Interview with Ralph DiGia at the War Resisters League, New York.
by Philip Metres (1999)
Born in 1914, Ralph DiGia has been a pacifist since the 1930s, when he first signed the Oxford Peace Pledge that he would not fight in any war. He was one of 50,000 American men who refused to serve in the Second World War, but his pivotal experience with other progressive war resisters at Danbury Prison proved to him the possibilities of nonviolent collective action; they made a successful strike to desegregate the prison in 1942. It was the first U.S. prison to be desegregated. Now in his seventies, DiGia has a dynamism and energy that belies his years. In October 1999, I had the opportunity to meet with DiGia in New York, where he showed me around the War Resisters League office; he still volunteers at the WRL, and explained it this way: “In the old days, the milkman used to deliver from a horse and cart, and the horses knew where to stop at because of the routine. I’m like the milkman’s horse.” I asked him how he came to refuse to serve in such a “popular” war, given the fact that so few Americans declared themselves “conscientious objectors” during the World War I. (My questions are in italics below).
Well, my mother and father came from Italy, they were immigrants, my father was a barber, a working class person. He was involved with the Italian American radical movement here, socialists, anarchists, etc. He used to take me to some of the meetings. They were all against fascism (of course they were certainly against Mussolini), and there I learned about the economic system, the rich and poor, who dies in war and stuff like that. So I had that kind of background. I read Norman Thomas’ Is Conscience A Crime? and I went to some lectures by Clarence Darrow. In Norman Thomas’ book, he talks about World War I CO’s, and that’s how I first learned about them. That’s my background with my father, who used to take me to meetings and through him I read some things and went to lectures and that way I certainly became anti-war. That in war, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and that sort of thing. So that was the beginning. When I went to high school and met with some other socialist people and we were anti-war and that’s how I ran into WWI CO’s. Then I went to City College, which was a free college in those days, and it was accused of being Communist by the Hearst papers because it was mostly working class and poor people. In those days, they called it Military Science, now it’s called ROTC, and we used to protest that. In the mid-thirties, the Peace Pledge caught on over here. Students all over the place swore that they would never go to war. It wasn’t a pacifist feeling, it was an anti-war feeling, and also there was a very strong isolationist feeling. They were certainly against World War II. The draft law was passed by a very small minority, I mean it was very close. They had very low support for Congress. So that was my whole background, the way my father influenced me, the way the college influenced me.
Then came the draft, so I registered, filed for conscientious objection. I’d never heard of the War Resisters League. Most of my acquaintances were not religious and didn’t know of any religious groups. My father supported me, my mother [laughs] didn’t want me to go to war and didn’t want me to go to jail. She didn’t want me to go any place. But I had that support. Then of course came Pearl Harbor and then I was drafted. I had a hearing and all that sort of thing, and then was turned down [for CO status] because I wasn’t religious. The definition of religion had changed but that came later after World War, perhaps during the Vietnam War. On the day I was supposed to report for induction, I went down to the U.S. Attorney’s office. I didn’t want my parents to be involved, and I didn’t know whether the FBI would come storming in and I just wanted to avoid all the trouble. He said what can I do for you, and I said, well, I’m a conscientious objector and I’m supposed to report for induction this morning but I’m refusing to go to the induction center. He said, I don’t have any papers, I can’t do anything. I asked what I should do. He said, have you ever heard of Julian Cornell? I said no. He said, he’s a Quaker lawyer and he handles cases for conscientious objectors and you can meet him at the War Resisters League on Stone Street. So the U.S. Attorney gave me the address of the WRL and put me in touch with the War Resisters League. It’s a fantastic story, really. Lawyers, when they’re on opposite sides, they kind of work together. He had other cases with Julian Cornell about CO’s. They don’t confront each other, they cooperate, and that’s why he sent me to the WRL, and I’ve been with the War Resisters League ever since. We appealed our case, but we lost, and I landed in prison.
You must have been scared to go to prison.
