The life of Miami political activist and community leader Matilda “Bobbi” Graff, a leading civil-rights protester in the 1940s and beyond, will be celebrated Sunday in Lake Worth, Florida.
Graff, who with husband Emanuel lived in South Florida off and on for decades, died April 6, 2016, in Novi, Michigan, at age 94.
“Bobbi personified the essence of the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, which is to see beyond yourself and address the injustices inflicted on others,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
Born Matilda Soller in New York City, Graff grew up in Brooklyn, where she met her future husband. They wed in 1941, moved to Detroit and joined groups including the Young Progressives and the Michigan Civil Rights Congress, which supported labor unions and protested racial discrimination. By 1945, the FBI was tracking their activities.
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“Bobbi was a tiny woman, maybe just over five feet tall, but she had a personality that could fill a room,” said B.J. Saul, Madrikha [spiritual leader] of Congregation Beth Adam in Boca Raton. “She wasn’t someone who’d grumble about what was happening around her; she stood up and did something about it.”
When World War II ended, the Graffs moved to Miami. Bobbi joined the Florida Progressive Party and founded a militant interracial chapter of the Civil Rights Congress that opposed Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan by exposing systemic brutality, building alliances with black churches, lobbying and organizing rallies. Her efforts had her labeled “dangerous to the internal security of the United States” by the FBI. The Miami Daily News maligned her and fellow activists, who endured violence and intimidation by the KKK and local police, as “subversives, reds and foreign agents.”
“I have my parents’ FBI files and files from later on, when we moved back to Detroit,” said Maxine Graff Goodman, Graff’s youngest daughter. “It’s incredible to think that everyday citizens expressing their First Amendment rights would have tabs kept on them. My sisters and I grew up knowing our phones were tapped. It was crazy, but to us it was what living in America and expressing dissent is.”
Amid increasing pressure, the Civil Rights Congress disbanded in the early 1950s. Graff joined the Miami NAACP and worked closely with Brevard County NAACP founder Harry T. Moore to register voters and integrate local parent-teacher associations. They worked together on the infamous Groveland case, which she wrote about in a front-page story for the National Guardian. Moore and his wife were assassinated on Christmas Eve 1951.
In 1954, the Graffs were subpoenaed to testify before a Dade County grand jury on their political beliefs, activities and those of their friends. Bobbi fled with their children to Canada. Emanuel remained in Miami, invoked the Fifth Amendment and was imprisoned until the Florida Supreme Court ordered him and other CRC detainees freed. They reunited in Detroit. Graff remained involved in local, state and national politics while earning a master’s degree at Wayne State University. She later became director of financial aid for the WSU School of Medicine.
“Bobbi had tremendous resilience and courage,” said friend and fellow reformist Bob Bender. “It took guts to live a principled life that she and her family recognized as dangerous.”
After Emanuel’s death in 1976, Graff returned to Florida in the 1980s. She became a founding member of Congregation Beth Adam (South Florida Center for Humanistic Judaism), co-founded Citizens for Social Responsibility and was an active member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a volunteer in the Palm Beach County Health Department and worked in a foster care program for the Palm Beach County courts.
“She lived a great life,” Goodman said. “Her only sadness was that my father died very young. She had great friends, three daughters, seven grandchildren — all of whom she saw married — and nine great-grandchildren. And a good number of us were at women’s marches around the country this past weekend.”
If you go
Matilda “Bobbi” Graff will be memorialized in a celebration from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Clay Glass Metal Stone Cooperative Gallery, 15 S. J St., Lake Worth, Florida. Those wishing to attend are asked to call 954-531-1928 so appropriate arrangements can be made for seating and refreshments.