HISTORY HAS ITS EYES ON US… AGAIN.
WHAT CAN THE PAST TEACH US ABOUT THE PRESENT MOMENT.
by Brenna Gonderman
Long time Lower Eastside and now Riverwest resident Ralph Larsen, 79, recollects memories of activism in Milwaukee during the late 60’s.
It has been a long hot summer. Thousands of protesters across the country take to the street, outraged by racism, economic inequality and police brutality. The national guard has been called. Curfews put in place. The bulk of the protests take place between State street and Burleigh, from 1st to 5th street. Nearly 2,000 people are arrested. 4 killed.
But, this isn’t 2020. It’s Milwaukee 53 years ago. A quick google search will reveal that 1967 saw 157 ‘race riots’ take place across the country, which is in itself telling (were they riots or were they protests?).
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. A lot was happening in 1967.
I sat down with Ralph Larsen, an activist who saw it happen. He was a young man when he participated in one of the historic marches across the 16th Street viaduct with Father Groppi and the NAACP on August 28th during that fateful summer.
Larsen was humble from the start. Born in Milwaukee, he grew up in Bayview. He was quick to note that as a young man growing up in an all-white neighborhood, he inevitably held the same opinions of those around him. It wasn’t until he reached college, as a young student at UWM in the 60’s, that he awoke into social and political consciousness.
At this time, Larsen began to plug into a widening network of revolutionary thinkers. One night, he recalled, stumbling into a bar where the leading leftist thinkers of the day were all gathered and giving speeches. “There was every kind of revolutionary you can imagine,” he reminisced, “the socialists were there, the socialist workers party, the socialist labor party, the Trotskyites, even the communists were there. And, the democrats.” The press was there, too. It was this same day that Larsen connected with a reporter who would later be called upon by the soon to be infamous Milwaukee 14 and given a time and location to witness thousands of draft documents set a flame in broad daylight circa 1968. The Milwaukee 14 became heroes to some a traitors to others.
Something that struck me, as I listened to Larsen speak, was just how much was going on simultaneously. There were groups of people protesting against Vietnam. There were groups of people protesting against police brutality. And there were others, such as Father Groppi and the NAACP, who were protesting against redlining that prevented blacks from living in certain ports of the city. Fair housing legislation passed by Milwaukee’s Common Council was the goal. It was fascinating to discover that those protesting against police brutality and those rallying in favor of fair housing were not the same groups of people. Larsen participated in them all.
Working as a social worker, he volunteered with others one Saturday to process an overflow of cases. There was one particular case that no one would touch. The young man had been one of the Milwaukee Commandos, and all black-male group organized by Father Groppi. The group dressed in uniform and were tasked with protecting the protesters and maintaining non-violence during the freedom marches. According to Larsen, the whole group was poisoned with racist sentiments. He was criticized for taking on the case even though the entire organization might have come under scrutiny if he hadn’t.
When I asked how the movement of the 60s compared to today, Larsen was quick to answer, “There was a lot more hatred going on, unlike today where there isn’t. I mean they truly hated us.” One image seared into the memory after all these years, is recognizing one of his family members face from within the drunken mob, hurling metal cans and slurs, during the historic march across the 16th Street Bridge.
And then a surprising parallel. Larsen spoke of J. Edgar Hoover who had been delusional in his commitment that all those who were sympathetic to these movements must be communists taking money from Moscow. The same way leaders today look at the Black Lives Matter movement, and draw the conclusion they are terrorists and supporters of the Antifa protest actions. Larsen appeared genuinely perplexed by these black and white characterizations stating, “there is no connection, that these …ordinary people who think something awful has happened to black people. They have to be terrorists.”
One of the more memorable marches included a group of roughly 30 people picketing outside Judge Christ T. Seraphim’s home and later Judge Robert Cannon’s house. A few hundred-people participated in the crossing of the bridge. When I asked Larsen why the onlookers threw the bottles, he thought it was quite obvious, “they didn’t want black people to move in.”
And so here we stand once again. History is doing what it does and repeating. Progress is not linear.
Larsen’s generation witnessed legislation put in place which criminalized discrimination in housing. Racism still exists in the police department, but it is not as bad as it was in 60’s. The draft is gone. Change is possible. But even with these small steps, Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country. The income inequality is worse than it was in 1967. And you can witness a cop slowly murdering a man on social media. Sometimes it feels change will never be fast enough.
If I have taken anything away from Larsen’s wisdom, it is that moments such as this, do not happen often. It requires a bit of chance. The energy dissipates. Many of the men and women he marched with have since given up on their ideals.
In 1967, the attitude for social justice was magnified by the Vietnam war. Today, the catalyst has been the murder of George Floyd, unparalleled levels of income inequality, and, of course, the global pandemic. This is energy that cannot be wasted. We don’t want to have to wait another half century for an opportunity to be heard. Our collective power comes from a shared vision. What other goals can we come together in this moment to fight for?
Before leaving, I asked Larsen one more question. “After all that you’ve witnessed, do you think the arc of history bends towards justice? With a deep belly laugh he replied after a pause, “Yeah, I guess I do.”
Side Bar Comments:
The 16th Street Viaduct, now renamed Caesar Chavez Drive, was seen as a line of division between white and black neighborhoods and was nicknamed the ‘longest bridge in the world’, a joke that has not aged well and leave little room for nuance. It was said to separate Poland from Africa.
Father Groppi had been recorded calling it the “Mason-Dixon Line” in recordings from the times.
Things have changed. The street has been renamed in honor of a famous Latino activist, Caesar Chavez. The neighborhood has many Hispanic families and businesses now. It is true the south side neighborhoods were predominantly Polish at the time, but not just Polish, but white, and racist attitudes toward integration of housing was rampant. It was supported by judges like Chris Seraphim, and the then “tough cop”, Police Chief Harold Breier.
Mayor Maier and the Common Council opposed local fair housing legislation, and only conceded after the U.S. passed the Fair Housing Law in 1968. Much praise goes to Alderwoman Vel Philips, who led the charge on the Common
Council and never gave up.
Father James Groppi supported Black Power, Fair Housing, elimination of racist charters in social institutions like the Eagles Club.
Ralph Larsen said the he felt Groppi had done his best to fight racism and passed the torch to Black leaders in Milwaukee. Groppi left the Catholic priesthood and married. He became a bus driver and organizer in the bus workers union.
He was dedicated to non-violence til the end. He fell prey to brain cancer and from his hospital bed he disavowed violence. He is quoted speaking to a supporter visiting him who was frustrated and was considering violence for the cause. Groppi said, ‘Woman’s name’ “don’t ever talk that way, and don’t talk that way in front of your kids. The only way were gonna make change is through nonviolence.”
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