Remembering Civil Rights and Women’s Rights pioneer Vel Phillips

My daughter Olivia texted me this afternoon that Vel Phillips had died. Mrs. Phillips deserves the many superlatives used to describe her. She was a pioneer, giant, and lifelong fighter in the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights.

Honoring her often begins with her legendary firsts: first African American woman to graduate from University of Wisconsin law school in 1951; first woman and first African American elected to the Milwaukee city council in 1956; first woman judge in Milwaukee county in 1971; and first woman and first (and to this day only) African American ever elected to statewide office in 1978.

Honoring her also requires recognizing her immense courage and tenacity in helping lead the fight for civil rights in Milwaukee through her advocacy, protests, and marches that led to fair housing and other civil rights victories. The effectiveness and legacy of her activism is captured well in Patrick Jones’s The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee and the documentaries Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams (which you can stream).

She never stopped. In her 80s she was still advocating, agitating, and showing up at public meetings and protests. She was always present and active in Milwaukee. I first met her while leading Public Allies, and she was excited that we were developing young leaders to work for social change. She visited and spoke to many classes of Allies, and her stories, passion, and continued fight was always an inspiration to all of us.

There are two stories, though, that I will always treasure.

In 2007, I helped organize then Senator Barack Obama’s first visit to Milwaukee as a Presidential candidate. We organized two events – a $25 person event at the 4,000 seat Milwaukee theater and a high dollar fundraiser at the home of Dan Kohl (currently running for Congress in Wisconsin). We sold both events to capacity. It was such an exciting time.

As we were finalizing the events, I was asked if I wanted to bring any guests. I decided to bring two  – my almost 7 year old daughter Olivia and Vel Phillips. I could not imagine a more fitting way to begin Barack Obama’s first visit to Milwaukee as a Presidential candidate than to be welcomed by our city’s great civil rights pioneer.

I called Dan Kohl and asked him if he would support my wish to bring Vel Phillips to his fundraiser. We had decided for this fundraiser that we would not allow any elected officials or others to attend for free because we were worried about a slippery slope. Dan enthusiastically agreed that she could be the one exception to our rule. In fact, his son had just written an essay about her in school, and he was thrilled his son would meet her.

I picked up Mrs. Phillips at her condo and drove her down to the Milwaukee Theater with my daughter. As we waited for Senator Obama backstage, I encouraged Olivia to ask questions. Olivia asked her “Did you ever meet Rosa Parks?” Mrs. Phillips replied, “Yes, of course” and proceeded to tell her a story. Then with wonder in her eyes, Olivia asked “Did you ever meet Martin Luther King?” Mrs. Phillips again charmed her with a story about Dr. King, and then told Olivia she was proud of her for knowing who they were and that she hopes Olivia will be a great leader some day.

Soon after that Senator Obama arrived. Perhaps missing his own daughters on the trail, he picked up Olivia and walked around holding her for a bit. After our visit, I took Olivia to sit with her maternal grandmother who was in the audience. When Olivia saw her grandmother, she excitedly announced “You won’t believe who I just met!” Her grandmother replied, “I know. You met Barack Obama.” Olivia responded incredulously: “No, I met Vel Phillips and she knew Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King!” I tear up writing this. It was 11 years ago yesterday.

Vel Phillips and Olivia April 17, 2007


My second story is also from the campaign. I had engaged Mrs. Phillips in several other events, and we talked fairly often. She was “fired up and ready to go,” and was all in at the age of 84 to electing Obama President. Our last event of the campaign in Wisconsin was a house fundraiser with Michelle Obama a few weeks before election day. Once again the hosts and staff agreed that there would be no free tickets. The event sold out.

On the Sunday morning before the event, Mrs. Phillips called me and asked if she could attend. I told her that this time it probably could not happen. The event was oversubscribed and the staff and hosts said there would be no comps. I told her I would still see what I could do. About 15 minutes later, my cell phone rang. It was former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Ambassador Pat Lucey, who was 90 years old. He asked me if I could help his friend Vel Phillips get into the event with Mrs. Obama. This was so 1970s! I explained the situation, and he said he would arrange for another donation to the campaign so she could attend. I called the staff, and they added her to the list. I should have known that “no” was not an answer Vel Phillips accepted.

It meant so much to me that my daughter first heard and shared the news of Mrs. Phillips’ passing with me. She is about to turn 18 and is also a passionate, intelligent, and fierce young activist for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and human rights. I am grateful she met such a remarkable role model, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to spend time with her, learn from her, and laugh with her. She bent the arc of history further toward justice, and it will bend further because of all of the people she inspired, mentored, and paved the way for. We stand on the shoulders of giants.