Ralph DiGia, lifelong war resister, dead at 93

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Ralph DiGia, lifelong war resister and pacifist, died Feb. 1 in New York City, days after breaking his hip in a fall. Ralph, 93, was a leading figure in the War Resisters League, one of the United States’ oldest anti-war groups, for more than two generations. He joined the organization shortly after the end of World War II and his release from federal prison, where he had served a term for refusing military service as a conscientious objector.

An associate of AJ Muste, Bayard Rustin, Dave Dellinger, Barbara Deming and other anti-war voices of his generation, Ralph held key posts over the years with both WRL and Liberation magazine. A statement on the WRL website says, “While Ralph was not a public speaker or a writer, he played a key a role within the radical pacifist movement, and was central to many of the major antiwar actions of the past six decades.”

He is survived by his wife, Karin DiGia, his children, and his two brothers. (WRL statement, Feb. 2)

A profile of Ralph DiGia in the New York Times of March 22, 2003 read:

Mr. DiGia grew up on the Upper West Side, the son of an immigrant barber. In 1927, when Mr. DiGia was 12, his father took him to a rally protesting the imminent execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, whose murder trial centered on their radical political beliefs.

“My first demonstration,” Mr. DiGia said, smiling.

In 1941, Mr. DiGia received his draft notice, but reported instead to the United States attorney’s office to announce that he was a conscientious objector. After being convicted of failure to report for induction in 1943, he was sent to a federal penitentiary in Danbury, Conn., where he helped lead a successful effort to integrate the prison dining hall.

Mr. DiGia served 28 months in prison and returned to New York, where he got a job with a small accounting firm and started volunteering at the War Resisters League. A decade later, in 1955, the league hired him to keep the books and he has been a part of the organization ever since…

Through the decades, he has participated in hundreds of demonstrations against American wars and policies. He vaguely recalled that the last of his many arrests was at the United Nations, but he vividly remembered the 30-day sentence he got for protesting the country’s civil defense drills in the mid-1950’s. He can talk about the FBI files (“Stuff like, ‘Ralph DiGia drove up in a Chevrolet and started passing out leaflets'”), as well as about the time the office was ransacked.

“It’s almost like being selfish,” he said finally. “It makes me feel good. It’s meaningful to me. Otherwise, what would I be doing? Supporting these terrible things?”

Among the many antiwar stickers adorning the office, there is one for the Mets. Ralph DiGia, pacifist, is also Ralph DiGia, baseball fan, who has learned to combine passions when attending Mets games at Shea Stadium: cheer for the home team, but do not stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“We sit, the others stand, and the game goes on,” he said.

See our last posts on the anti-war effort, war resistance and World War II conscientious objectors.

  1. WWII C.O. Ralph DiGia dies at 93
    From War Resisters League:

    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 ’50s, 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 ’60s, he was arrested more than once for not taking shelter during the “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-Guantánamo Peace Walk organized by the Committee for Nonviolent Action.

    Vietnam and After
    As the Vietnam War escalated, so did the WRL’s—and DiGia’s—resistance. He sent out literature, paid bills, and kept records—and organized demonstrations and counseled draft resisters. In 1971—when 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 1977, 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 ’90s, as the tensions in former Yugoslavia turned deadlier, Karin DiGia transformed Children in Crisis, a nonprofit she had founded in the ’70s 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 and—possibly for the last time—at 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 seated—on 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. Contributions in his memory may be made to the War Resisters League.

  2. Sue and I always found Ralph
    Sue and I always found Ralph a delightful person. And he was a tireless worker for the cause. And lacking in all pretensions.