Groppi, James Edmund

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GROPPI, James Edmund

(b. 16 November 1930 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; d. 4 November 1985 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), Catholic priest who led members of the Milwaukee National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council on a series of marches into white neighborhoods in 1967 and 1968, marches that forced the city council to pass a strong open-housing ordinance.

Groppi grew up in a largely Italian working-class neighborhood in Milwaukee, the eleventh of twelve children born to Giocondo and Giorgina (Magri) Groppi. Giocondo ran a grocery store. As a student at Bay View High School, Groppi wrote an essay on brotherhood and racial justice after an incident with a black player on an opposing basketball team. In 1953 he began studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood at Mount Calvary Seminary, transferring to Saint Francis Seminary after two years. During three of his summers as a seminarian, he directed a day camp at Blessed Martin de Porres parish in Milwaukee's inner city. He received a B.A. in theology in 1959 and was ordained and assigned to Saint Veronica's parish that same year. In 1963 he was appointed assistant pastor at Saint Boniface, a predominantly black parish on Milwaukee's north side.

The slight, intense young priest soon became engrossed in the civil rights movement. In 1963 he participated in the March on Washington. In March 1965 he traveled to Selma, Alabama, with three other priests to join voting rights demonstrations led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Returning to Milwaukee, he confronted the pervasive de facto segregation existing in northern cities. He joined the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee to press for the racial integration of public schools. The first of his more than one dozen arrests occurred on 4 June 1965, when he protested the segregation of black children within a white Milwaukee school. Groppi embraced a radical social gospel that held that justice required clergymen to confront established authority when working for the poor and disenfranchised. "Agitate, agitate, agitate is my motto," he once told a reporter. His militant stance attracted an enthusiastic following among young blacks, who asked him to be their adviser in the Milwaukee National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council.

The Youth Council's first target under Groppi's leadership was the Fraternal Order of Eagles and its whites-only membership policy. When picketing the Eagles' club building in February and March 1966 produced little attention, the group switched its protests to the homes of elected officials who were members. In August picketers appeared in front of the suburban home of Judge Robert C. Cannon. Their presence attracted a crowd of white bigots, who showered the demonstrators with eggs, bottles, and firecrackers. After nine nights of increasing violence, the mayor requested that National Guard troops be called out to protect the young picketers. Although many officials resigned from the organization, the Youth Council was unable to force a change in the Eagles' policy.

Groppi gained national notoriety in August 1967 when he led the Youth Council and other supporters on a series of marches into predominantly white south side neighborhoods. Their objective was to gain passage of a citywide open-housing ordinance. The protestors were met by white mobs that threw bottles, hurled obscenities, and hanged the priest in effigy. Security for the marches was provided by the Youth Council's direct action committee, better known as the "commandos," who dressed in distinctive black berets. On 31 August 1967 Groppi was among 137 people arrested for defying a ban on nighttime demonstrations. The marches, which continued for 200 consecutive days, have been described as "the most extensive campaign in the U.S. against housing bias." They finally ceased in April 1968, when the city council passed a strong open-housing law. More than fifty other Wisconsin communities subsequently adopted statutes modeled on the Milwaukee ordinance.

In later years Groppi championed the causes of welfare recipients and Native Americans as well as protesting against the Vietnam War. On 29 September 1969 he and one thousand followers shut down the Wisconsin state assembly in Madison with a sit-in to protest cuts in welfare payments. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned Groppi's conviction for contempt in this demonstration.

In 1970 Groppi left Saint Boniface's parish, turning over that ministry to a black priest. He served as part of the pastoral team at Saint Michael's parish until 1972, when he entered Antioch Law School in Washington, D.C. On 22 April 1976 he married Margaret Rozga, a fellow activist, and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He always considered himself a priest and continued to celebrate mass in private homes and perform weddings and baptisms for friends. The father of three children, he worked as a cabdriver and later as a bus driver for the Milwaukee County Transit System. In 1983 he was elected president of the transit workers' union. He died of brain cancer at the age of fifty-four.

Groppi epitomized the radical Catholic activism that flourished during the late 1960s. Drawing their inspiration from the Gospels and from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s non-violent tactics, these militants disrupted the status quo in the name of social justice. None was more dedicated or persistent than Groppi. He suffered criticism from his ecclesiastical superiors and from lay Catholics who felt uncomfortable seeing a priest leading a demonstration or going to jail. Groppi maintained that his agitation was a legitimate expression of his religious calling—ministering to the needs of society's most underprivileged members. His legacy may be found in the open-housing legislation he championed and in the commandos, who reorganized as an inner city social service agency.

Groppi's papers are housed in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin collection at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Frank A. Aukofer, City with a Chance (1968), contains a journalistic account of his early activism. Obituaries are in the Milwaukee Journal (4 Nov. 1985) and New York Times (5 Nov. 1985).

Paul T. Murray