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200 Nights That Shook Milwaukee: The 1967-1968 Open Housing Marches

By MPL Staff on Aug 28, 2017 9:38 AM

A group of predominantly young, African-American protesters with a white priest in the center of the group.







Photo: Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council marching on June 19th, 1967, Milwaukee Public Library, Remember When… Collection, published in The Milwaukee Journal, Green Sheet, July 17th, 1979

On August 28, 1967, as Bobbie Gentry’s enigmatic Southern Gothic classic, “Ode to Billie Joe” swept the airwaves and topped the Billboard charts during the “Summer of Love,” war and riots, 200 NAACP Youth Council protestors started marching across the 16th Street Viaduct ("The Longest Bridge Between Africa and Poland") to the South Side in support of 6th Ward Alderwoman Vel Phillips’ proposed open housing ordinance to ban discrimination in the selling and renting of housing. The nonviolent marches continued for 199 more evenings through March 14th, 1968. Unofficial marches continued for another week for a total of 207 official and unofficial marches.

John Gurda wrote in The Making of Milwaukee that before 1970, Milwaukee had the smallest African American population percentage of the 15 largest American cities. In 1910, African Americans made up a miniscule three-tenths of one percent of the city’s population. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, African Americans started moving to Milwaukee in larger numbers as part of the Great Migration to escape Jim Crow segregation in the South and find jobs in Milwaukee’s booming factories.

They started settling in the Haymarket (3rd to 12th, Juneau to Walnut), one of Milwaukee's oldest neighborhoods. It was settled by German immigrants in the 1850s, then became an Eastern European Jewish neighborhood in the 1890s (e.g. Golda Meir). By 1915, it was considered a slum.

The Milwaukee Journal reported in 1924 that the Milwaukee Real Estate Board discussed "restricting the negro population in a certain area on the West side." By the Great Depression, the 6th Ward became synonymous with African Americans. In a quarter century from Pearl Harbor to 1967, Milwaukee's African American population increased tenfold from 9,000 to 92,000 packed into the Inner Core (Holton to 27th, Juneau to Capitol) and faced continuing housing discrimination.

Committee members of Mayor Frank Zeidler's Inner Core Report could not reach a consensus on legislation to ban housing discrimination, but recommended a voluntary Covenant of Open Occupancy in early 1960. New mayor Henry Maier largely ignored its recommendations.

Ald. Vel Phillips introduced an open housing ordinance in 1962 that would cover all housing. The Common Council defeated it 18-1. Chicago passed a fair housing ordinance in 1963. Assemblyman Lloyd Barbee introduced a fair housing bill in the Wisconsin Legislature, but Chapter 439 was watered down to cover only one-third of housing in 1965. Congress failed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1966, which included open housing.

A landlord refused to rent a flat near 29th and Burleigh to Vietnam War veteran Ronald Britton and his family. Phillips introduced an open housing ordinance three more times in 1966-1967, but she cast the lone vote for it each time. After the last Common Council defeat, Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council picketed the homes and businesses of north side aldermen in June-July, 1967, who had African American constituents, but voted against open housing.

At a July 25th, 1967 Common Council meeting, Groppi warned aldermen that ignoring nonviolent protests for open housing would fuel frustration and anger that could trigger a riot as in Newark and Detroit that month. Five days later, rioting erupted in the Inner Core.

After the riot and curfew ended, Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council resumed the open housing campaign with a new tactic. Marching across the 16th Street Viaduct and facing hostile counterprotesters soon captured the nation's attention. While the July 30th-31st riot received scant national media coverage during the "Long, Hot Summer," Milwaukee's open housing marches were reported by TIME, Newsweek, Ebony, Jet, The New York Times and more. Groppi was interviewed on CBS' Face the Nation. Martin Luther King sent a telegram to Groppi praising the nonviolence of the marches.

Comedian Dick Gregory, who died on August 19th, visited Milwaukee several times to join the marches. He was arrested on the 42nd night (October 8th, 1967) and fined $100 ($726 in 2017 dollars).

Being in the national spotlight embarrassed the Common Council into passing Granville 18th Ward Ald. Clarence Miller's compromise open housing ordinance on December 12th, 1967. Modeled on Wisconsin's limited 1965 fair housing act, it covered a third of housing in the city. Phillips, Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council continued marching for 100% open housing.

The open housing marches ended in March 1968 as they pondered what steps to take to achieve open housing for all. Martin Luther King, a Drum Major for Justice, was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, where he was helping striking garbage workers to unionize.

More than 100 cities suffered riots after his assassination, but not Milwaukee. On April 8th, 1968, the discipline of the open housing marches held as 10,000-15,000 people marched peacefully in memory of King from St. Boniface Church to Downtown in the city's largest civil rights march. Two days later, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included Title VIII, The Fair Housing Act, covering 80% of housing across the land.

On April 30th, 1968, the Common Council defeated Ald. Phillips' 100% open housing ordinance, 12-7. An alternative ordinance drafted by Mayor Maier's office was modeled on the recently passed federal Fair Housing Act and brought to the floor. The Council approved Phillips' amendment to reduce the exemption of rental property from four and fewer units to two and fewer units to increase open housing coverage from 80% to 90% of housing in the city. The amended ordinance passed 15-4, signed by Mayor Maier on May 8th, 1968 and took effect two days later.

Open housing laws have been amended and extended to ban discrimination based on sex, disability and other categories, depending on the level of government, since 1968. Here are the laws, regulations and agencies. 

To remember, reflect and find events about the 50th anniversary about the Open Housing Marches, visit:

For more information, read:

And watch:

  • Ch. 10's Freedom Walkers for Milwaukee. Milwaukee PBS' YouTube page includes additional web extra interviews.
  • Public Conference was the Milwaukee Public Library's public affairs show that aired on WITI-TV6 from the 1950s to 1980s. Librarian Dick Swearingen interviewed Vel Phillips, James Groppi and William Tisdale of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council on a 1984 Public Conference: The Fight for Open Housing Where We Are Today? retrospective.
  • Ch. 10's I Remember Milwaukee and I Remember interviews with Vel Phillips, Margaret "Peggy" Rozga and NAACP Youth Council Commando Prentice McKinney have recently been added to the Art, Music and Recreation Department's DVD reference loan collection.

The Local History reference collection in the Frank Zeidler Humanities Room at the Central Library includes:

  • Once a Year, the 1968 edition of the Milwaukee Press Club annual has articles (including one by Vel Phillips) about the press coverage of the July 30th-31st, 1967 riot and subsequent open housing marches.
  • September 17th, 1967 Face the Nation transcript of the CBS public affairs show interview with Father James Groppi that aired on WISN-Ch. 12 (CBS affiliate, 1961-1977).
  • Call the Humanities Room at (414) 286-3061 to view news clippings on James Groppi, Vel Phillips, NAACP, NAACP Youth Council, Prentice McKinney and a 1986 Milwaukee Journal "Fair Housing Flaws" series.

To see how Milwaukee newspapers reported the open housing marches, the Periodicals Department at the Central Library has microfilm of the two daily papers, The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel; two African American weeklies, The Milwaukee Star and Milwaukee Courier; and the weekly Milwaukee South Times.


Dan, Local History Librarian

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