Molotov cocktails, overturned cars, and sniper fire. Houses, businesses, and cars were on fire, and kids were throwing stones at traffic on the interstate. Most troubling to authorities, throngs of people were moving southward toward Wisconsin Avenue, the heart of downtown’s retail district.

A college student is stopped by National Guardsmen on August 3, 1967. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Driving along Third Street, 22-year-old Earnest Dotsen encountered rioters and asked what was happening, “They said they want their freedom,” he told the Journal. “I asked what kind of freedom, and they said black power. So I got out and started fighting too.” Dotsen was arrested during the peak of rioting, his wrist and foot covered in cuts from smashing windows.

Dotsen worked in one of the city’s foundries, earning $3.50 an hour. “Well, the white man owned this place. No negroes have big places like this. We make him rich and he treat us like a dog,” he went on. “We was trying to show that the poor man wants just as much as the rich man if not more. That’s why we did that last night. Because we want the same things you got. It’s going to take some years and some people are going to have to die. I’m not afraid to die, not for my equal rights.”

At 2:27 a.m., Mayor Henry Maier declared a state of emergency, and utilized his direct line to the governor’s office to call in the National Guard. Maier, positioning the riot as a “civic disturbance,”established a curfew. Hours later, the National Guard rolled in and patrolled the city. Maier and Breier attempted to point blame at Groppi and the Youth Council. For their part, Groppi and the Youth Council affiliates steered clear of the riot area on July 30th and July 31st. Groppi told reporters he was at the rectory of St. Boniface Church, reading.

But he didn’t mince words, and spared no righteous outrage. “This is not a riot,” Groppi told a reporter. “This is a revolt.”

Martin Luther King agreed. King had visited the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in November of 1965. “Any city is potentially explosive if the power structure in that city is not willing to grant the necessary concessions and give the necessary victories to the nonviolent movement that will give the negro a sense of hope,” he told a cadre of national and local reporters.

The crushing tragedy of those days would actually come after the peak of the civil disturbance had ended. On August 2, police shot and killed 18-year-old Clifford McKissick, a student at UW-Whitewater, who they later claimed was involved with a group of boys looting a paint store after curfew. Family and witnesses say McKissick was outside his home across the street from the store when police opened fire. He was found near the back door, bleeding from a shotgun wound in the neck. He died on the way to the hospital.

(left) Freedom House, the Inner Core headquarters of Milwaukee’s NAACP Youth Council, was gutted by a fire bomb on August 29, shortly after the organization had completed an open housing march on the city’s South Side. (AP/Paul Shane) | (right) White youth from Milwaukee’s South Side cross the city protesting Father James Groppi’s campaign for open housing on September 12, 1967. (AP Photo)

“Order Must Prevail,” a front page editorial of the Milwaukee Journal read on Monday, July 31, 1967. “Murder and pillage can only delay the day of justice for our Negro citizens and violate the very goals of equality and freedom. Milwaukee is not going to tolerate mass violence,” chided the Journal, echoing Maier’s voice. It implied that blacks were just mimicking the riots in Detroit and Newark, and that Milwaukee’s racial tensions were not as serious or real as theirs.

A month after the riot , the NAACP Youth Council along with Father Groppi and nearly 200 protesters continued their push, launching a campaign for open housing. They marched to Milwaukee’s South Side — crossing the Sixteenth Street viaduct, the city’s “Mason-Dixon line,” as Groppi called it — in late August. There they faced an angry mob of 5,000 white Milwaukeeans brandishing confederate flags, screaming racial slurs, and hurling rocks and feces at them. They returned every morning for 200 consecutive days. According to a 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, currently fewer than nine percent of black residents in the Milwaukee metro area live in the suburbs. It is the lowest such rate in the country.

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