Yes I was, I’d seen “Cool Hand Luke.” Yes, I was uneasy, but I tell you this. My father, he supported me all the way, but when it came to jail he said, Ralph, you’re a college person, you’ll get an easy job, you can’t ruin your life. You see in those days it wasn’t like during the Civil Rights movement when it was an honor to go to jail. In this war that wasn’t the case. My father was concerned about my whole future. He said, keep your principles, and go into the Army. It was very hard because I’d been struggling with what I should do. I said, you know Pop, I got most of my ideas from you, you know, and from your friends, and they’re very strong in me, and it’s hard for me and now you’re asking me to give those things up. I find it very difficult to do that. If I go into the Army, I really don’t know what will happen. I was really more afraid of going into the Army. It was against something inside of me. So we ended the discussion there, and I didn’t say what I was going to do, but I just said what I couldn’t do. The next morning my father had gone to work already, and my mother said, your father said you should do what you’re doing. That helped a little.
So in a way, the Army seemed like a worse option than prison.
Yes it did. I didn’t know what would happen. But I knew I had to do this. I mean, all my life I’d been involved in the theory, but when the chips were down, I couldn’t go in. So it didn’t scare me, but I didn’t know exactly what was at stake. After reading about what happened to World War I CO’s, it didn’t encourage me. But anyway, after 1941, when the Divinity Students (among them, longtime nonviolent activist Dave Dellinger) refused, I was just relieved that there were others doing this.
It was a highly publicized case.
Absolutely, it was a headline in the papers. So that’s how I ended up in jail. Of course, once I got in there it was quite different. I went to West Street, and that’s a madhouse down there, God it’s awful. I remember my first visit, but I was more concerned about my parents, because you know, you can handle yourself, but people who love you and worry about you, it’s different. For the visiting, there’s a glass wall and you talk on the phone. My mother died when she saw it. Then I went to Danbury, and it was different, it was for nonviolent white-collar crime. Visiting was open, and the warden would walk through with his dog. And it was clean. That relieved my parents.
I’ve read a lot about the increasing resistance that CO’s showed in Danbury. How did that escalate?
The routine there was getting up at 6 o’clock, then you go to work, and then there’s a yard period after supper. There were a lot of CO’s at Danbury, a couple hundred if not more. We were a majority there. The others were bootleggers, black-marketeers, fraud people. So it wasn’t a tough prison. Later on we went to Lewisburg and that was a different thing. But in Danbury, we got together all the time, and we noticed how dining, the blacks would go this way, we’d go that way. You begin to wonder. It didn’t seem necessary; this was a Northern prison. So we talked about what we could do about it. We decided to ask for a class in Sociology from the Warden and he was very glad because it goes in the books. So we had this class. At this class, we discussed what we could do about this segregation. We had a meeting with the Warden. Alexander was his name, he was kind of a liberal guy and came from a Methodist family. We appointed a committee and then talked with the Warden. We said, this was a Northern prison and this is not the South, and we need to desegregate the dining hall. What he said, and there was some validity to it, was that you don’t reform society in the prison. You do it outside. He said, I agree with you but I can’t do anything about this, the U.S. prisons have a rule for segregation. We argued that it was a special situation and there were a lot of conscientious objectors in this prison. But he put us off, and said he couldn’t do anything about it, it was up to the department in Washington.
So we met and tried to figure out how many of us would be willing to risk parole. Should we strike, should we sit down, should we refuse to work, should we have some kind of a demonstration, should we get more people involved (we had about nineteen). Another thing about it: they had about twelve isolation cells, and we wanted to make sure that we had more than twelve. We decided that after breakfast, to refuse to go to work. One of the CO’s, a black man, Homer Nickels was a religious CO. Atheists and religious, we were all together. I want to interrupt this with an explanation. My father was an atheist, my mother was a Catholic. In my neighborhood, there were mostly barbers, shoemakers, icemen, working class people, and they used to go to Church, and none of them had any interest in radicalism. So I got the impression that the Church was very conservative, and had never done anything anyway. When we got together in the strike, a few of the guys were seminary students, and we used to have these arguments. One of the things I learned, was that, here I was with these people who were religious and yet they were doing the same thing I was doing. I learned to be more tolerant and accepting of people, so I had a very interesting experience. A seminary student said to me, well I thought that if you were an anarchist or an atheist, you didn’t care about anything. I had the same thoughts about people who went to Church. That was a learning experience for me.
