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S.C. activist Victoria DeLee risked life for racial progress

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; C07

Victoria DeLee, 85, a South Carolina civil rights leader who battled bigotry and gunfire as she led voter registration drives and helped desegregate schools in her home state, died June 14 at her home in Ridgeville, S.C. She had complications from brain surgery.

Mrs. DeLee, who had witnessed a lynching when she was 12, began her civil rights crusade in the 1940s, when she overcame official obstacles to register to vote. In spite of repeated death threats, she continued her fight for decades "unbought, unbossed and unsold," as she put it.

Little known beyond her state's borders, Mrs. DeLee had a historical significance similar to that of Daisy Bates in Arkansas and Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi. She participated in civil rights marches, including the 1963 March on Washington, and was friends with Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. She was profiled in a 1971 New Yorker magazine article written entirely in the dialect of her spoken voice.

Describing her attempt to register to vote in Dorchester County, near Charleston, S.C., in 1947, Mrs. DeLee recalled that the registrar asked her to read an entire book. When she finished it, she said, " 'Give me my registration certificate.' I said, 'If you don't -- I says -- 'Mister, it's goin' to be trouble.' "

Mrs. DeLee was the mother of seven, raised three other children and worked as a school maintenance supervisor. Still, she managed to register thousands of voters and established a day-care center and a school to teach literacy skills to black and American Indian residents.

In 1964, she began efforts to integrate South Carolina's segregated public school system by trying to enroll her children in all-white schools. Her family became the target of harassment, and Mrs. DeLee and her children slept on mattresses on the floor to avoid being hit by bullets fired through their windows. Her house was burned down in 1966.

"We couldn't go out in the daytime or sleep at night," she said in the New Yorker article. "My house, before they burned it down, looked like a polka-dotted dress. Every kind of bullet hole was in that house."

In 1970, she sought protection from the Justice Department after receiving mailed threats warning of "booby traps in your home and car." They were signed, "your loving friends, the KKK."

Mrs. DeLee made frequent visits to Washington to see congressmen and federal officials and in 1971 made a third-party bid for Congress. She once staged a sit-in at the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) but later reconciled with the senator, a onetime segregationist.

"I'm for whoever is getting the job done, and Strom is getting the job done," she said in 1972. "What a man was yesterday doesn't matter. It's what he is today that counts."

In 1969, Mrs. DeLee came to Washington with a busload of Southerners to demand a meeting with Attorney General John N. Mitchell. She and her group waited all day at Mitchell's office, refusing to leave until the attorney general agreed to see them.

"When I go there to see somebody, I just don't take no for an answer," Mrs. DeLee said. "If I go to see the Attorney General and they say, 'Well, I'm sorry, he's up on the Hill,' I say, 'Well, that's all right. I'll stay right here till he come down off the Hill.' They say, 'Well, you haven't made an appointment.' I say, 'Appointment the devil!' "

Victoria Way was born April 8, 1925, in Dorchester County, S.C., and was the daughter of sharecroppers. She worked in the fields as a girl.

After her early voter registration battles, Mrs. DeLee grew disenchanted with South Carolina's Democratic Party, which she considered part of the state's entrenched white power structure.

She helped found the United Citizens Party in 1969 to represent political outsiders. In 1971, she ran under its banner in a special election for the U.S. House of Representatives, finishing third.

During her later years, she took part in various community projects and was a leader in her local branch of the NAACP. In 2006, she spoke of her civil rights work for a University of South Carolina oral history project.

She was married for 52 years to S.B. DeLee, who died in 1996. A daughter, Dorethia Seawright, died June 11.

Survivors include six children; 20 grandchildren; and 27 great-grandchildren.

In the New Yorker article, Mrs. DeLee revealed a shrewd, squeaky-wheel understanding of how to get Washington officials to listen to her pleas: "I found out one thing: writin' letters and phone calls don't get action. Best way to get action: go there. They can't stand to see you comin' there. They'll act like they're glad to see you, but it's not. And when you come there, they will do things for you to get rid of you."

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