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Historical Note

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Collection
Title:Phyllis M. Ryan papers
Dates:1959-1988 (bulk 1961-1988)
Call Number:M94

Historical Note

Phyllis Milgroom Ryan was born in Chelsea, MA on July 2, 1927. She died of complications from multiple sclerosis on May 5, 1998. She was the youngest of two daughters born to Russian Jewish immigrants Arthur and Elizabeth Milgroom. The family moved to Brookline, MA early in her life, and she attended the Brookline public schools, graduating from Brookline High. The Milgroom family was active in the local Jewish community and attended Temple Ohabei Shalom.

Ryan graduated from Northeastern University in 1950, majoring in English. She wrote for the Northeastern News, belonged to the Silver Masque theatre group and acted in numerous plays, won a short story contest, and was the first woman to win a public speaking prize at Northeastern University. Her career as a political activist began there as well; she was a member of Students for [Henry] Wallace in 1948 and led a seminar on collegiate political activism.

Upon graduation, Ryan began work as a psychiatric social worker in the Massachusetts state mental health system. In 1951, she married William J. Ryan, Jr. with whom she shared her passion for social justice and collaborated with in political action for the next several decades. After the birth of her only child in 1954, Ryan worked part time leading a therapeutic theater group at a local community center.

Ryan's first major accomplishment in the arena of civil rights was a successful effort to increase public awareness of housing discrimination. In 1959 she became the public relations chairperson of the Fair Housing Federation of Greater Boston. By the early 1960's she was a media advisor and public relations person for such organizations as Boston Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Massachusetts Freedom Movement, and the Boston chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was deeply involved in strategic planning and negotiations as well as the practical details of organizing non-violent direct actions such as picketing, sit-ins, and rallies.

Highlights of her Boston organizing and public relations efforts include:

• Participating in the movement for school integration in the Boston public schools, including two School Stayouts/Freedom School days, picketing and vigils in front of the Boston School committee, and work with local political and civic leaders to pressure the legislature and governor to end de facto segregation in the schools in the 1960s.

• Coordinating the many campaigns by Boston Congress on Racial Equality against substandard housing and discriminatory hiring practices during the 1960s.

• Organizing protest rallies, marches, and sit-ins including the rally of 30,000 people on the Boston Common to protest the Birmingham church bombings in the 1960s.

• Building the Coalition against Political Extremism to oppose Barry Goldwater and influence the civil rights planks of local politicians, in particular Governor John Volpe and Lieut. Gov. Frank Bellotti. Through voting analysis, this effort demonstrated the strength of the political base of the civil rights coalition and gained credibility and access to state leaders as a result during the mid 1960s.

• Organizing the visit to Boston by Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1965. Dr. King led 50,000 people in a March on Boston and addressed the state legislature and Ryan's synagogue, Temple Israel. She collaborated closely with Andrew Young, Dr. King's aide, in crafting Dr. King's local speeches to address local issues and spent many hours with Dr. King, briefing him on local issues and local leaders and personalities. She helped organize a massive public relations and fund raising campaign for this event and helped to negotiate the state proclamation of April 23rd as Martin Luther King Day.

• Organizing a Coalition of Concerned Citizens in New Haven, Conn. that united concerned suburbanites and Yale faculty with inner city black leaders in protesting police repression of local black leadership, misuse of urban renewal funds, and the failure to enforce housing codes. Ryan and her husband were arrested for picketing the home of the local housing official and years later won a suit against the New Haven police department for its illegal wiretapping of numerous politically active New Haven citizens.

• Participating in and publicizing the Massachusetts prison reform movement throughout the 1970's including the unprecedented civilian observer program at Walpole state prison.

Phyllis Ryan also was active in a number of national campaigns, including:

• Coordinating participation from Massachusetts in nonviolent demonstrations led by Dr. King and Southern Christian Leadership Conference in such cities as Selma, Williamston and St. Augustine.

• Garnering support in Massachusetts for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

• Strategic planning and negotiation in support of Dr. George Wiley's successful campaign to defeat President Nixon's 1972 "forced work" welfare plan.

• Massachusetts Senators Brooke and Kennedy were key allies in this fight, and their support was leveraged by Massachusetts civil rights leadership. Ryan managed press coverage of this effort in addition to her behind the scenes efforts. She actively supported Wiley's National Welfare Rights Organization.

Ryan was deeply persuaded of the moral rightness of the causes she supported, seeing not a multiplicity of causes but a single quest for justice. She also firmly believed her work was the practical living out of her Jewish faith. In addition to her work for civil rights organizations, Ryan was also active in encouraging Jewish-Christian relations. She served on the board of Packard Manse, an interfaith group and facility, from 1970 to 1972.

Ryan continued to consult with a new generation of community organizers and activists after she became bed-ridden in the late 1970s with a severe case of progressive multiple sclerosis. Her last public battle was a very local one. As a disabled resident of Newton, MA, Ryan successfully rallied local politicians to make the public lake wheelchair accessible.

Of note was her commitment to political discipline, in which all members of a negotiating team have their prearranged roles; only certain leaders communicate with the press, and personal relationships and the exchange of favors are discouraged. Ryan maintained this discipline and remained a background figure and a volunteer during her many years of activism. She sought to transmit her approach to seeking social change to the many younger people for whom she was a tireless mentor and advisor.

This biography is based on one written by Phyllis M. Ryan's daughter, Elizabeth Ryan Yuengart in July 2003.