So we went on strike, and they didn’t have enough cells, so we were put in a separate floor in a special building. We were isolated from the rest of the community, and could get out twenty minutes per day out in the yard, when no one else was there. All we had to read in the beginning was the Bible. So I read the Bible [laughs]. But we protested that and then later on we got more literature. The strike went on from August until just before Christmas. We had our ups and downs, you know, you get tired when nothing is happening, stuff like that. We did have at the WRL here a group of women who were very active in trying to get in touch with other ministers and have people write letters to Bennett, the director of prisons in those days. They were in touch with Adam Clayton Powell, the Senator, and they created some pressure. Then something appeared in the World-Telegram, and that bolstered our spirits a little. We had these meetings when we were in our cells, and we had to yell under our doors to each other. Some people wanted to leave, some wanted to organize and get more people. We hung in there. Some people did leave, and some joined us. Just a few days before Christmas, we got news that the Warden was coming up to see us. So he came up. He was a personable fellow, started talking about his wife and family, etc. He said, you know, I’m planning to integrate the dining hall on February 1st but you guys are preventing me from doing that. I suggest to you that I’ll do this, but you have to give up the strike. So we had a meeting and debated, argued back and forth. We decided that if he didn’t lift the segregation, we would come back. But on February 1st, the dining hall was integrated. We were very happy.
How did people feel about the integration?
Some whites didn’t like it. There were some blacks who were surly about it, and some others would ask us to stay. Most of the blacks really supported us, though some didn’t care one way or the other. But there was no trouble. After a while, it became normal. No one even thought about it anymore. You came into prison and that’s what it was.
Did you have a sense that race and class were connected at the time?
I wouldn’t say that, because the Italian community was all white. There were no blacks at all, very few. And I wasn’t aware. It was all theory, how blacks were treated. But it wasn’t as strong as it is now or during the Sixties. To be frank, I never thought of it as a race thing. Integration was more like a human thing, you know. Funny, I wasn’t that advanced. Even City College, which was a radical place, was almost all white. We were really segregated then, you know, but I never thought about it then the way I think about it now. It wasn’t really present that this was racism that we couldn’t eat together. I didn’t even think of that word racism, just that it wasn’t right. You don’t win many things in jail.
Do you have any recollections of the poet Robert Lowell, who didn’t take part in the strike?
Jim Peck was after poor Lowell, I felt sorry for Lowell. Jim was after him all the time about Lowell’s uncle who’d given the sentence to Sacco and Vanzetti. By the way, my first demonstration was for Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, it was quite a thing. Jim was a funny guy, he was really after this guy, blaming him, I said why don’t you leave him alone. Lowell was very quiet, did his job. I didn’t have much contact with him because he wasn’t really involved in our activities. But I think he worked in the same gang with Jim, the paint gang or something. Jim wouldn’t let up on him. But he influenced Lowell to go out and discuss the case with the grandfather or something. And I think Jim was after him even after he was out. Lowell didn’t know anything about the case, really, he was a poet and religious. Jim really pushed him, and I think he changed his opinion about the Sacco case. As I say, he was never really active, but he did go to jail, damn it, he did take that stand, shit man. So that was Lowell, Robert Lowell.
What do you remember of Lowell Naeve?
A real personal anarchist. We would have votes, and he wouldn’t vote. We’d say, for God sakes, Lowell, it’s just us, you know, we’re a small group here, eighteen people and you won’t vote? He said, I’m against voting. Okay, Lowell, don’t vote. He was an artist, he is an artist. When we were in jail, we had a way of distributing things under the doors. He published a newspaper called “The Clink.” We took a metal piece from the radiator, put a string on the end, and passed things along that way. We used to read The Nation and other things. We got Life Magazine and he would wash the paper to take the ink off and then we could write on the paper, “The Clink.” He also wrote A Field of Broken Stones with David Wieck. He’s a very quiet guy, very soft-spoken, very determined. He went to jail twice, I think.
Just to finish the prison thing. We went on another strike later on because the CO’s were not getting parole and everybody else was getting parole, especially in Danbury. When you’re in jail, you’ve got to do something, and you do things that maybe you wouldn’t do if you were on your own and making a living. Of course, you get free rent and free food. So we decided to go on strike on Danbury, I don’t know whether it was a good issue or not, but we decided to do it in a very creative way. We thought that instead of all going together at the same time, that we would go every Wednesday one person at a time would refuse to work and keep building our momentum. We made a piece of wood, a number one, and we publicized whoever got the number in their locker would go on strike the next day. So it started, one at a time, a person would refuse to work and be put in isolation. And then, one day, about ten of us were transferred, about five of us went to Lewisburg. Lewisburg is a penitentiary. You know, in prison, if you have a long sentence, you’re really top dog. In Danbury, we had three and five-year sentences, and others had 90 days, so we were top. But in Lewisburg, five years is nothing. You’re way down at the bottom. These people had life sentences for kidnapping, rape, and murder.
