50 Years Ago: Milwaukee Burns in 1967 Riots

Posted at 4:30 PM, Jul 26, 2017

Depending on your perspective, 1967 is often remembered as the "Summer of Love."

But on July 30, 1967, Milwaukee was one of hundreds of U.S. cities to erupt in violence, the culmination of a fight for civil rights that defined the decade.

Black families were frustrated by housing laws that restricted where they could live in Milwaukee, and tensions boiled after it was discovered that some city leaders belonged to white-only clubs. 

Three people, including a police officer, were killed and hundreds were injured in disturbances that lasted for four days, with protesters clashing with the police and the National Guard.

Cities like Detroit and Watts, Calif., are remembered most vividly for the extent of their riots, but Milwaukee's disturbances had a huge impact that many believe is still being felt today.

Protesters looted stores and burned buildings in disturbances that stretched from State Street to Burleigh and from 1st to 5th streets.

Mayor Henry W. Maier issued a state of emergency and kept the city under curfew for nine days while Police Chief Harold Breier tried to quell the riots.

Clayborn Benson, who now works with the Black Historical Society Museum, recalled when a member of the National Guard put a machine gun to his face when he was out past curfew during the 1967 riots.

"It made me very frightened and it made me realize what was actually happening," said Benson, who was 17 years old at the time. 

Benson believes the tension has never gone away.

"It still exists it has not gone away it didn't go away. 50 years ago when the problems occurred, it created again with the Sherman Park incident, and it hasn't gone away. It still does exist," Benson said.

Like many midwestern and northern cities, many of Milwaukee's black families migrated from the south searching for good-paying manufacturing jobs, but were often met with housing discrimination and a lack of job prospects after factories began closing.

So did the riots help lead to a better quality of life for Milwaukee's minority communities? Many point to last year's clashes in Sherman Park as proof that not much has changed.

A 2016 Brookings Institute reportshowed that Milwaukee was the most segregated metro area in the country with among the widest wealth disparities in the country.

The 1967 riots accelerated the rate of white flight to the suburbs, and many of the destroyed businesses -- many of them black-owned -- were never rebuilt.