Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Look Back at Milwaukee's 1967 Rebellion
Jim Stingl, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
12:09 a.m. CDT August 17, 2016

You can hear echoes from 1967 in the violence that erupted Saturday near Sherman Park.

Anger. Arson. Gunfire. Looting. Rocks flying. Vandalism. Arrests. Blame. Calls for calm.

That was the scene beginning the night of July 30, 1967, on Milwaukee's north side and spilling into downtown. Newspaper headlines back then were not shy about using the word riot. Today, it's often softened to unrest, uprising, unease.

It's clear that this week's, well, riot, was ignited by the police shooting and killing of an armed man, Sylville Smith, after a traffic stop. Looking back to 1967, it’s tough to point to any single incident or issue as the spark. It just seemed to be Milwaukee's turn after riots in Newark, Detroit and other cities.

I spooled up microfilm of the Milwaukee Sentinel beginning Monday morning, July 31, 1967, and found a breaking news bulletin that the National Guard was activated at 2:27 a.m. after several police officers were hit by sniper gunfire from a building near 2nd and Center streets. The Guard had been put on alert three hours earlier, similar to the order given by Gov. Scott Walker this past Sunday.

Four people, including a police officer, died in the 1967 riot. Two other officers were seriously injured, and about 100 people in all were hurt. Arrests exceeded 1,500. This past week, Smith is the sole person dead in connection with the unrest. A few officers were injured by thrown objects.

Arrests have been relatively few.

Older Milwaukeeans who lived through the earlier rioting remember the day and night curfew that made the city look eerily deserted. It was a Monday and the streets were empty. Businesses and shopping malls closed. Mail service was suspended, but newspapers were delivered by children, including 13-year-old me on my Milwaukee Journal route. Guarded trucks delivered milk. Funerals that day were postponed. Many suburbs went with nighttime curfews to keep trouble from finding them.

In comparison, life has gone on pretty normally in most areas of the city and surrounding area this week. A 10 p.m. curfew for minors was ordered by Mayor Tom Barrett.

In 1967, many fine stores were looted along N. 3rd St., now Martin Luther King Drive, and that business district was never the same again. Police and guardsmen did what they could to stop the roving bands of troublemakers.

Hard-nosed Police Chief Harold Breier rushed to the scene within a half hour after the rioting began and set up a command post at 4th and Garfield. There's a description of Breier "at one point standing in the midst of a howling angry mob on both sides of 3rd St."

One article relates how Breier persuaded Vel Phillips, his political nemesis and the only black alderman in Milwaukee at the time, to ride around in a police car and try to calm rioters. The car was pelted with rocks, and Phillips spoke this gem of a quote: "By this time it was too late. It was many hours, many days, many months too late."

White people were freaking out, of course, especially those living in the riot-torn central city. One man who put his family in the car to flee their N. 2nd St. home told a reporter, "The whole idea of integration seems almost impossible now." White flight indeed accelerated after that.

A UPI reporter was knocked to the ground and kicked by members of the mob. Other reporters had their cars pelted with rocks. Fast forward to the present, a Journal Sentinel intern was attacked by the crowd Saturday night, a photographer was chased and a reporter was followed to her car and threatened.

Communication for most people now, including rioters, occurs via social media. In 1967 it was by transistor radio, described in a news story as a cellphone would be today: "So common they almost seemed to be a necessary part of the human body."

The Milwaukee County executive back then, John Doyne, called the outbreak of violence "part of a communist-inspired conspiracy." This week, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said something similar, that Chicago activists of the Revolutionary Communist Party have played a role in this unrest by encouraging young people to protest and march, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Mayor Henry Maier slept in his office during the crisis. "There will be no coddling of criminals," he said. But he also called for dialogue to get to the root causes of the unrest. "It is obvious that guns and nightsticks aren't going to solve the problems of the central city," he said, problems that persist today.

In the midst of the rioting, Maier and the city were publicly criticized on the front page by local civil rights leaders for "still ignoring the need for communication with the negro community," and for failing to establish programs to correct deficiencies in education, housing, employment and police relations — all still issues in 2016.

I saw little in the 1967 news coverage to suggest that religious groups and solid citizens of all races were pushing back against the forces of destruction.  Maybe they were, and it just escaped notice.

We’ve all seen that happening this week. People are cleaning up after the fires and vandalism. They’re forming prayer and song circles. They’re defending their neighborhood’s image as much more than the backdrop of a riot.

And in TV news reports, I was encouraged to see an African-American woman and her young son handing out free cupcakes and hugs to people passing by Sherman Park.

That’s hugs, not thugs.

Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or email at Connect with my public page at

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