Milwaukee civil rights leader Vel Phillips passes away at 94

April 19, 2018

Lifelong trailblazer and civil rights advocate Vel R. Phillips died Tuesday, April 17, 2018, leaving a legacy of fighting for equality that has inspired generations.

Phillips, 94, was praised by city leaders as an unwavering voice for justice who deeply changed Milwaukee.

“She was a lonely warrior for a long time,” Mayor Tom Barrett said. “There were others who were behind her, but certainly among elected officials she was at the local level without question the leader.”

Ald. Milele Coggs, whose proposal to create a Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer Award was approved Tuesday morning, called on others to continue her work.

“I will forever reflect on the stories of challenge and triumph that she shared, and in fact there is no better time than now to stand with the same fearlessness and zeal like she did through the years to change society,” Coggs said. “Her tireless and groundbreaking efforts in fair housing will continue to be a beacon of light as we navigate through the (too often dark) political landscape of today.”

Phillips had been suffering from health problems, but news of her death still shook the city.

Milwaukee Public Schools board member and former president Michael Bonds interrupted a debate during a Tuesday night committee meeting to report her death, and called for a moment of silence.

Phillips accomplished many firsts. She was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin law school. She was the first woman — and first African American alderman — elected to the Milwaukee Common Council.

Other firsts followed, including her election as the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and as the first black person elected to statewide office.

And she was always a civil rights activist, believing that civil rights were human rights.

Phillips may have looked like some kind of petite lady, gracious and charming, but opponents soon learned she was anything but a pushover.

On the Common Council, Phillips began introducing an open housing ordinance in 1962. She kept introducing it every 90 days for seven years.

On the streets, she helped lead marchers with the likes of Father James Groppi. The marchers found joy and purpose in solidarity. They knew fear as they faced screaming mobs and abuse.

“They dumped urine on us and rotten eggs,” she said, recalling a march that ended with her arrest. “I was afraid.”

Little by little, she found more support on the council. Mayor Henry Maier, though, believed that open housing would only cause white flight and erode his white support on the south side.

The council finally adopted an open housing ordinance in 1968, less than a month after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

On Tuesday morning, the council had voted to create an annual Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer Award to recognize city residents who best exemplify her legacy of social justice.

The former Velvalea Rodgers attended North Division High School in the 1940s. Decades later, she remembered how hard it was to get into college preparatory courses and the forensics team because teachers and counselors thought such activities would be of no use to blacks.

She won first place in a national Elks-sponsored oratorical contest and that helped finance her education at Howard University.

She met W. Dale Phillips at a party when she was 21 and he was 22 and already in law school. It was something very close to love at first sight.

They eloped on their third date. They remained secretly married, and in name only, until a church wedding 10 months later.

Like her husband, the new Mrs. Phillips wanted to go to law school. She graduated the year after her husband did, becoming the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin law school.

Redistricting in 1955 brought the opportunity for change in city government. Phillips tried to get her husband to run for office, but then took his advice that she should run instead.

“I was always alone in many ways,” Phillips said in a 2000 interview. “I had the burden of representing every African American in the city. No matter where they lived, I was their alderman and they called me — if they had their electricity turned off, if they needed a job, if they wanted a streetlight repaired, whatever.”

By the 1960s, they were the first husband and wife attorney team to practice before Milwaukee’s federal courts.

“Whenever I was the first black, I was also usually the first woman,” she said in a 2002 interview. “And there were certain things you just couldn’t do. You certainly had to bite your lip. And you couldn’t show a tear because that, of course, would be too female.”

She first saw Martin Luther King, Jr., while attending the 1963 March on Washington. She was there as he gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. The two later met when he visited Milwaukee and they often spoke by phone after that, she later said.

“I really didn’t appreciate the value of the conversations we had until after his death,” Phillips said. “He was a warm, easy-to-know person, and I wish I had thought more then about the great fortune I had to know him.”

While serving as a Democratic national committeewoman, Phillips made headlines in 1960, fighting to put more than generalities in the party’s platform.

“Winning isn’t nearly so important as doing the right thing,” she told a southern senator.

Active in the Democratic Party, Phillips received invitations to the White House during both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Phillips once described herself as a “yellow-dog Democrat,” because, as the old saying goes, she would vote for a yellow dog before she would vote for a Republican.

That said, she believed that both parties should be open to all.

She remained a longtime member of the Community Brainstorming Conference, an unofficial gathering of prominent and not-so-prominent residents concerned with local issues. In 2002, she was named to a distinguished professor chair at Marquette University’s School of Law, with the goal of producing a memoir about the civil rights struggle in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee County Children’s Court Center was renamed the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center. Earlier, the YWCA near Teutonia Ave. and Capitol Drive bore her name until it was closed.

The Vel Phillips Foundation was created in 2006.

As she got older, Phillips appeared frail, but she didn’t give up what was important to her. She marched against the war in Iraq. She joined marchers to protest a jury’s acquittal of three former Milwaukee police officers in the beating of Frank Jude Jr. The former judge was among those who called for changes in the justice system.

“This was a movement,” Phillips later said at a commemorative event, “and a movement requires you and you and you. You can’t have a movement without the people.”

The woman who repeatedly made history lived long enough to see others make history, sworn to serve state office and Congress and the federal bench. She lived to see a man named Barack Obama elected president.

Her husband died in 1988. Their son, Dale, also died earlier. Son Michael survives.

Read More About: