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Editorial: So many reasons to honor Vel Phillips

Editorial: So many reasons to honor Vel Phillips

Vel Phillips (copy)

Vel Phillips was the first African American woman to graduate from the UW-Madison School of Law in 1951. She became a leader in the civil rights movement and was Wisconsin’s first African American secretary of state.

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Last June, after the “Forward” and Col. Hans Christian Heg statues on the Capitol grounds were felled during demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd, The Capital Times argued: “The statues have been recovered and should be restored to their places of honor. They speak to historic ideals of justice that need to be remembered and maintained. They should be joined by new statues that recognize those who brought those ideals into the 20th century, such as former state Rep. Lloyd Barbee, a courageous champion of civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s, and former Secretary of State Vel Phillips, a pioneering African American political leader.”

The proposal for a statue honoring Phillips, who died in 2018 at age 94, took off. Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County, began advocating for the idea. Legislators embraced it. Even the conservative Wisconsin State Journal got on board. Last week, the state Capitol and Executive Residence Board subcommittee voted unanimously to recommend the placement of a statue of Phillips on the Capitol grounds.

The subcommittee’s recommendation also proposes to waive a prohibition on the addition of new statues without removing existing ones. And it suggests Radcliffe Bailey, a New York-based artist who designed a Milwaukee monument to NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois, be commissioned to develop the Phillips statue.

While there are a few more steps to be taken, all indications are that Wisconsin will honor the first Black Wisconsinite to be elected to statewide office.

In 1951 Vel Phillips was the first Black woman to graduate from the UW Law School. Five years later, in 1956, the 32-year-old Phillips was the first woman and the first Black Milwaukeean to be elected to that city’s common council.

The Milwaukee municipal election of 1956, the last in which the city elected a Socialist mayor — Frank Zeidler — drew national attention. It instantaneously made Phillips a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, which was playing out not just in the “Jim Crow” South but in the segregated cities of the North. Noting that “it took 110 years for them to get a woman or a black person” on the City Council, Phillips described her election as a “double whammy” for racial and gender equity.

Suddenly, as a friend of Thurgood Marshall, an associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and an essential ally of John Kennedy, Phillips found herself in the vortex of local, state and national history.

As a city official, she joined marches for open housing and fair employment, and she was arrested when the police cracked down on the nonviolent demonstrations. Phillips — who was hoisted onto the shoulders of civil rights activists who marched during Milwaukee’s “long hot summer” of 1967 — could probably have avoided the arrests. But she wanted to make a point about standing in solidarity with the people she represented, and about the need to make real the constitutional promise that all Americans have a right to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances.

A few years later, as the first woman jurist in Milwaukee County and the first African-American judge in Wisconsin, she could make this point from the bench.

That was in the early 1970s. By the end of the decade, she had, with her 1978 election as Wisconsin secretary of state, added to the long list of “firsts” associated with her name.

It is often noted that Phillips was the second woman (after former state Treasurer Dena Smith) and the first Black person elected to statewide office. But it is of greater note nationally that, on the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics list of Black women who have been elected to statewide executive posts, the first name is that of “Velvalea ‘Vel’ Phillips (D-WI).”

When Phillips was elected secretary of state in November 1978 as a Democrat, Republican Lee Sherman Dreyfus was elected governor on a ticket with Russ Olsen for lieutenant governor. Under the Wisconsin Constitution, the secretary of state followed the lieutenant governor in the gubernatorial line of succession.

Dreyfus was a moderate Republican, Olsen was a conservative Republican, and Phillips was a very liberal Democrat. There was not a lot of communication between the offices during Phillips' single contentious term, and no one mentioned to the secretary of state in March 1979 that Dreyfus and Olsen were both planning to attend a Republican Party function in Indiana. But once the two Republican officials had left, Phillips was informed that she was the acting governor of Wisconsin.

"I think they should have notified me, especially since they both knew in advance that they were going," Phillips announced. But she wasn’t complaining. In fact, she delighted in her sudden, if fleeting, authority. "It's kind of fun,” she told reporters, noting that she had considered extending the term of the Commission on the Status of Women, which Dreyfus had said he might let expire. “I thought to myself that I should do something,” she explained, “(but) anything I did, he (Dreyfus) could undo it when he got back."

Only as the weekend of her acting governorship was winding down was Phillips informed that she had made a rather striking bit of history. “She said it had not occurred to her that she had logged another first by becoming the state's first Black female acting governor,” reported the Associated Press.

In fact, she had, without fanfare, briefly served as one of the first Black women chief executives of any state in the nation.

Add that to the long list of reasons why Wisconsin can and will honor Vel Phillips.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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