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Ralph DiGia, War Resister, dies at 93

Announced by David McReynolds and Ed Hedemann…

80 years of activism ends – WWII CO Ralph DiGia Dies at 93

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.
from www.warresisters.org
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 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 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 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.

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War Resisters League
339 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10012
www.warresisters. org
wrl@warresisters. org
wrl at warresisters dot org

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