During the mid-1960s, there was race-related civil unrest in a number of major US cities, including riots in Harlem and Philadelphia in 1964; Los Angeles in 1965; and Cleveland and Chicago in 1966. During the summer of 1967, a total of 159 race riots broke out across the country in what would come to be known as the Long Hot Summer.
Milwaukee communities had long been segregated when Alderperson Vel Phillips, the first woman and first African American to hold the position, proposed the first fair housing ordinance in March 1962. She continued to introduce fair housing proposals over the next five years. Four times they were defeated by the city council.
By the summer of 1967, tensions continued to escalate, and protests became increasingly common, including multiple demonstrations outside the private homes of the city's Aldermen. Mayor Henry Maier, the city council, and school board refused to address civil rights grievances, and relations between the police and the residents worsened. As historian Patrick Jones put it, "Blight had surrounded, and then devoured, the heart of Milwaukee's black community."
Recent uprisings in Newark and Detroit, which had broken out July 12 and 23 respectively, only served to make matters worse. LeRoy Jones, then one of 18 black police officers among the total of 2,056 officers in the city's department, described the situation:
There were some rumors that something was going to happen ... We did know there was going to be a riot. The Police Department knew - one to two weeks ahead - that something was planned. It was predicted that it would be on 3rd Street.
Around midnight on the evening of July 29, a fight broke out between two black women outside the St. Francis Social Center, on the corner of 4th and West Brown streets. A crowd of 350 spectators gathered, and when police arrived to respond to the disturbance, the crowd began throwing rocks at police vehicles. Soon more police came, this time in riot gear. Some property damage was done but the crowd was quickly dispersed.
The day of Sunday, July 30 was calm, but rumors spread and tensions grew.
A large crowd gathered that evening on 3rd Street. It is not clear what event started the outbreak, but at least one story circulated that police had assaulted a young boy. Squire Austin, who was at a civil rights rally, recalled, "The rumor we got ... was that police had beaten up a kid pretty bad over on Third and Walnut ... that's when the looting and firebombing started."
By 10:00 PM a crowd of 300 were throwing missiles at stores owned by white residents, starting fires, and looting. The police reacted with violence, and the mob reacted in turn. More fights broke out around 3rd Street, and shootings were reported on Center Street. Along the area from West State to West Burleigh looting broke out, multiple shootings occurred, and more fires were set.
Just prior to midnight, the mayor went to City Hall to meet with Police Chief Harold Breier. Reports of the first fires came in, along with reports of dispatched firefighters being assailed by stones and prevented from extinguishing them. The mayor requested Governor Warren Knowles notify the Wisconsin National Guard to be on standby.
Around 2 AM on July 31, in the area around North 2nd and West Center, iron worker Milton L. Nelsen was driving through the mostly black area, when someone shouted "He's got a gun in the glove compartment." Shotgun fire came from a nearby house, and Nelsen was shot in the face. Hannah Jackson, a bystander, was also hit. When police responded, officer Bryan Moschea was shot and killed when he entered a building thought to be the location of a sniper. Four other officers were wounded. The body of Annie Mosley, aged 77, was found in the burned-out building. She had been shot in the head. Another woman, Willie Ella Green, aged 43, suffered a fatal heart attack running from her second story apartment.
The mayor received word of the shootings and fire at West Center at 2:26 AM. He declared a state of emergency, and imposed a city-wide curfew, which took effect at 3:40 AM. At the Mayor's request, the National Guard was activated.
The mayor lifted the curfew from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM. This resulted in a rush on downtown and suburban supermarkets. As the story in the Milwaukee Journal described it:
Grocery shopping Monday meant standing in long lines and waiting ... Shoppers came in families. Sometimes there were six adults in a car. They seemed to be shopping more from compulsion than need.
By the end of the day businesses, public transportation, utilities and educational institutions had all closed, and deliveries of milk and cattle to the city had halted.
On August 1, Mayor Maier issued an order relaxing the curfew to only night hours. Some people began returning to work and some public services became available, at least partially. Police responded to reports that youths were lighting a paint store on fire. Clifford McKissick, aged 18, was shot in the neck and killed as he fled toward the nearby family home. The Milwaukee County's emergency hospital was closed and all personnel were transferred to the general hospital, which was farther away from the city, and deemed better capable of coping with the large number of casualties.
The Milwaukee Sentinel published a piece August 2 describing the plight of those who were restricted by the curfew, saying that they "were outside on their porches or standing next to their apartment buildings, watching. If they got too far away from their homes, though, police and guardsmen moved in."
On August 3 the mayor postponed the curfew from 7:00 PM to 9:00PM.
On August 4 the mayor postponed the curfew from 9:00 PM to midnight, and announced that liquor stores and bars would be allowed to open and sell alcohol.
In total, the riot resulted in three to four deaths, 100 injuries, and 1,740 arrests.
According to stories published by the Milwaukee Journal on August 2 and 4, more than $200,000 in window damage had been done to businesses, and the cost of mustering and paying the National Guard to intervene amounted to nearly $300,000.
