Thursday, July 1, 2010

Civil rights activist Victoria DeLee, 1925-2010

"I found out one thing: writin' letters and phone calls don't get action. Best way to get action: go there. They can't stand to see you comin' there. They'll act like they're glad to see you, but it's not. And when you come there, they will do things for you to get rid of you." - Victoria DeLee, 1971

Civil rights activist Victoria DeLee was born in South Carolina in 1925. She was a fierce activist in her home state, working throughout her life for the human rights often denied her as a black woman. In her lifetime, registering to vote, enrolling her children in school, pursuing political office, and demanding accountability from her congressional representatives were radical acts of protest that effected real change. She died in the state she dedicated her life to bettering on June 14th, of complications from brain surgery. Her eighty-five-year lifespan, as she described it, was "unbought, unbossed and unsold," and a model for all of us looking to make a difference.

Victoria DeLee first came to attention when she registered to vote in 1947. Exercising the electoral racism of pre-Civil Rights Act voting laws, the registrar required her to read an entire book. When she finished, she said, " 'Give me my registration certificate... If you don't -- I says -- 'Mister, it's goin' to be trouble.' " Throughout the next two decades, she registered thousands of voters.

As with many women leaders, Ms. DeLee’s motherhood was central to her activism. She raised ten children (seven her own), and organized day-care and literacy centers for black and Native American citizens. She began the fight to integrate South Carolina public schools in 1964 when she attempted to secure enroll her children in all-white schools.

The DeLee family faced not only death threats but physical violence for their attempts to acquire fair, quality education. She and her children slept on the floor to avoid bullets. “"We couldn't go out in the daytime or sleep at night," she said. "My house, before they burned it down [in 1966], looked like a polka-dotted dress. Every kind of bullet hole was in that house." Soon after that, she sought government protection when she received bomb threats from the KKK.

In 1969, Ms. DeLee helped to found the United Citizens Party in response to the South Carolina Democratic Party’s ban against black candidates. In 1971, the year before Shirley Chisholm ran for president, she campaigned for a seat in the House of Representatives with the UCP.

Ms. DeLee was also notable for her confrontation of Washington players. She was part of sit-ins at the offices of John Mitchell and Strom Thurmond, whom she later worked with. "When I go there to see somebody, I just don't take no for an answer," Mrs. DeLee said. "If I go to see the Attorney General and they say, 'Well, I'm sorry, he's up on the Hill,' I say, 'Well, that's all right. I'll stay right here till he come down off the Hill.' They say, 'Well, you haven't made an appointment.' I say, 'Appointment the devil!' "

Victoria DeLee is proof of the power of local activism and community organizing; her life and work show that fighting for one’s personal human rights is a powerful political statement. Ms. DeLee is not a woman I’ve heard of before, and not one that was commemorated in any social justice blogs I read. But her life and work are deserving of recognition and the utmost respect. Our generation of activists is far from the first; we need to remember and honor the accomplishments of Ms. DeLee and other women who fought for freedom and equality.

This post is based on Mike Schudel's excellent obituary. The picture of Ms. DeLee is from the same source.

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