Producer Robert Trondson: Why I Had to Tell the Vel Phillips Story

By Tammy Kempfert

If you were mapping American civil rights struggles in the 20th century, you’d likely stick a pin in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. You’d include Topeka, Kansas, where Brown v. Board of Education was waged, and Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, where it was enforced. And you’d have to include Milwaukee, Wisconsin, too.

AlumniLife2_Spring2015A new documentary by Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) situates the 1960s fight for equal housing squarely in Milwaukee — and places Vel Phillips, UW Law School’s first black woman graduate, at its helm.

Produced and directed by Robert Trondson, Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams tells the story of the civil rights icon who championed fair housing in the face of violent resistance from Milwaukee segregationists. Phillips, also the first black woman elected to Milwaukee’s common council, would introduce her citywide open-housing ordinance four times between 1962 and 1967 without success.

With her in the struggle were local activists who braved bricks, tear gas, and racial slurs to cross the 16th Street Viaduct, sometimes referred to as Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon line. For 200 days during the summer of 1967, they marched in protest of the abysmal living conditions in the city’s segregated inner core and of the bigotry that kept them trapped there.
Finally, in 1968, a federal open-housing law was passed shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Phillips’s Milwaukee ordinance followed.

But Dream Big Dreams is more than the story of Phillips’s historic fair-housing victory and her extraordinary career. It’s also a love story. Phillips met and married her husband, Dale Phillips, a World War II veteran, in 1948. The two attended UW Law School together and graduated together in 1951. Soon after they arrived in Madison, white students started a petition to keep the black couple out of Badger Village, university housing created especially for veterans and their families. Phillips would call the racist incident a “shattering experience” — one that may well have laid the foundation for her future activism. When Dale died suddenly after nearly 40 years of marriage, Vel Phillips abandoned plans to run for US Congress. Without her husband, she said, she felt half of her was gone.

Though Phillips eventually returned to a tireless schedule in public service, son Michael Phillips ’04 says, “It’s been two different lives, I think, for her — her life with my father and her life after my dad.”

Featuring archival footage, interviews with family, friends, and historians, and Phillips’s own commentary, Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams premiered on WPT on February 16 and is available for on-demand viewing at Emmy Award–winning actor S. Epatha Merkerson narrates.

We spoke with Trondson about making the film.

What inspired you to tell Vel Phillips’s story, of all the topics you could have chosen for your first televised documentary?
I saw Vel speaking for the first time a few years ago, and she just blew me away: her stories, her history, her style, and more than anything, her vitality. She brimmed with energy and excitement and a still-present drive for justice. I thought to myself, “This is someone we have
to do a documentary on.”

Once I dived into her life, the story just blossomed — her series of “firsts,” her courage at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, her demand for open housing and the violent white reaction to it. It was such a courageous and dramatic story that it basically wrote itself.

What do you most want people to know about Vel?
Two things: first, her courage and her moxie to take on the world. To expect — and demand — that she was to be treated like a person who was just as smart and talented as white people, and white men specifically. Again and again, she challenged societal norms and,
more often than not, won.

Second, she is a wonderfully complex person. Generous and gracious one moment, fiery and demanding the next. She faced down bigotry at UW-Madison back in the 40’s, but she also lost her bid for reelection as secretary of state due to her unethical actions. How did this one person do both? That’s what this documentary is about.

The love story between Vel and husband Dale is so poignant. Tell us a little more about Dale.
During my first interview with Vel, her son, Michael, who is a lawyer in Milwaukee, pulled me aside and told me he felt that his mother’s story would not be complete unless his father was a big part of it. This came to be true.

Dale Phillips was a very smart lawyer in Milwaukee, but he was what they call a “strong, silent type.” He didn’t want to be on the front lines or the front pages. He worked behind the scenes as Vel’s political strategist and her confidante. And during the open-housing marches, when Vel was pulled every-which-way and always in the camera’s eye, Dale was quietly running the house and raising their two boys. Their relationship was truly an anomaly, especially in a time before the feminist movement had truly taken off.

After the premiere on February 16, what are the plans for the documentary?
There are extensive watching and talking sessions happening in Madison, Milwaukee, and throughout the state. The goal is to take this one documentary, this one woman’s story, and bring it into the now and what’s happening all across our state and our nation. We want to get a conversation going that includes young people, old people, all races, all groups. The fight for justice that Vel led continues on today.