They put us into a cellblock where they kept the troublemakers, the tough guys, to intimidate us. About two days later, one of the regulars came over to me and said, you guys are really making it hard for us. The hacks, the guards, are always around here, and now they’re always around here. You guys better get out of here or else. I was way in the back of the cell. The next day, another fellow comes up to me and asks, are you a friend of Dave Dellinger’s? I had never met Dave, but I knew all about him, and I said yes. He said, any friend of Dave Dellinger is a friend of mine. If anything happens to you, let me know and I’ll take care of it. This is not non-violence, you know. Nothing ever happened of course. Most of the CO’s were stuck together and worked together and supported each other, but Dave, if on his work gang, someone got into trouble, Dave spoke up for them, not just CO’s. So he got a good reputation among the regulars. I owe Dave one for saving me.
Then finally we were transferred out of that open cell into a dormitory. Everybody knows who you are, it gets around if you’re a CO. So I got in, and it was a pretty cool reception. It was after supper, and so I just took my stuff and settled in. The lights go out and then all of a sudden my bed is moving and I’m doused with water and I’m getting called all sorts of names, like faggot and coward, etc. I pushed my bed back, and someone said, here comes a hack, and got into bed. The guard comes down and there’s water all over the place, and the guard asks what happened. I said, I’m alright. Then he went away. Of course, that was a very important step, because then some of the guys said that was a damned dirty trick. Then, one of the guys says, let’s move your mattress to Maroni’s bed, he was working at night. I said, no, no, and he said that’s okay. They gave me the dry one. Then Maroni comes back in the morning and says, who the hell did this to my bed? Before this happened, I’d put my clothes in the shower room to dry off, and in the morning I go to get my clothes and Maroni grabs me and says, you’re the son of a bitch that took my mattress. And this guy steps in, and says “I’m the one that did it, what do you want to say about it?” It’s not a nonviolent solution, but it worked.
Once it happened, I was accepted in the group, because I hadn’t ratted on them. I was accepted, even though I was a CO. A lot of the CO’s did help write letters and that sort of thing in prison. We did some good in there. We tried to do something besides just resisting war. Some people were Army people in there sentenced for selling cigarettes, they said sure I was selling cigarettes, but so was the lieutenant. So there was a lot of resentment toward the military. So that’s the story of my prison experience. I got out in June… they hadn’t dropped that damned bomb yet….
It seems like you’ve been involved with the War Resisters ever since.
Well, I joined the organization of course. I was an accountant outside, but then in 1955 they asked me to come in as part of the staff. Before that, we (Dellinger and a few others) had a community out in Glen Gardner, New Jersey. We had talked about it in prison. There were a lot of communities started after World War II by different groups. What we’d figured was that, in order to support each other, we really had to live together as family so that if someone goes to jail, there would be a support group behind them. So we established one with Dave in Glen Gardner, and he had a print shop there. I’d commute from there to my job here.
Could you say something about that bike trip you made, “From Paris to Moscow”?
In 1951, we then decided to have this Peacemaker thing, to go to Germany and the Soviet Union with the message that we four Americans had gone to prison to refuse to fight and wanted to spread the word of nonviolence. Have you ever seen the leaflet? On one side, it was in English, and on the other side it was in French, German, or Russian, depending on where we were. So we decided to go on this trip, “From Paris to Moscow,” it was called. So we went to the German consulate with our leafleting, we were very open about this, who we were and what we wanted to do, just wanted to give out these leaflets. We weren’t taking sides. The German consulate was scared, they didn’t know what we were doing, they really got frightened. We found out later that they asked the Americans and we were turned down right away. Then we went to the Soviet consulate, and he said very good, but you know that the Russian army is the peace army, you know that. We said, all we want to do is pass out these leaflets, and he said he’d see. But we were stalled too long, and we decided to go to Alsace-Lorraine and try to get into Germany from there. And again we went to the consulate, and they turned us down. So we went to the river and set up a tent and we gave out leaflets. The first night we were there, the police came and threw our tents down and drove us out of town. Our lawyer got in touch with the police and they let us back in town. People came around, wanted to give us things, some even wanted to sneak us over the border. We said no, we didn’t want to get deported, and we’d never get a chance to approach the Soviet Union. They were very generous, the French people.
