For Black History Month this year, Near west Side partners would like to highlight historical moments that transpired right here in our very own neighborhood. These moments in time helped shape the society that we live in today, and were key to advancements for the civil rights of African-Americans in this country. Today’s focus will be on Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1957 visit to Grand Avenue Congregational Church, which is now the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center located at 2133 W Wisconsin Ave.
Over the course of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King was known for his incredible oratory abilities. His voice is etched into the history of the Civil Rights Movement, with his passionate speeches about racism, segregation, and equality being the rallying cry for millions of African-Americans across the country. Residents of Milwaukee were lucky enough to witness one such of those speeches at the old Grand Avenue Congregational Church.
Pictured above: The Irish Cultural and Heritage Center that was formerly Grand Avenue Congregational Church.
Built in 1888, what is now the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, was originally the Grand Avenue Congregational Church. Tracing their roots to their split front the First Presbyterian in 1847, the congregation had a long history of progressive thinking, with the abolition of slavery and women’s education being important topics to them. In 1945, by then in their home at 2133 W Wisconsin Ave, the congregation held a joint service with St. Mark’s African Methodist Church. And on August 14, 1957 with the help of the local NAACP chapter, welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King into their doors for what was his first ever speaking engagement in Milwaukee.
Roughly 1,200 people attended Dr. King’s speech that evening, in what the Journal Sentinel later described as “reasoned but passionate”. The then 28-year old Dr. King was in the midst of a heated political battle with Southern White Americans who were arguing in favor of racial segregation. Then Mississippi Senator James Eastland even went so far as to say that 99% of African-Americans supported the idea of segregation. Dr. King responded to that claim by telling the crowd in attendance at Grand Avenue Congregational that “The 50,000 Negroes of Montgomery, Alabama, walked for 381 days and I thought that answered that argument,” King urged the Milwaukee crowd to resist segregation, even if the price was jail or death. True to his belief of non-violent protest however, he reminded the crowd that “the only way forward is by winning the battles of the minds and souls of those who discriminate.” Though still a considerably young man at the time, Dr. King’s message resonated inside all those in attendance that night and spread throughout the city. Inspiring thousands of the city’s residents to organize and fight against the inequalities that they were facing in our own communities.
To hear more about Dr. King’s speech that night click the link below to listen to ICHC Chair member Chuck Lamb:
Dr. King would speak again in Milwaukee a few years later in 1964 in a standing room only event at the Milwaukee Auditorium, now the Miller High Life theater. This time speaking to a crowd of 6,300 Milwaukeeans, after his notoriety grew and the Civil RIghts Movement gained momentum. King’s efforts were integral to the Civil Rights Movement, and he is perhaps the most celebrated champion of the movement. While his name will live on and grow as we continue his fight today, a little bit of his legacy will forever reside right here in the Near West Side.