Elsie Dickerson: Philly trade unionist, civil rights advocate, and Party leader

BY:Rookie Perna| February 23, 2022
Elsie Dickerson: Philly trade unionist, civil rights advocate, and Party leader


The following was adapted from a memorial tribute given on Feb. 28, 2006.

To many in the Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware District of the Communist Party, Elsie was a mentor and a teacher. Whether it was in the Party, in the many mass organizations in which she participated or on the shop floor, where she worked for 30 years, Elsie’s most valuable contribution was made based on her understanding of the need for unity. She was a staunch fighter for her class and her people.

Elsie came to the Communist Party in the 1940s when the then Daily Worker was distributed in her neighborhood. Along with the paper, circulators carried a petition calling for the elimination of the “whites only” clause in Major League baseball. Being a sports fan, this got her attention. Soon those who distributed the paper asked if Elsie would host a small meeting in her home. Elsie joined the Communist Party as a result of the discussions that took place in these meetings. She was very proud of the role her Party played in the struggle to integrate baseball.

Elsie said that being a Communist made her a better trade unionist. She worked in a factory that produced celluloid gaskets for Campbell Soups. The majority of the workers in the plant were African American women. The hours were long and the pay was low. Elsie had the ability to teach and convince others for the need for a union in the plant. She was instrumental in the organization of Local 186 of the Food, Tobacco and Allied Workers Union.  When a second plant was opened, she helped organize this plant as well. She became shop steward, then chief shop steward, and was eventually elected as president of the local.

In the 1960s, Elsie became chairperson of the Independent Citizens Committee, an independent political organization launched by the Communist Party that organized massive voter registration, ran candidates, and launched a massive campaign to defeat ultra-conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. In those years the only way to register to vote was to go before a sitting registrar. The ICC was successful in getting the city to provide traveling registrars, and they succeeded in going into neighborhoods where the Democratic Party feared to tread. The ICC under Elsie’s leadership helped change the whole political character of Philadelphia.

Elsie led in the fight to build the 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., March on Washington. When local organizations were slow to move in mobilizing a delegation from Philadelphia, Elsie called on A. Phillip Randolph to come into the city to help spur the activity. His visit resulted in a delegation from Philly of 40,000, the largest delegation in the country. Elsie encouraged every Party member and every member of the youth organization to go door-to-door selling bus tickets and raising money for those who could not afford to go to Washington for that historic march.

Elsie was a deeply religious woman. She had a deep love of her church and she saw a strong connection between her religious and political beliefs.

In 1967 Elsie was elected chairperson of the Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware District of the Communist Party. She held that position until 1994 when her health began to fail. However, her declining health did not stop her. She continued to attend meetings and mentor those who came into leadership. During her time in leadership in the district, Elsie also served on the National Committee of the Communist Party and its National Board.

Elsie was born the second of six children. She was a strong family person and helped raise and educate her two nephews and three nieces. In her later years she helped with the next generation of great-nephews. The only thing that disrupted her meeting schedule was the daily school delivery run that she made each school day. When scheduling staff meetings she would say, “I can’t be here before 9:30 because I have to go to school.”

In January of 1998 the district hosted an 80th birthday celebration for Elsie. It was a joyous occasion in which many family, comrades, and friends came to celebrate. It was shortly after that that Elsie was stricken with a stroke. Our district has sorely missed Elsie since she fell ill. We miss her strength, her understanding, her ability to hit the political nail on the head.

I personally knew Elsie from my teen years. I had the privilege to work with her from the time of my early twenties. She was my teacher and my mentor. Without Elsie’s constant guidance I would never have dared to undertake major leadership in the district. I venture to say that there are others who would say the same.

Image: Elsie Dickerson at her 80th birthday celebration.




Related Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer