In 1969, conservative Wisconsin state legislators spearheaded efforts to cut the state welfare budget and reduce benefits to the state’s poor. Milwaukee would have been particularly affected by the cuts because it contained a disproportionate number of Wisconsin’s impoverished residents, many of whom were people of color. Job discrimination kept African Americans out of work and welfare served as many people’s only means of taking care of themselves and their families. In 1969, a group of Milwaukee welfare recipients and social workers, angered by the proposed state budget welfare cuts, began building a grassroots campaign and decided to organize a protest march. The group approached Father James Groppi, the former advisor to the Milwaukee NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council, and asked him to lead a welfare mother’s march to the state capitol to protest the cuts in the state budget. The participation of Groppi and the Commandos helped to place a spotlight on the welfare issue in Wisconsin.
The march began Sunday, September 21 at St. Boniface Catholic Church on North Eleventh Street. Groppi led marchers on a 90 mile, week-long march to Madison, Wisconsin. Many area residents and local churches provided marchers with meals and lodging along the way. Marchers were also prepared to camp outdoors if necessary. Once in Madison, the marchers held a rally at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where Father Groppi spoke to a large crowd of students about the welfare issue. Afterwards, nearly 3,000 students joined the march and filled the streets as they marched along Madison’s State Street and entered into the capitol building. When the group found the State Assembly chamber locked, about a dozen youths ripped the door off its hinges. Thousands of demonstrators took over the Assembly chambers for eleven straight hours, preventing the legislature from convening on time for a special session called to consider restoring budget cuts that decreased individual public assistance payments. Occupation of the chamber ended near midnight on September 29 after Wisconsin Governor Warren P. Knowles mobilized National Guardsmen to the scene. For several days, hundreds of local law officials and National Guardsmen patrolled the capitol building and guarded its entrances. Soon after, Father Groppi was arrested for disorderly conduct as a result of the capitol building takeover. He was then cited for contempt of the legislature by the Assembly. Groppi was released from a Dane County jail after ten days, but a judge found that he had violated his probation on an earlier conviction and he was sent to the Milwaukee County House of Correction for another term. The takeover of the Assembly chamber brought negative attention to the cause, and as a result, fervor around the welfare issue in Wisconsin dwindled. EM