Fighting for equality in Milwaukee
46 years ago this week, the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP Youth Council began picketing at the Eagles Club against the whites-only clause in their membership rules. The protest marked the first major civil rights action that the Milwaukee Youth Council embarked on with Father James Groppi as their advisor.
The fact that the majority of the white men who were members of the social club were public officials, ranging from aldermen to circuit court and county judges, sparked the protests, said Erica Metcalfe, who worked as a graduate research assistant for the March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project at UWM. Members of the Youth Council targeted protests at the judges for what they viewed as an unmistakable conflict of interest.
“It seems strange today to know how fiercely that was debated,” said Peggy Rozga, civil rights activist and former member of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council. “Today, no one running for public office, not even the most reactionary person out there, would dream of doing what was commonplace in Milwaukee in 1966.”
“It was a whole big spectacle of people throwing eggs, cherry bombs, bricks, firecrackers, rocks, and yelling racial obscenities at the Youth Council members,” said Metcalfe.
Rozga recalls members of the Ku Klux Klan dressed in full robes and hoods appearing at the picketing in front of Judge Cannon’s house.
“I had worked in the South and had never seen a Ku Klux Klan member in Ku Klux Klan dress, but I saw it in Wauwatosa,” she said.
By the tenth day of the protest, Governor Warren Knowles dispatched the National Guard to protect members of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council.
“I can remember walking east on Wisconsin Avenue from Judge Cannon’s house looking at the National Guardsmen who were between us and the crowd,” said Rozga. “They were as young as I was and they looked petrified.”
The protests concluded when the NAACP and the National Eagles Club attempted mediating a resolution, said Luke Wolff, an undergraduate research assistant for the March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project. However, the mediation fell apart and the Youth Council pursued a new fight — the open housing campaign.
“The issue itself was kind of lost in the hype of the demonstrations,” said Wolff. “The issue became that they were protesting in front of people’s private property…and they were perceived as rabble-rousers.”
Only one judge, Michael Sullivan, resigned his Eagles Club membership, while a few others vowed to seek a resolution ending the racial clause, said Metcalfe. The city’s largest labor union at the time, the Milwaukee County Labor Council, decided to stop having meetings at the club until it lifted its restrictive policy.
By 1969, Milwaukee Alderman Orville Pitt’s multiple failed attempts to join the Eagles Club sparked another wave of scrutiny on the club’s whites-only policy. As a result, the Milwaukee County Democratic Party urged Democrats who were members of the Eagles Club to either resign their membership or make it a priority to eliminate racial discrimination in the club.
“The club lost its status. It lost its prestige. Quietly, people began to drop out,” says Rozga. “We raised an issue that no one was willing to touch and in the long term, our view became the accepted view.”
February 19, 1969: The state universities board of regents decides that black social and cultural centers could be organized within student unions as long as they remain open to the public and are kept under supervision. However, the board rejects petitions that the cases of the 94 black students at UW-Oshkosh, who were expelled in November after their list of demands triggered campus protests, be re-opened individually.
February 20, 1943: Philip Wrigley forms the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and establishes two franchises in Racine and Kenosha. Though Wrigley originally created the league to fill the void left when several minor league disbanded due to members being drafted into the military, the AAGPL continued until 1954.
February 20, 1887: The Federated Trades Council of Milwaukee, an alliance of several trades unions in the city, is founded by Frank Weber with the goal of improving workplace conditions, providing free education, and shortening the work hours for women and children.
February 23, 1914: James Cameron, civil rights activist, is born in La Crosse. When he was 16 and living in Marion, Indiana, Cameron and two other men were arrested and charged with robbing and killing a man. After watching a mob drag, beat, and lynch his friends, Cameron survived his own lynching when a bystander declared his innocence. After his narrow escape, Cameron spent the rest of his life fighting for civil rights and eventually moved to Milwaukee. He founded three NAACP branches in Indiana, participated in protests to end segregated housing in Milwaukee, and founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in 1988.