Volume 77 / Number 37 - Feb. 13 - 19, 2008 West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Ralph DiGia, 80 years of activism and resistance; 93

By Judith Mahoney Pasternak

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

This winter, after a fall and hip fracture, DiGia had developed pneumonia. He died in St. Vincent’s Hospital.

DiGia was “without pretensions, one who wore his radicalism in his life, not on his sleeve,” said David McReynolds, a longtime W.R.L. colleague.

In addition to his decades at W.R.L., 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.

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 NicolaSacco 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 C.O.’s. 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 C.O.’s 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 C.O. 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, DiGia 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 St. 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 W.R.L. 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, Ga. — with, among others, the late peace theorist Barbara Deming — in the Quebec-Washington-Guantánamo Peace Walk organized by the Committee for Nonviolent Action.

As the Vietnam War escalated, so did the resistance by W.R.L. and DiGia. He sent out literature, paid bills and kept records for W.R.L. 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 his wife Karin, becoming stepfather to her children. Their son Danny was born in 1973.

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!”

In the early ’90s, as the tensions in former Yugoslavia turned deadlier, Karin DiGia transformed Children in Crisis — a nonprofit group she had foundedin 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.

Into his 80s, DiGia kept accumulating a record: He was arrested in Washington at W.R.L.’s “A Day Without the Pentagon” in 1998 and — possibly for the last time — at the mass protests against the acquittal of the New York Police Department officers who shot Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999. He continued his work at the W.R.L. office in Noho through his 93rd birthday last December, although he had become a volunteer instead of a paid staffer in1994. He even lived out his activism in the ballpark: An ardent Mets fan, he remained seated — on principle — during the national anthem.

In 1996, the Peace Abbey, the multifaith retreat center in Sherburne, Mass., gave DiGia 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 40 years of dedicated service at the War Resisters League.” In 2005, W.R.L. gave its 40th annual Peace Award to DiGia and his longtime colleague, former photographer Karl Bissinger.

He is survived by his wife, Karin DiGia; 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, 339 Lafayette St., New York, N.Y., 10012.

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