Feb. 13, 2015 – Attorney and civil rights leader Vel Phillips, the state’s first woman and African-American elected Wisconsin Secretary of State, is the subject of a newly released documentary film that chronicles her life, career, and activism.
“Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams,” a film produced by Wisconsin Public Television (WPT), will air Monday, Feb. 16, on WPT and Milwaukee Public Television. The full documentary is also available for viewing online at WBT’s website (trailer here).
The hour-long documentary uses archival film footage and contemporary interviews to chronicle Phillips’ rise to prominence, and the barriers she broke along the way.
The first African-American woman to graduate from U.W. Law School (1951), Phillips broke both racial and gender barriers. She was the first African-American and first woman elected to Milwaukee’s common council, where she served for 15 years.
As a Milwaukee alderwoman, Phillips, now almost 91, is best known for her fight against housing discrimination. She repeatedly introduced fair housing legislation to address segregation and ensure equal housing opportunities for minorities in Milwaukee, a fight that culminated in heated fair housing marches in 1967. The next year, Phillips’ fair housing ordinance passed, a turning point for Milwaukee’s racial divide.
When appointed to the Milwaukee bench in 1971, Phillips became the state’s first African-American judge. In 1978, she became the first African-American woman in the country to be elected to executive state office, as Secretary of State.
“This documentary captures the extraordinary work of Ms. Phillips at a very critical time in our state’s history,” said attorney Michelle Behnke, former State Bar of Wisconsin president (2004-05) and now State Bar Delegate to the ABA House of Delegates. “The courage, determination, and strategy that she exhibited are awe-inspiring.”
“I grew up in Wisconsin and saw her various accomplishments. She was a role model, but I didn’t know the half of what she actually accomplished. I am so happy to see the full history documented for generations to come,” Behnke said.