Alderwoman Vel Phillips began the fight for open housing in 1962 when she introduced the Phillips Housing Ordinance–a bill that outlawed housing discrimination–to her peers in the Milwaukee Common Council. Milwaukee already had a fair housing law, but it was very weak and it did not cover all housing within the city. The council, however, defeated the bill 18-1 with Phillips’ vote being the only one in favor. After three more failed attempts at getting the bill passed, the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council offered their help to Phillips. In the spring of 1967, the Youth Council began picketing the homes of some of the aldermen who had voted against the fair housing bill.
In the summer of 1967, the Youth Council planned a major event that would dramatize the open housing issue in Milwaukee. In August, the group announced a march across the 16th Street Viaduct from Milwaukee’s North Side to Kosciuszko Park on the city’s South Side. The crossing of the viaduct symbolized the division between the predominately African American North Side of the city and the exclusively white South Side. In fact, the 16th Street Bridge was considered the “Mason- Dixon Line” of Milwaukee. A joke at the time claimed that the bridge was the longest in the world because it separated “Africa from Poland.”
On Monday, August 28, 1967, close to 200 Youth Council members and supporters marched to the South Side. Upon reaching the South Side of the bridge, marchers were greeted by a hostile crowd of thousands. The crowd screamed and jeered at the marchers while hurling eggs, bricks, rocks, and bottles. The following night the Youth Council marched again to the South Side. This time they were confronted by even more hecklers. These hecklers held up signs and posters with racist and derogatory messages on them while others continuously pelted the marchers with objects. Despite the hostility they encountered, the Youth Council would not be deterred from its mission. Youth Council members and their supporters ended up marching for 200 consecutive nights between August 1967 and March 1968 to get an open housing law enacted. The group also supplemented its open housing marches with other campaigns aimed at hurting the city fiscally. At the recommendation of Black comedian/civil rights activist Dick Gregory, they launched a boycott of Schlitz beer and also a “Black Christmas” campaign.
Shortly after the assassination of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the federal government passed an open housing law. A few days thereafter, on April 30, 1968, the Milwaukee Common Council finally moved to pass a city-wide open housing ordinance stronger than the federal law. EM