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Tue, 09.08.2009

Mildred Jeffery, Activist born

Mildred “Millie” McWilliams Jeffrey was born on this date in 1910. She was a white-American civil rights, labor, and woman’s rights activist.

Mildred McWilliams, known as Millie, was born on Dec. 29, 1910, in Alton, Iowa, the eldest of seven children.  Her grandmother, a widow, ran a farm and raised 16 children by herself.  Her mother, Bertha McWilliams, was the first woman to become a registered pharmacist in Iowa in 1908. Her mother also owned a pharmacy in Alton and later in Minneapolis and raised seven children on her own after her husband left the family.

Mildred graduated from Minneapolis Central High School in 1928.  She received her B.A. in psychology at the University of Minnesota, where she immersed herself in the socialist and progressive movements.

In 1934, Bryn Mawr received a master's degree in social economy and social research.  She joined the campus YWCA, which at the time was considered a controversial group for sponsoring interracial dances and attempting to integrate local restaurants. After earning a graduate degree at Bryn Mawr College in 1934, she married a union organizer, Homer Newman Jeffrey, and they traveled the country, organizing textile workers. They divorced in the late 1950s.

She joined the NAACP in the 1940s and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists in the Deep South of the 1960s. Jeffrey's involvement with the YMCA and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom exposed her to the plight of women factory workers who worked long hours for low wages.  She organized the mill workers into the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and gained a reputation as a tough but compassionate labor leader.

In 1962, she arranged for her daughter, Sharon, and a group of politically active University of Michigan students, Tom Hayden, to use an AFL-CIO camp on Lake Huron.  The students issued the Port Huron Statement, the prototype to the antiwar Students for a Democratic Society.

Jeffrey made many female firsts possible.  She also served on the Wayne State University Board of Governors from 1974 to 1990.  During this time, Jeffrey, the first woman to head a United Auto Workers department, helped create the Democratic vice-presidential and history-making candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.  In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saluting her for championing civil and labor rights.

Mildred Jeffery died on March 25, 2004, of natural causes. She was 93 and passed away at a Detroit-area care facility with her family present.

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