The recent passing of Vel Phillips at the age of 94, left me reflecting on the life of an incredibly accomplished woman that persevered despite the many challenges she faced as a black woman in pre-civil rights America.
don’t recall the exact occasion when I first met Vel but I do remember I was a young girl and I accompanied my late father to a protest where mainly African Americans were present. She stopped to say hello to my father, who she addressed as “Mike,” that was the nickname he used when he did not want to spend time teaching people how to pronounce”Mahmoud,” which required some of the more difficult Arabic sounds not found in the English language. I was struck by how petite she was, yet how she walked with such confidence, head held high.
Over the years, I saw her at different events, always walking and talking with confidence and a sense of purpose. Her work in empowering the African American community and giving them a voice against inequality made her a very respected public figure. She is known as a woman of “firsts” in Wisconsin. She was the first African American woman to earn a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. She was the first African American and the first woman to serve on the Milwaukee Common Council. She was the first female judge in Milwaukee and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. In 1978, Vel Phillips made history as the first woman and first African American elected as the Secretary of State in Wisconsin. She was also the first African American elected to the National Committee of a major political party.
Although I saw Vel at a variety of events, I did not actually have a long conversation with her until about a dozen years ago. I was co-chairing the Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and she was in attendance. After the program, I went to shake her hand and she pulled me to sit down in the seat next to her. She began by asking a few questions about the program and then began speaking about many of the shared challenges that the African American and Muslim community share.
She said that almost every African American family in America has at least one member, no matter how extended, who is Muslim. She said Muslims should never settle for inequality or let hate crimes go unchecked. She said people have to fight for their rights because no one is going to just give it to you. She certainly walked the talk and should serve as a role model not only for African Americans but also for Muslim Americans, Latino Americans and all others. Rest in peace, Vel.
February 18, 1923 – April 17, 2018