Fr. James Groppi and the civil rights movement

Ordained in 1959, Father James Groppi (1930-1985) was assigned to a predominantly black Milwaukee church in 1963. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington, and worked for desegregation and voting rights in Mississippi and Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From 1967 to 1969, he brought this struggle home to Milwaukee with demonstrations for open housing and other efforts to combat de-facto segregation. For several nights in 1967 Fr. Groppi led marchers out of black neighborhods to rallies on Milwaukee's "all white" South Side. Arrested on many occasions for civil disobedience, he was instrumental in calling public attention to segregation in Milwaukee and in efforts to overturn it.
Father James Groppi and civil rights leaders during NAACP march, Milwaukee, 1968.

Father James Groppi with his fist in the air at the Wisconsin State Capitol. The Assembly Chambers were occupied for 17 hours to protest the budget cuts to welfare recipients. Father Groppi was later sued for up to $15,000 for the damage done to the Assembly Chambers during the protest. He was also put in jail for contempt of the Assembly charge, and faced a State disorderly conduct charge

Father Groppi is seated in the back of a police wagon with policeman after being arrested in front of his parish for the second night in a row.
Wisconsin Historical Society

Calls to mind the type of sacrifices it takes to repeal unjust laws and to change evil practices set in place by the culture.   Just because something is a cultural norm and legal, doesn't mean it aught to be.... and doesn't mean it can't be defeated on both fronts. 

Imagine if a priest was this passionate about his pro-life work.... 


  1. Having read the headline I was preparing myself for a welcome historical review of the life of James Groppi. But it was not to be. Unfortunately all we got were a few classic photos and some rather naive comments about his work, thus offering only the most superficial view of this man.

    James Groppi was a seriously troubled man. Perhaps because I have lived through that period and observed it first hand I can offer a few helpful comments. We must observe that there are two ways to address an injustice, the right way of common sense and persuasion and the wrong way of anarchy and looting. Groppi chose the latter.

    First we must face a reality: the black people are now, morally speaking, far worse off than they were when the civil rioting began in the '60s. Illegitimacy is now at an admitted 75% among them (it was lower in the '50s when there was still some semblance of family life). Serious crime is off the charts and blacks, now that they have been supposedly "liberated" have turned (many, not all, of course) into arrogant, loutish cretins. That is a hard thing to hear; it's a hard thing to write. Father Groppi and other more famous people very much helped create this situation. Racism has done a complete turnaround: it is now the whites who are discriminated against.

    On a one-to-one basis, it is quite easy to share a friendship with blacks when each person is willing to meet the other half way. But as a group blacks are often reprehensible, and much of the mob mentality can be laid at the door of the civil rights "leaders".

    I do not know what drove Groppi; I am not his confessor nor am I a psychiatrist. But it is clear that he was very much in love with the limelight, with power, with being a rabble-rouser and a demagogue. He was a liar (he lied to his religious superiors a number of times) and his morals were, to be charitable, not in keeping with his priesthood. Strong and thoroughly Catholic prelates like Archbishop Roman Atkielski tried to reason with him, tried to show him the right way of going about his crusade. But Groppi brushed him off like he brushed off everyone else. He loved the celebrity.

    The news cameras were always on him in those turbulent days. One of the tv cameramen was an Italian Catholic who was assigned to follow Groppi and his busload of louts. I personally viewed the footage that, of course, never made the 10 o'clock news. Groppi had a "thing" for black women which, I believe, is another reason he enjoyed his work. He once taunted the Italian cameraman with one of his arms slung over the shoulder of a black woman and fondled her breast. "This is my Virgin Mary," Groppi arrogantly told the shocked cameraman. And he knew that such scenes would remain on the cutting room floor because he knew the media would shield him from the more sordid aspects of his life. In his sexual appetites he is very much like Martin Luther King, another leader who enjoyed the squalid fruits of celebrity.

    He ended up suspended (I believe eventually defrocked) and wound up his days a bus driver for the Milwaukee County Transit System. There was a famous true story about a little old lady hobbling onto a bus one day, looking up at the driver and recognizing him as Groppi. Her words to him were to the point: "I hope," she said, "that you are a better bus driver than you were a priest."

    If Father Groppi's contribution to the cause of the black man contributed to the situation we are here in now in Milwaukee then he should be condemned. No slights of segrgation in the '50s and '60s can compare with the barbarianism that goes on now. If that was his accomplishment, it was a very poor one.

  2. Replies
    1. Christine Ellen Bohman-CinaNovember 18, 2013 at 8:08 PM

      This Afro-Americanist is troubled to read this bashing of Fr. Groppi! You need to read Milwaukee~Selma of the North to get an accurate portrayal of this priest! Sadly, the city in which he agitated hasn't changed much!

    2. Christine Ellen Bohman-CinaNovember 18, 2013 at 8:13 PM

      This Afro-Americanist is troubled to see this slamming of Father! You need to read Milwaukee~ Selma of the North to get a more accurate HISTORICAL depiction of Father.

  3. Bishop Atkielski was a good man who history seems to have judged poorly. A humble but strong shepheard.

  4. For those of a certain age - and like the Jesuit Berrigan brothers - Fr. Groppi evoked and still evokes strong feelings – for and against. Though the events mentioned occurred before I came to Milwaukee (I arrived here in 1971), I was aware of Fr. Groppi even before I came here. A priest friend of mine in Ireland had been a classmate of his at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee in the 1950s and noted that even then he was ‘different’. He died in 1985, RIP.

  5. Father Groppi was a visionary who fought for social justice. Milwaukee segregation was an embarrassment to the city then and now. Of course he upset the establishment who were for the status quo, but his allegiance was to a higher power.

  6. James Groppi was a great man and stood up for what he believed in. I am proud to call him my uncle.

    1. Christine Ellen Bohman-CinaNovember 18, 2013 at 8:11 PM

      You should be!!!! I was so proud of his wife, your aunt who received the MLK award last year. She really confronted to Govenor and all of his racist legislation! Thank you and God bless you family!


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