On August 27, 1967, the local NAACP, led by Father James Groppi, held a march of about a hundred into a white neighborhood in protest of the city's housing laws. They came up against a crowd of 5,000 who retaliated with racial epithets, stones, and garbage. The following day Groppi addressed a meeting of supporters at St. Boniface Church, and prepared them for what was likely to come:
If there is any man or woman here who is afraid of going to jail for his freedom, is afraid of getting tear gassed, or is afraid of dying, you should not have come to this meeting tonight.
On August 29, the curfew was lifted and Groppi led 200 members of the Milwaukee NAACP on a march out of the ghetto and toward Kosciuszko Park, in a predominately white area. The mob they met had grown to 13,000 and the protesters came under sniper fire as they returned to their headquarters. It was burned down later that night or early the next morning. The Mayor issued an order banning such demonstrations, and both Groppi and Phillips were arrested.
On September 4, Martin Luther King Jr sent a telegram from Atlanta in support:
What you and your courageous associates are doing in Milwaukee will certainly serve as a kind of massive nonviolence that we need in this turbulent period. You are demonstrating that it is possible to be militant and powerful without destroying life or property. Please know that you have my support and my prayers.
Groppi went on to lead 200 consecutive days of protests.
In the immediate aftermath of the riot and marches, little was accomplished in the way of laws, policies, and programs. Speaking of the lack of available funding for enacting proposed reforms, Mayor Maier said:
The city of Milwaukee can no more finance the crucial problems of poverty, ignorance, disease and discrimination with the property taxes of relatively poor people than the city of Milwaukee can finance sending a man to the moon.
However, later that year the mayor rejected federal benefits, as they required support for fair housing in the city. He argued instead that the problem was a county-wide one. Support continued to grow for a housing measure, supported by the League of Women Voters and local workers unions. A petition circulated by supporters of fair housing garnered 8,000 signatures. A petition that opposed such legislation was presented to the city counsel with 27,000 signatures. In December, the city passed a form of fair housing that included enough exemptions, that it only applied to about a third of the housing in the city. Groppi dismissed it as "tokenism and crumbs". Phillips voted against the measure, saying it was "very much too late with very much too little".
On April 11, 1968, a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the US Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Faced with capitulation, or the violation of federal law, the Milwaukee Common Council followed on April 30, passing an ordinance that was stronger than that required by the federal law. Casting a tie-breaking vote, council president Robert Jendusa said he hoped the measure might "heal some of the wounds of the community".
According to Nesbit, the riots "widened the gap between militant blacks and other civil rights activists and the uncompromising white majority in the city." Thomson described the disparate interpretations of the event, emphasizing that blacks tended to view it as "a violent expression of the accumulated frustration and anger, undesirable but understandable", while whites believed it represented "the failure of black parents to control their children, irresponsible and rebellious individuals and the agitation of civil rights activists..." Blacks tended to see solutions in public reforms and the advancement of civil rights, while whites tended toward the need for increased policing and gun control.
In an article published August 1, 1967, by the Milwaukee Sentinel, an interview was reported with "John", an anonymous black rioter in his 20s:
He's (the white man) out there marching up and down with his guns. Why can't we march up and down with our guns? ... We went before (Mayor) Maier and we argued and argued and argued and argued and argued and it didn't do no good...
A study conducted by the Milwaukee Urban League found that, among blacks arrested during the riot, 90% cited "blocked job opportunities" as one of the root causes. The same study found that 53% of blacks arrested were unemployed or underemployed compared to 29% among blacks not participating in the riot. In another University of Wisconsin study, 54% of blacks interviewed reported that police brutality had a "great deal" to do with the riot. Another 55% felt that lack of respect and insults by police occurred frequently in the ghetto.
The Clifford McKissick Community School in Milwaukee was named for the black youth killed by police on August 2 as part of the riot. In 1981, his family filed a civil lawsuit alleging excessive force on the part of officer Ralph Schroeder in the shooting death of McKissick. A Circuit Court ruled in favor of the officer and found that McKissick was responsible for his own death.
A year after the riots, John Oraa Tucker, who lived in the house burned on the morning of July 31, where one police officer was killed and four wounded, was tried and found not guilty of murder and attempted murder. He was found guilty of endangering the safety of police and given a 25-year sentence, of which he served 10.
In a 1970 case heard before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Interstate Fire & Casualty Co. v Milwaukee, a company sought $506.93 in damages done to a tavern during the riots. In its decision siding with the city, the court wrote:
In this era of "confrontation politics", "protest marches", and "civil disobedience" it is naive to think that riot statues such as that before the court will retard such occurrences or keep them from developing into damaging riots, especially considering the spontaneity with which they occur.
In 1980, twelve years after the passage of Milwaukee's equal housing ordinance, the city ranked second nationally among the most racially segregated suburban areas. As of 2000, it was the most segregated city in the country according to data gathered by the US Census Bureau.