Father James Groppi was and still is the best recognized of all of the civil rights figures active in Milwaukee during the 1960s. He was well known for his compassion towards the African American Community, especially with young people, but his real notoriety came with the open housing marches he led from the inner city across the 16th Street Viaduct to Milwaukee's South Side.
Father James Edmund Groppi, Roman Catholic priest and civil rights activist, was born in Milwaukee in 1930. He attended Mount Calvary Seminary in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, from 1950 to 1952; and St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee from 1952 to 1959.
In June 1959 he was ordained to the priesthood. He began his duties as a priest at St. Veronica Church, Milwaukee, in 1959. In 1963, Father Groppi was transferred to St. Boniface Church, a predominately Black parish in the inner city of Milwaukee. It was while serving at St. Boniface that he received national attention for his work in the area of human rights.
Groppi's early civil rights activity included participation in the 1963 "March on Washington," work with the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) movement in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, participation in the "Selma-Montgomery March" in March 1965, and work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter registration project, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the summer of 1965. That same year he became the advisor to the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council and began protesting segregation in Milwaukee public schools. In his capacity of NAACP Youth Council Advisor, he organized an all black male group from members of the council called the Milwaukee Commandos. They were formed to help protect marchers (as well as Father Groppi) and prevent violence during the Freedom Marches and, with the NAACP Youth Council, mounted a lengthy, continuous demonstration against the city of Milwaukee on behalf of fair housing. While assistant pastor to Reverend Eugene Bleidorn at St. Boniface, Groppi was also second vice president of Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (1965-1966)
From 1967-1969, Father Groppi rose to national fame with such actions as picketing the home of circuit court Judge Robert C. Gannon to protest his membership in the white-only Fraternal Order of Eagles, and participating in the Freedom Marches in support of the open housing legislation introduced by Alderperson Vel Phillips. Most notable of these were those in late August and early September of 1967, where for several nights Groppi led more than one hundred marchers across the 16th Street Viaduct to rallies in Kosciuszko Park on Milwaukee's "all white" South Side.
Groppi received the support of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson and Dick Gregory, and although he was maligned and arrested on numerous occasions for standing firm in his beliefs, he was instrumental in dramatizing the segregated housing situation in Milwaukee. His conviction to this cause helped tremendously to pass an open-housing law in Milwaukee.
After leaving St. Boniface in 1970, Groppi was assigned to the pastoral team of St. Michael Church, Milwaukee. From 1975 to 1976, he worked for the Tri-County Voluntary Service Committee, where he was responsible for recruiting and supervising Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) volunteers in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth Counties.
On 22 April 1976, Groppi married Margaret Rozga, who had been his secretary while at St. Boniface. Holding a doctorate in English, she was later to teach English at a Milwaukee university. Their daughter, Anna, was born in February 1979. Since he could no longer remain a Roman Catholic priest, Groppi attended the Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal) in Alexandria, Virginia, during the fall of 1978. Beginning in January 1979, he continued preparations for the Episcopal priesthood by working for St. Andrews Church, an inner-city parish in Detroit, Michigan. His lifelong commitment to Roman Catholicism led him to contemplate whether it was spiritually possible to continue conversion to the Episcopal priesthood, Groppi returned to Milwaukee and resumed his former position as a Milwaukee County transit bus driver in the summer of 1979. He died in 1985.