Ralph DiGia Fund for Peace & JusticeIllusStainGlass


80 Years of Activism Ends

December 13, 1914 – February 1, 2008

Ralph DiGia, World War II conscientious objector, lifelong pacifist and social justice activist, and staffer for 52 years at the War Resisters League (WRL), died February 1 in New York City. He was 93.

DiGia was “without pretensions, one who wore his radicalism in his life, not on his sleeve,” said his long-time WRL colleague David McReynolds.

In addition to his decades at WRL, DiGia’s activism took him through countless arrests and a stretch in federal prison, thousands of meetings and hundreds of demonstrations, hunger strikes, a bicycle ride across Europe, relief work in Bosnia, and not a few New York Mets baseball games.

80 Years of Activism

Born in the Bronx to a family of Italian immigrants in 1914, DiGia grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A 1927 rally for Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti set him on the path he would follow for 80 years.

At the College of the City of New York, where he was studying bookkeeping, DiGia signed the “Oxford Pledge,” refusing to participate in the coming war. In 1942, when the Selective Service System ordered him to report for induction, he said he was a conscientious objector. But his objections to war were based on ethics, not religion, and the draft board had no category for secular COs. The U.S. attorney’s office referred him to pacifist lawyer Julian Cornell, at the War Resisters League; Cornell lost his case, and DiGia spent the next three years in federal prisons.

It was at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut, and later at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, that he met other draft resisters, like Dave Dellinger, who four decades later would be a defendant in the Chicago Seven case, and Bill Sutherland, who would move to Africa after the war and eventually become a pan-Africanist advocate for nonviolence. And it was in prison that he and other COs would use the only force available to them – a hunger strike – to compel the prison system to integrate its dining halls. (They won.)

After his release at war’s end, he embarked in earnest on a life of activism, joining a New Jersey commune with Dellinger. In 1951, DiGia, Dellinger, Sutherland, and fellow CO Art Emery bicycled from Paris to Vienna, handing out antiwar leaflets as they went, urging Cold War soldiers everywhere to lay down their arms and refuse to fight. In the early 1950s, he left the commune and moved to the Manhattan area that would later be called Soho, where he lived for the rest of his life. (He stayed in an apartment at 18 Spring Street after the building was scheduled for demolition, after other tenants left and even when he had no water and had to shower at a nearby bathhouse.)

In 1955 he joined the WRL staff as a bookkeeper. In the early 1960s, he was arrested more than once for not taking shelter during “civil defense” drills. In 1964 he served four weeks in jail in Albany, Georgia (with, among others, the late peace theorist Barbara Deming) in the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Peace Walk organized by the Committee for Nonviolent Action.

Vietnam and After

As the Vietnam War escalated, so did the WRL and DiGia’s resistance. He sent out literature, paid bills, and kept recordsand organized demonstrations and counseled draft resisters. In 1971when he was among 13,500 arrested in the May Day antiwar actions in Washington he married Karin, becoming stepfather to her children. Their son Danny was born in 1973.

He kept resisting war and militarism. In 1978, when thousands protested nuclear power at Seabrook in New Hampshire, he was there. A year later he was arrested on the White House lawn, demanding nuclear disarmament. He was in Central Park in June 1982 when a million people said “No Nukes!” He was at dozens of demonstrations at the United Nations.

In the early 1990s, as the tensions in former Yugoslavia turned deadlier, Karin DiGia transformed Children in Crisis, a nonprofit she had founded in the 1970s to address the issue of missing children, into a Bosnian relief agency. The work involved traveling several times a year to Bosnia and to Germany, where the agency also had headquarters. DiGia often accompanied her, becoming as beloved a figure in Bosnia as he was in New York.

Into his 80s, DiGia kept accumulating a record: He was arrested in Washington at WRL’s “A Day Without the Pentagon” in 1998 andpossibly for the last timeat the mass protests against the acquittal of the NYPD officers who shot Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999. He continued his work at the WRL office through his 93rd birthday last December, although he had become a volunteer instead of a paid staffer in 1994. He even lived out his activism in the ball park: An ardent Mets fan, he remained seatedon principle during the national anthem.

In 1996, the Peace Abbey, the multi-faith retreat center in Sherburne, MA, gave Ralph its Courage of Conscience award (previously given to civil rights activist Rosa Parks, poet Maya Angelou, and the Dalai Lama), “for his example as a conscientious objector and for over forty years of dedicated service at the War Resisters League.” In 2005, WRL gave its 40th annual Peace Award to DiGia and his longtime colleague, former photographer Karl Bissinger.

This winter, after a fall and hip fracture, he developed pneumonia and died Friday in St. Vincent’s Hospital. Karin and their children were with him when he died.

DiGia is survived by Karin DiGia, his wife of 37 years; their children, Howard, David, Brenda, Melissa and Daniel, his granddaughter Kyla, and his brothers, Robert and Mario.

Read what people have written about Ralph in the New York Times guestbook.

Please leave new comments in the guestbook below.

Written by , updated 12/4/08

1 Comment »

  1. In 1969 I was discharged from the US Navy/Marine Corps. I was a Hospital Corpsman at a MUST hospital, with the 1st Marine Division, in Da Nang, Viet-Nam during the TET offensive of 1968. I can home to NYC a very, very angry, bitter, cynical man. By very good fortune, I wandered into the War Resistors League office on Layayette St. Ralph took one look at me and took me under his wing. We fixed the boiler, we ate dinner, I marveled and learned from the wonderful man. He helped me take my burning rage and direct it into peaceful, anti war and human rights activities. I’ve been following Ralphs example and teachings ever since. You see, Ralph quite literally saved my life.

    PS – I am so pleased that the stained glass hanging that I made for Ralph and which he hung in the window over his desk is displayed here.

    Comment by Peter A. Poccia — April 8, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

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