We stayed there for a week and gave up and went to Vienna. That’s where the four nations were, the French, the English, the Americans and the Russians. We’d bicycled from Paris to Strasbourg, then we took a train to Vienna. It was the day after Bobby Thompson hit the home run that beat the Dodgers, and we got to talk with the soldiers about baseball and we got very friendly with them. We asked where the Russian consulate was, and they steered us to a hotel. We later met with the Quakers, and they said, you went to that hotel? People disappear there. Maybe some people disappear but we had no problems. Again the Soviet consul met with us, and again there was a stall. Outside of Vienna there was the Russian camp, and beyond that, the English zone. So it was legal to buy tickets for the English zone, but we had to go through the Russian zone. We told the Quakers what we were doing, and they thought we would be killed or something. There was this general fear around Vienna. Anyway, the four of us get off in the Russian zone and we knew a few words in Russian like “droog” (friend) and “mir” (peace). We split up into twos. We were just giving out leaflets and they were taking them. Then so we went to the barracks and there was no one there and so left a bunch there. An officer passed Bill, and he turned around, and wondered who the hell is this guy. Well, obviously we weren’t Austrians, everyone could tell an American. Then he turned around and kept walking. We went through town a couple of times. We got back, and everyone was amazed that we ever got back safely. We tried to figure out why in hell we weren’t stopped by someone. The only thing that we could come up with was that nobody in his right mind would be doing something illegal there, that we must have had permission from some authority to give out leaflets. If you take people by surprise, then they act as if it’s okay. That was in 1951.
Are there any other specific memories you have of the Vietnam War, and more recently?
During the Vietnam War, when I was here we did a lot of counseling, so I was able to counsel people with my own experience. People would ask whether they should go to jail, go underground, or go to the Army. I would tell them about jail, that it’s not the worst thing that could happen to you. You know, it’s a learning experience, who’s in jail, the poor and the underclass. And you can help people writing letters, I mean it’s not a dead-end place. You can do something positive, at least learn, rather than going into the service or going underground. Going underground is not that easy. You’re always on the run and you change your name and you never know what’s going to happen to you, unless you have that kind of personality, like Abbie Hoffman. So I was able to ease some people’s minds who were going to jail. WRL is a small organization, now about 10,000.
During the Gulf War, we were helpful for people trying to get out of the service. There was a good group from New York City who had signed up in the delayed entry program, and we helped them get out. It’s interesting about being part of the WRL. A lot of the time, you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. But in crisis time, people are really grateful that you’re around. Then you really feel like you’re needed. So we know that we are needed, and that’s a good feeling.
You’ve mentioned that you believed in nonviolence.
Let me put it this way. I see that if we continue building arms and nuclear weapons, we will destroy ourselves. If we stay on the military road, we will be destroying the world. America certainly can’t have any moral leadership when we say that others can’t build the bomb. Why should anyone listen to us? We happen to be the strongest nation, but where is it going to go? I want to live in a better world, and I think that nonviolence is actually practical. Because of Martin Luther King, nonviolence is now known. It might not be accepted, people say it’s too idealistic. But when are we going to recognize where we’re leading? If someone attacks you, that’s one thing. But war is not like personal violence. In terms of personal violence, if you believe in nonviolence, you react nonviolently. If you believe you need a gun to protect yourself, you will act in that way too. Years ago, someone was out on the street attacking someone with a stick, and I went out and started talking with them quietly and they listened to me. I think the spirit of nonviolence allows people to approach different situations with a different attitude. How you handle individual situations is to appear as if you’re not going to hurt the other person. But you can’t say that it works every time. I can’t guarantee it, but it’s a gamble either way. Violence doesn’t work every time. Someone loses.
And no one questions that.
Exactly. Nonviolence is a better road to be on. It’s closer to what we profess to be our ideals, compassion, love, brotherhood and sisterhood.
[Ralph DiGia passed away in 2008. Please visit www.ralphdigiafund.org for more information about his legacy.]