An obituary for Lifelong New York activist Ralph Digia (December 13, 1914 - February 1, 2008). The Ralph DiGia Fund for Peace & Justice was set up in his honour in 2008.
On, February 1st, I got a call from Ruth Benn that Ralph DiGia, 93, had died at St. Vincent's in New York City. I had visited him recently and sensed he was losing his battle - he had fallen and broken a hip about two weeks before, got an infection in the hospital (hospitals in the US are notoriously dangerous places for the sick and .wounded to go!), and despite rallying several times, died.
Ralph DiGia was of an Italian family, a second generation Italian anarchist. His father was a friend of Carlo Tresca. When the Second World War came. Ralph refused military service and was imprisoned, taking part during that time in the hunger strikes that desegregated federal prisons. Very soon after his release from prison, Ralph, along with Dave Dellinger, Roy Finch, Roy Kepler, and a handful of others who had been in prison or alternative service camps, took over the War Resisters League as a kind of band of ''young Turks", seeking to explore Gandhian nonviolence, and to deepen the program of WRL from resisting war to changing the society that produced war.
It is not a surprise that Ralph was drawn to WRL, which, because it was a secular pacifist organisation, had become a home for young anarchists and socialists. Ralph was a qualified accountant and become the "financial guy" for all the various groups that formed, keeping track of the money. If the term "hidden saint" has a certain truth it was because Ralph did the scut work of the organization. He was not the speaker, not the writer, but always at the centre of the work of WRL, a kind of radical conscience for it, a man who hated internal conflicts, faction fights, who wanted, above all else, to make sure the daily work of the organisation got done.
In 1951, Ralph, along with Dave Dellinger and several others, tried to ride their bicycles across Europe, from France through the "Iron Curtain", to Moscow. They failed to make it through the "Iron Curtain" but it was one of the early efforts, internationally, to use the methods of Gandhi to question the insanity of the Cold War.
In 1955, in the first protest against the Civil Defence Drills by which the government hoped to give the public some confidence they could survive a nuclear war, Ralph was among those arrested, along with A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, and a number of others, for refusing to take shelter in City Hall Park.
Ralph left the drama of the movement to others. He felt that stuffing envelopes was as important as speaking to college students. Keeping the books made the organisation go around. There were times when, I know, he felt impatient at this.
In 1964 he joined the Quebec to Guantanamo Peace Walk, organised by the Committee for Nonviolent Action. This was long before Guantanamo would be become infamous as an American site of torture. It was then a symbol of a US military base in Cuba, a country which had become the target of wrath for the American establishment because it had had a revolution which wouldn't go away. Ralph never got close to Cuba - the team of walkers, which included the late Barbara Deming, was arrested in Albany, Georgia, beaten, and held for, I think, a month, during which time they took part in a serious and prolonged hunger strike.
It was a rough experience for the marchers, an inter-racial team in a state that was fiercely resisting challenges to Jim Crow. Ralph came back to the office and returned to the routine of keeping the books and, of course, of counseling draft resisters.
Ralph was a kind of "non-denominational" radical, who kept on good terms with a range of folks in the midst of the ideological wars of the left. But he was not without clear opinions on key issues.
There were occasional political struggles in which, in my view, Ralph took the right side. In the 1960's WRL voted to fund WIN magazine, a nonviolent" hippy" publication that had been started by a group of young New York pacifists. The Executive Committee was very skeptical about a group of pot-smoking, free-loving youth running our magazine. But Ralph and I were able to carry the day - though at least two members of the Executive Committee quietly resigned.
In large part because of Ralph, WRL went on to play a central role in all of the Vietnam peace coalitions and Ralph, along with Grace Paley, was arrested on the first day of the 1971 Maydays in Washington DC, a time when over 15,000 people, most of them very young, were arrested in a three day period, while the smell of tear gas wafted over the capital, including Georgetown.
Ralph used to work at the office each day long after the rest of the staff had left. He came in on weekends to make sure mailings go out. He was the "boss" of the loose group of us who made up the staff, but a "boss" in such an indirect and gentle way that he held his authority over the rest of us simply by working harder than any of us, and shaming those, including me, who hated the routine work of stuffing envelopes.
Fairly late in life he met and married Karin, and became a family man, trimming his time in the office to a more reasonable burden. When I saw him in the office three weeks ago (and he was still coming in almost every day) I asked how he was doing. "David, I feel so tired. And my memory - it's lousy", Shortly after that he fell and broke his hip, entered the hospital and is now gone.
There will be a memorial - though when I do not know. I do know that a great spirit has moved on. One without pretensions, one who wore his radicalism in his life, not on his sleeve. I am among the hundreds - if not thousands - of people who are lucky enough to say we knew Ralph DiGia.