Milton McGriff, a journalist, activist, teacher and award-winning poet, died on Monday, April 20, 2020. He was 81.
“I’ve known Milton for about 20 years and he was just a giving, conscientious and considerate person,” said longtime friend Robert Bell. “He was just a giving person. Throughout his life, he wore many hats. He was an author, poet, journalist, activist and teacher.
“He wrote several scripts and plays that were performed in community theaters in Los Angeles,” he added. “He was out there for about 21 years before coming back to Philadelphia. He was one of those unsung heroes. He never became famous, but he inspired and helped a lot of people. He was just a wonderful guy.”
McGriff had a storied career. He worked as a journalist for publications such as the now-defunct Herald Examiner and the Philadelphia Tribune. For several years, he served as a senior editor for Grapevine Magazine. In 2007, he self-published a novel titled “2236.” He also was the author of three plays and co-authored a book of poetry called “The Path of the Night.”
In later years, he would practice t’ai chi for eight years under the tutelage of Marvin Smalheiser. He would go on to teach the Chinese martial art at the Lutheran Settlement House and West Philly YMCA’s for many years. He also loved music and was an avid fan of “Star Wars.”
“I first met Milton when he was a reporter at the Philadelphia Tribune,” said former journalist Terrence Johnson. “Milton was a rare journalist who was able to combine his commitment to journalistic storytelling with his commitment to political activism.
“One never took away from the other,” he added. “They mutually aided him in his work. He was really insightful and thoughtful. He was a critical thinker who was still optimistic and hopeful. He was always in the center of the ring working to make the world a better place.”
Born in 1939, McGriff grew up in North Philadelphia and attended Philadelphia public schools in the 1940s and 1950s. In middle school, he discovered his talent for writing and his interest in student government. His senior year, McGriff became president of the Germantown High School student body, making him the first Black male and only the second Black student in the school’s history to hold that office.
After graduating from Germantown High, he attended Penn State University, but left the school without obtaining his degree. He would later go back to college and earn his B.A. and M.A. in creative writing from Iowa State University at the age of 59.
While activism wasn’t a part of his early life, McGriff started to take an interest in what was going on in the world around him in the early 1960s. After returning home from six months of active duty in the National Guard in 1963, he entered a bar in Louisville, Kentucky. While the establishment was known for serving African Americans, when McGriff asked the bartender for a drink, he was refused.
He protested, saying just two weeks earlier he had been served at the same bar. The bartender said it was different this time because McGriff wasn’t in uniform. A year later at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, McGriff’s passion for activism was sparked again when party officials at the convention refused to seat the Mississippi Freedom Party delegates.
In 1969, he joined the Black Panther Party. Though he was a member of the Black Panthers for only six months, he continued to work to educate others about the party. In 2001, he became a member of N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America). He became the national male co-chair of the organization from 2005-2007.
One of McGriff’s biggest initiatives at the coalition was organizing the Year of Black Presence, which was a campaign to lobby Congress to pass a bill for reparations.
“He organized 10-15 passenger buses specifically out of the City of Philadelphia to go to Washington, D.C., and lobby in Congress,” said Osaze Osayaba, male co-chairman of the Philadelphia Chapter of N’COBRA. “Not only were there a lot of people on the buses, but there were also a lot of people who drove up from around the region.
“That started the initiative to really begin lobbying to get the [reparation] bill passed,” he added. “Even today, his initiative is still moving us forward in trying to get the bill passed. It just recently went to Congress and we did some more lobbying. When Milton started, the bill only had 30 co-signers and now we have over 125 co-signers. We are continuing the initiative that he started.”
A Zoom memorial service for McGriff will be held at a later date.
“Milton was the seeker of justice,” Osayaba said. “He was also a humanitarian; he always put humanity first. He was a champion for justice. He never backed down from helping people move forward. He will be sorely missed in this country and in the reparations movement.”