Truth-Telling to Walker: A Text of Courage

(Editor’s Note: This is the text of the speech Margaret Rozga delivered at the MLK Day celebration in Madison, Wisconsin, on Monday, just feet away from Gov. Scott Walker. The headline is The Progressive’s.)

Thank you, Jonathan, Oscar, Amy, and all the organizers of this ceremony honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and my late husband, Father James Groppi. My children who were 6, 5, and 2 when their dad died, and so this honor helps them all to know who their father was and is. My son Matthew, the youngest, is here today, but my daughters are teachers who are working today and so can’t be here.

I’m honored to accept this award and reaffirm who Father Groppi is. One way to remember him is in the words of Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council member Robert Walston, whom we called Curley. I’d like to share with you a short poem I wrote that presents how Curley saw him.

Inner City

They took me into an interrogation room, kept

calling me Robert, which usually only nuns did.

Asked me if Father Groppi was planning a riot.

I just shook my head. They were crazy.

Asked me what I thought of Father Groppi.

I said I love him.

I love the quicksand he walks on.

There’s no better place to reaffirm Father Groppi than in this Capitol Building he knew, and loved, so well. There is a photo of him here in the program. It pictures him in the Assembly Chamber. I have to tell you he was not here as an honored invited guest. As I heard the story—I wasn’t actually here myself—as I heard the story he entered the Capitol Building with 1,000 or more marchers behind him and found the door of the Assembly Chamber locked. He looked to the marchers at the front of the line and told them, “Take down that door.”

How they took it down I don’t know. I can’t imagine that they carried screwdrivers.

He was here occupying the Assembly chamber in protest of the Assembly’s move to cut desperately needed funds from programs for the state’s least affluent people. Two days later, the Assembly passed a measure finding Father Groppi in contempt of the Assembly. But after all was said and done, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Assembly’s action. They overturned it by a vote of 7 to 0 and thus left no doubt that the right of the accused to face his or her accusers is a fundamental principle of American jurisprudence and is not to be tampered with.

This history gives us hope. Father Groppi’s signature issue was the fair housing issue in Milwaukee. During the fair housing campaign, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King sent a telegram to Father Groppi. That telegram read:

Your actions inspire me deeply. I have recently contended that we in the civil rights struggle must find a middle ground between riots and sentimental and timid supplications for justice. This means escalating nonviolence even to the scale of civil disobedience if necessary. What you and your courageous associates are doing in Milwaukee will certainly serve as a kind of massive nonviolence that we need in this turbulent period. You are demonstrating that it is possible to be militant and powerful without destroying life or property. Please know that you have my support and my prayers. You are moving in the great tradition by those who are willing to stand up for righteousness sake, and you are motivated by a deep commitment to Christianity. May God Bless you and yours in all of your creative and courageous endeavors.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

This legacy of creative direct action is in danger of being forgotten. But we need it. We need to know who was who.

Knowing who was who then helps us to see who’s who now.

As a person who got her start in civil rights as a volunteer in an SCLC voter registration project, I can tell you that those who want to curtail voting rights are not in the tradition of Dr. King.

As the widow of Father Groppi who not only drove a bus after we were married, but served as the president of local 998 Amalgamated Transit union, and as a person who remembers that Dr. King was assassinated when he was in Memphis working with the union of sanitation workers, I know that those who curtail union rights are not marching in the tradition of Dr. King and Father Groppi.

As a person from a family that has always loved Wisconsin’s natural resources, I know that those who want to endanger our waters are not following in the footsteps of Father Groppi.

You don’t get arrested 30-plus times or you don’t get assassinated if you’re a mere photo-op do-gooder.

Father James Groppi was more, and did more, and so he lives on.

He believed in addressing the root causes of poverty, and those causes are backward social policy.

He believed in the tradition summarized by St. Thomas Aquinas, that the super-abundance of the rich belongs by natural right to the poor.

He believed, like Frederick Douglass, that “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Today what I want to do is acknowledge and thank all those who carry on the civil rights and union rights activist tradition of MLK and Father Groppi.

In particular, I want to thank Voces de la Frontera and their youth organization YES, the people on strike at Palermo Pizza, the Overpass Light Brigade, the Solidarity Singers, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe people, who took care of this land long before my grandparents came here from Poland.

Thank you for your work to protect the land and the water that is life.

Miigwech. Gracias.

I want to extend to you Martin Luther King’s blessing: “May God Bless you and yours in all your creative and courageous endeavors.”

Thank you.