Fair housing demonstration, Milwaukee, 1967.
Wisconsin Historical Society
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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.
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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.

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.
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