by Nancy D. Kates and Bennett L. Singer
The world lost a great American on February 1, with the death of longtime anti-war activist Ralph DiGia. Protesting against war is, unfortunately, a task that never ends. It is not glamorous, it pays next to nothing, and yet there are dyed-in-the-wool activists like DiGia who cheerfully persist, decade after decade—in his case for most of his 93 years. He faithfully went to his office at the War Resisters League every day, decades after “officially” retiring from the organization. The New York Times belatedly recognized his contributions in 2003, in an article subtitled: “As Wars Come and Go, Ralph Keeps Protesting.”
We met Ralph DiGia in the course of making our documentary on Bayard Rustin, his colleague from the War Resisters League. (Rustin came of age in the peace movement before finding greater fame as a key strategist of the civil rights movement.) Mr. DiGia did not, alas, make it into our film; his interview was left on the proverbial cutting-room floor. In truth, he was impossible to edit. He would tell stories that took 15 minutes, with nary a pause to breathe. But his stories were glorious—about being taken to a rally at the age of 12 to protest the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, about going to jail as a conscientious objector to World War II and then organizing a prisoners’ strike to protest segregation in the federal prison system, and about serving 30 days for his participation in a ground-breaking 1955 protest against nuclear war. DiGia was one of 28 people, including Rustin, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Rustin’s former employer, pacifist A.J. Muste, who were arrested in Central Park for refusing to participate in a civil defense drill. They argued—quite accurately—that hiding under a desk or cowering in a basement were completely inadequate defenses against a nuclear bomb. If you watch our film, there is the briefest glimpse of a young DiGia marching at this protest.
Already a peace activist, DiGia joined the War Resisters League in 1948, launching his 60 years of work with the organization. He was not discouraged by the movement’s intermittent success, nor did he waver from his dedication to the cause. He loved it, in fact—he said it kept him alive, working with young people in common cause. Like Bayard Rustin, DiGia had great fun being an activist. He seems to have embraced Emma Goldman’s philosophy that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
Despite his white hair and beard, DiGia was never old—he had an impish grin that revealed his youthful, upbeat attitude. We interviewed him on a sweltering New York summer day, about 90 blocks uptown from his apartment. Afterwards, exhausted ourselves, we offered to get him a cab home; it was over 90 degrees and humid, and Ralph was 86 at that point, though he seemed much younger. “I’m an activist,” he explained. “We don’t take cabs. I’ll take the subway.” They don’t make many like that anymore. Go in peace, Ralph DiGia.
–Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer are the co-producers of Brother Outsider: the Life of Bayard Rustin (www.rustin.org). The documentary premiered on PBS and is currently being broadcast on the LOGO cable channel.